Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Black men in Pennsylvania were given the right to vote not once but twice in the 18th and 19th centuries. Pennsylvania’s Constitution of 1776 had permitted tax-paying free Black men to vote. In 1838, however, Black suffrage became a point of high contention during a new Pennsylvania constitutional convention. Opposing groups sent various petitions to the convention advocating for and against continued Black suffrage. The resulting Pennsylvania Constitution of 1838 specified that only white men were enfranchised.

The vote was restored to Black men in Pennsylvania with the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, stating “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It was a major milestone in the progression toward greater voting equality in the country.

Pennsylvania was the 12th state to ratify the amendment, on March 26, 1869. The vote in the Pennsylvania legislature was split along party lines, with Republicans in favor of it and Democrats against it. The document pictured here is Pennsylvania’s Joint Resolution to Ratify the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, now preserved in the Pennsylvania State Archives (RG-26.75, Department of State, Original Laws). It was signed by John Clark, speaker of the House of Representatives; Wilmer Worthington, speaker of the Senate; and Governor John White Geary. The 15th Amendment became law throughout the country on March 30, 1870, when U.S. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish certified its passage after the required three-fourths of the states had ratified it.

Before and during the Civil War, women’s suffrage groups had made common cause with the abolitionist movement. By 1869 the leading suffrage organization, the American Equal Rights Association, split into two groups over the 15th Amendment because it applied to Black men only. The National Woman Suffrage Association, founded by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1869, opposed the amendment on the grounds that they felt women were more qualified to vote than men who had just emerged from slavery; the American Woman Suffrage Association, also formed in 1869 by Lucy Stone and others, supported the amendment, fearing that if women were included, it would not pass and the franchise would not be expanded to anyone. The two groups remained divided until the 1890s. Women would finally receive the vote in 1920 with the adoption of the 19th Amendment.

During the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, Republicans had championed the rights of Black men. They passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to guarantee all males citizenship without regard to race, color or previous condition of servitude. Unfortunately, with the end of Reconstruction in 1877, many of the gains in Black civil rights, including voting, were proscribed by Jim Crow laws in the South and suffered due to fatigue in protecting those rights by the Northern public. In Philadelphia, violence and riots over Black suffrage occurred as early as the 1871 election on October 10, when Black voters were met with harassment at the polls and civil rights leader Octavius V. Catto was tragically shot and killed.

Throughout the country, from 1890 to 1910, many Black men were disenfranchised through poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, or property requirements. The 15th Amendment was frequently ignored and skirted for nearly a century until the 1960s and the enactment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Only in the mid-20th century did the U.S. Supreme Court begin interpreting the amendment more broadly, and efforts to enforce voting rights were again pursued more rigorously.


Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the award-winning book Soldiers to Governors and numerous articles on military, political and sports history.