Claiming Political Power2021-02-04T08:50:22-05:00

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Claiming Political Power

A newspaper article that recounts Black women’s participation in political meetings.

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Grand Mass Meeting at Chimborazo  
Learning from the columns of the New Nation that there would be a great outpouring of the “unterrified Republicans” on the heights of Chimborazo, our reporter made his way over the hills and valleys between the officer of the Dispatch and that delightful suburban locality, determined at any sacrifice of personal feelings to keep the public posted about the important movements on foot. Arriving on the ground, we found two or three hundred male and female negroes assembled in one of the old hospital buildings, while John A. Fitchett, the youthful secretary of the National Political Aid Society, was engaged in calling the almost endless role of members. As the name of each “brother” or “sister” was called, he or she was expected to deposit ten cents, “monthly dues,” upon the table of the treasurer. The money was promptly paid, and as four hundred names were enrolled, of course a large sum was raised.  We learned that there was going to be a mass meeting of Black Republicans at Chimborazo, so we sent a reporter to observe. The reporter found two or three hundred Black men and women gathered. The meeting started with a roll call where every person gave their monthly dues. This raised a great deal of money.
We were informed by one of the “head men” that the funds were to be devoted to the payment of the expenses of speakers who are to be sent into the rural districts. Our informant, who seemed to be a “man of authority,” stated that the organization numbered two thousand Richmond members, each member paying an initiation fee of twenty-five cents, besides the monthly dues. The funds are deposited in the National Exchange Bank, subject to the order of the treasurer. Much time being consumed by taking up the collection, by a unanimous vote the election of officers was postponed until June. According to an attendee, the money will be used to send Republican speakers into the rural areas.
Hawxhurst was then introduced, and commenced his remarks by stating that the persons now before him were members of the great Republican party, which a few years ago was unknown in the State of Virginia—a party whose first members were everywhere ridiculed, and even rotten-egged in the streets of our principal cities, although they only advocated the teachings of the Holy Bible and fought for the cause of the truth. They would never, however, have interfered with slavery if slavery had not first interfered with them by pushing itself into the Territories. When the war commenced, the North aimed only at self-protection, not at the freedom of the slave; but the rebels forced them to emancipation, and then they determined to carry it through. He, however, was always in favor of manhood–i.e., negro-suffrage, and never hesitated to say so. The first speaker congratulated the crowd on being members of the Republican party of Virginia, which had not existed just a few years ago. He acknowledged that emancipation was not the original goal of the Republicans, but when slavery spread to the territories they were forced to act. When the war began, it was not about ending slavery, but the Confederacy forced the Union to end slavery and make it the law of the land. Now he wanted to see Black men granted the right to vote.
Thus the speaker went on in a miserable whining tone for more than half an hour, boring the reporters, wearing out the patience of the brethren who were waiting for their turn to talk, and putting to sleep a number of his strong-spirit but weak-flesh brethren. Finally, however, he stated that he had come to the point, urging the colored voters to extreme radicalism, and begging them never more to lend their aid to rebels and traitors. The radicals numbered seventy-five thousands in the State of Virginia, while the so-called Conservatives cannot muster ten thousand men. These ten thousand must not rule Virginia. The first speaker went on so long people started to fall asleep. But he finally made his point. He wanted the Black people in the audience to support a radical political platform, and not allow the minority of white conservatives in the state to continue to control the government.
Colonel Marsh commenced by informing the “ladies and gentlemen” that he was quite unwell, but wishes to embrace an opportunity, seldom presented, of speaking to so large an audience of colored people. I wish to speak to these women a few words, for they wield an influence of which they are little aware. Whether poor or rich, however humble they may be, they have a tremendous influence upon the hearts of men. I have been gratified to see you bringing your mites to the cause of truth. Emulate, my friends, the example of your revolutionary ancestors. I mean the women of ‘76. Give your whole heart and soul to the work. To the men, I would say, respect though you differ from your enemies; ask them, if you are wrong, to teach you better. And now what are our principles? We want to educate white and black; we favor equal rights, and wish to clear all obstructions to make way for the march of correct ideas. We wish to abolish many unjust statues; to do away with the poll tax and many other unreasonable impositions. We will protect all people, white or black, in the enjoyment of their rights.  The second speaker started by addressing the women in the audience. He told them they had a huge influence on the men in their lives, and they should use it to push the Republican party agenda. He told them to look to the example of the women of the American Revolution and give their whole hearts to the work. He then told the men that they should respect their enemies and that the common goal was to create a better and more just society for Black and white people.
After thus laying down his platform, the speaker gave some very good advice to the freedmen, and urged them to work. His speech was a very temperate one in comparison with the wild harangues of Hunnicutt and his associate Wardwell. After he had concluded he was rewarded by a round of applause.  The second speaker then advised everyone to work. He was a very even-handed speaker. When he was finished the crowd applauded.
We were unable to remain longer, although the temptation of a speech from little Hunnicutt, who was to make his debut as an orator, was almost irresistible. We left after this second speech.
The question was asked by one of the audience, while we were in the act of leaving, if the speaker endorsed confiscation; which was replied to in the affirmative–that he was in favor of giving to every male adult forty acres of land and a hundred dollars. The latter occurring from the proceeds of confiscated lands. The last thing we heard was an audience member asking a speaker if they endorsed confiscating the property of former Confederate landowners. The speaker said yes, and the confiscated property should be used to give every Black man forty acres of land and $100.

Excerpts from “Grand Mass Meeting at Chimborazo,” Daily Dispatch (Richmond, Va.), May 10, 1867. Library of Congress, Chronicling America.

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Background

In 1867, Congress granted Black men the right to vote in Washington, D.C., the western territories, and the former Confederate states. Black men founded political groups all over the country. At meetings, Black speakers debated the issues of the day. Attendees donated money to causes they supported. This groundswell of activism led to the election of thousands of Black politicians to public office. Sixteen Black men were elected to Congress, more than 600 to state legislatures, and thousands to local government offices.

However, many white Americans opposed the rise of Black political power. They found ways to legally limit Black Americans’ voting rights, from instituting poll taxes to violent intimidation. By the end of Reconstruction, the early political gains Black Americans made had been undone.

About the Document

This newspaper article recounts a meeting of the National Political Aid Society held in Virginia in 1867, shortly after Black men gained the right to vote in the state. The article was written by a white journalist who did not support the expansion of Black political power. The tone of the piece is very dismissive.

Of particular interest is the mention of Black women attendees. Black women, like all women in the United States at the time, could not vote. This did not stop women of color from enthusiastically participating in political life. The journalist describes Black women attendees donating money to support traveling political speakers. One of the speakers tells Black women that they hold immense political power through their ability to influence the voting men in their lives. It is clear that Black women were an accepted part of Black political movements, albeit within the boundaries set for them.

In other parts of the country, some Black women volunteered on Election Day to make sure every Black man they encountered went to the polls to vote. Some acted as guards for Black political meetings, warning the men inside if they spotted any white people coming to disrupt the gathering. Black women may not have been able to cast a ballot, but they still saw themselves as vital supporters of the rise of Black political power.

Vocabulary

  • Confederate states: Relating to the group of states that seceded from the United States before the Civil War in order to preserve slavery.
  • poll tax: A sum of money a voter was required to pay before voting. Poll taxes were utilized to keep poor Black people from voting and were declared unconstitutional in 1964.
  • Reconstruction: The years between 1865 and 1877 when the federal government actively sought to reincorporate the former Confederacy back into the United States and integrate Black Americans into the nation’s economics, politics, and society.
  • western territories: Land claimed by the U.S. that had not yet become states.

Discussion Questions

  • According to this article, how did Black women participate in Black political organization?
  • Why do you think Black women wanted to participate in politics even when they could not vote?
  • Who wrote this article? Why do we need to consider the author of a piece and the historical context in which he wrote it?
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Themes

POWER AND POLITICS; AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP; ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

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