Black Votes Matter

The year 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution that enacted 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.” This year is also highlighted by the United States elections to be held on 3rd Tuesday in November. Along with the election of the President, all 435 Congressional seats and 35 of the 100 Senate seats will be contested.

The 15th Amendment’s adoption was met with widespread celebrations within African heritage communities across the country. It also launched an era of insidious attacks on free speech and representative government with poll taxes and literacy tests instituted across the American South, effectively disenfranchising the great majority of voters of color. The irony that the South was instituting literacy tests for people who, just a few years before, were barred from learning to read by law was not lost. In many cases, these voting restrictions were brutally enforced by the newly organized Ku Klux Klan. The Klan led attacks included beatings and lynchings of African heritage voters as a means of keeping them from the polls. These vicious attacks would continue well into the 20th century.

The freedom to vote may very well be America’s most important civil right, and for the African heritage community in particular, it is also the most hard-won right. We know this because American history is filled with documented accounts of highly organized and legal voter restriction and suppression against the African heritage community. In addition, the struggle many African heritage men suffered through to exercise their right to vote paved the way for all those who came after, most notably the Women’s Suffrage Movement and immigrant citizens.

One hundred and fifty years ago, America had entered a major turning point in its history. The Civil War was over, Reconstruction and the new era of African heritage Civil Rights was at its peak, and Congress had recently passed the 15th Amendment. As someone whose ancestors date back to the early formation of America, and not always looking like, worshipping like, living like and fitting neatly into what history books would commonly refer to as the early American experience, I have to depend upon my own ancestral accounts to help me understand what America was like for people representing minority racial, religious, and ethnic history. In my case, I am thankful to have many primary documents and heirlooms that recount my American story, and unfortunately, from a perspective that far too many history books have omitted.

During the era of the 15th Amendment, two of my ancestors would play unique and historic roles in advancing the importance of voter registration and participation as a vital aspect of building political power within the African heritage community of early America.

One ancestor was a man of color who lived as a free man before, during and after the Civil War in Richmond, Virginia, the once Capital of the Confederacy. Another ancestor would relocate his family from Richmond to Wisconsin in 1858 and establish himself as an early settler, business leader and perhaps the first lawful voter of color before the adoption of the 15th Amendment.

Richard Gustavus Forrester

In Richmond, my maternal great, great grandfather Richard Gustavus Forrester would become a successful business and political leader serving as the first man of color on the Richmond city council and school board leading the efforts to promote equal opportunity and access for all newly emancipated African Americans immediately after the Civil War.

On April 21, 1870, Forrester was a leader in organizing one of the nation’s earliest and largest celebrations of the ratification of the 15th Amendment with a grand event symbolically held within the fallen Confederate Capital of Richmond. Thousands of marchers representing African heritage religious, civic and political organizations from across the state took part in a display of pride in achieving what was their inalienable right as full citizens of their America.

Richard Forrester and others in 19th century America were keenly aware that voting rights provided the African heritage community not only the freedom to choose their government leaders but to build political power within their community and create real change for those who were once enslaved within the “land of the free.”

Stephen Turner

Another ancestor and brother-in-law to Forrester, Stephen Turner was already a well-established business and sporting man (he would become one of the first men of color to play the sport of Curling) living with his family in Portage, Wisconsin. Turner’s sister Narcissa Turner had married Richard Forrester of Richmond and both Forrester and Turner families had lived together in Richmond before Stephen relocated his family permanently to Wisconsin in 1858.

Wisconsin, through a popular vote, would extend voting rights to free men of color in 1849, but it was Stephen Turner with the support of his white neighbors who would register and vote in November 1860 election, making him one of the earliest men of color to vote even before the ratification of the 15th Amendment. Turner would go on to vote every year until his death at age 96 in 1907. He would also become politically active in Wisconsin helping to form the Colored State Civil Rights Association acting as Second Vice President in 1889.

For all Americans, voting is a fundamental right that enables us to uphold an open, honest and representative government. For African heritage Americans, voting has been a hard fought right that has been systematically disrupted and taken away by those who would deny the most basic right of all citizens in a democracy. As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the landmark enactment of the 15th Amendment, we should remember those persons of color who fought and suffered for the voting rights we have in the present day – and honor them by exercising our right to vote. As we head into the 2020 elections, we would all do well to remember the deeds of men like Richard Forrester and Steven Turner who understood then what we should not take for granted today, that OUR Votes Matter.

A Long Journey Home

For me, my African ancestor’s trials of enslavement is not a distant historical occurrence, but something that shaped my family life then and to this very day. I have studied the subject extensively, lectured in many historic cities and countries, and I have been fortunate to preserve many family heirlooms dating back to the early days of African heritage enslavement. But I had never returned to their homeland.
I believe that history is about storytelling. This is my story of reconnecting with my family’s African origins.

This past August I had the honor to be invited to Accra, Ghana to participate in an historic summit sponsored by the Heritage and Cultural Society of Africa. But it was the very emotional experience of visiting Fort William at Anomabo, where scores of enslaved Africans would embark from and on to the Middle Passage and slavery, that would truly move me. Merchants from my hometown of Newport, Rhode Island were leading slave traders at Anomabo and few today know that Newport was the leading slave port in British North America. Many Africans who landed in Colonial Newport came through Anomabo and today you can find them buried at God’s Little Acre within Newport’s Common Burying Ground. Continue reading

“The Negro in Rhode Island: His Past, Present & Future”

Over one hundred and thirty years ago, my ancestor, Reverend Mahlon Van Horne of Newport, Rhode Island wrote a narrative on the past, present and future of the “Negro” in Rhode Island and the nation. This narrative faithfully reflects today’s issues of social justice as it did in 1887 when it was first published. Van Horne was one of Rhode Island’s, and the nation’s, African heritage trailblazers. The pastor of Newport’s Union Colored Congregational Church, which evolved from the first African Union Society in America in 1780, he became the first person of color to be elected to the Newport School Board and Rhode Island General Assembly, leading the effort to pass the state’s first Civil Rights legislation in 1885. During the Spanish American War, he was appointed by President McKinley as Counsel to the Danish West Indies. Van Horne was also a student of African heritage and history and published an important narrative that would challenge the notions of religious freedom, equal justice and discrimination that continue to be the greatest impediments for a just America, a place where all citizens are entitled to the same rights and benefits. He wrote:

There can be no question as to the purposes of God when we consider the history of any particular section of this country. The human family was looking for a field in which to expand into a broader and brighter life. Protestantism and a simpler worship was the burden that weighed upon the men and women who migrated to these shores. The Catholics who came to North America were aggressive and wide awake, but found themselves surrounded with a dominant new spirit of civil and religious liberty. Amid the friction engendered by these forces, the Negro appears upon the scene. He was not a persecuted Christian, but heathen man with a great human heart.

He was landed in America not to catch the spirit of liberty and religious freedom which the Puritans expected. His was to be an entirely different experience. The Puritan would be schooled in the things that would draw out his self-reliant individuality in all matters pertaining to manhood. The Negro was to live in the Christian home and upon the rich plantation of the now favored pilgrim, yet the Negro is impressed with the fact by teachers in the schools, the pulpit and the press that his destiny was to be a hero of wood and drawer of water. That his individuality was to be the personality of his master.

Two hundred and forty years he bore this yoke upon his neck in Christian America. It is true there were flashes of liberty on his behalf. The efforts through all this period was like the beating of waves against the rock bound coast. American slavery was the most hopeless and demoralizing of any recorded in history. In every slave state in this country, as long as the system lasted, all prosperity gained by the slave belonged to the master. How large a part of their lives have been spent in labor that has returned them nothing?

We cannot consider the Negro of today and tomorrow without consideration his environment in the past and present. Our present may be considered as beginning with the completion of Reconstruction and by the amended Constitution which accords to the whole people every right belonging to man. The inspiration of hope is leveling the whole lump. Prejudice is the bar, however, that stands in the way now, and prevents a complete development.

A Fight for Liberty of Conscience

On the 11th day of July, 1776, only one week after the fledging Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain, the Rhode Island General Assembly, led by Newport merchant Metcalf Bowler, declared some sixty Newport residents might be “inimical” or hostile to the Patriot cause. These men, including a number of Jewish residents, were required to come before the General Assembly and sign a declaration of loyalty to the American Colonies. One man would stand up to the government.

Before recounting how Moses Michael Hays responded to this official request, it is important to know the man and the time and place he lived. Hays was born in New York City in 1739 to Judah Hays and Rebecca Michaels Hays. His parents arrived in New York from Amsterdam in 1729 and were naturalized on the 12th of July of that year, taking the Oath of Allegiance on September 9, 1729. The Hays family became early and active members of New York’s Shearith Israel, recognized today as the oldest Jewish Congregation in America. Judah Hays took his son into his merchant and retail business and, upon his death in 1764, left him the largest share of his assets. In 1766, Moses Michael Hays married Rachel Myers, younger sister of eminent New York silversmith Myer Myers. In 1769, the couple relocated to Newport, living on Broad Street close to the recently completed synagogue and the state capitol within the Old Colony House. Hays was not only a well-known merchant trader, he would also organize and bring the warrant for the Scottish Rite Masonic Order to America. Continue reading

When the Human Being Counts

For me, my African heritage ancestors’ trials of enslavement is not a distant historical occurrence, but something that shaped my family life up to this very day. I have been fortunate to preserve many family heirlooms dating back to the early days of America, which encouraged me to study the subject extensively, and lecture in many historic cities and countries on the topic.

Here are two images I would like to offer for the last day of Black History Month in 2108. My great, great grandmother, Narcissa Forrester and her slave doll (c. 1830) from when she was a little girl in Virginia. The doll was made from the clothing of an enslaved woman in her family household. My ancestor was a free woman of mixed heritage and fellow family members manipulated the slave institution to keep their family intact and unbroken by the brutal system of slavery that engulfed much of early America. While some free people of color held slaves for solely economic benefits, others were simply maintaining their family. This occurrence of slaveholding among African heritage people has not received the amount of historic study and Continue reading

Black History: A Pathway for Change

With national debates raging across America on race relations, patriotism and confederate memorials, I often turn back to history to have a better understanding of the present and future. In fact, the understanding of historical events, places and people can provide not only a pathway to understanding present times, but also a means to a pathway towards positive change for the future. From our family collections I uploaded a nearly 50 year old magazine featuring a set of articles entitled, “Our Black Heritage” from the October 12, 1969 edition of the long obsolete Rhode Island Magazine. Continue reading

The Newport Man Behind the African American Labor Movement

“The Colored, as well as the white laborers of the United States, are not satisfied as to the estimate that is placed on their labor, as to their opportunities, as to the remuneration of their labor, the call for this convention, and the very general and highly intelligent response which I gaze on in you, my fellow delegates, attest. No other class of men would be satisfied under the circumstances; why should we? We desire Union with the white laborer for a common interest.”
– Address of George T. Downing to the Colored National Labor Convention, 1869

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, white laborers would come together and form in 1866 the National Labor Union. The effort would unite skilled and unskilled laborers along with farmers to advocate for an eight-hour work day and better treatment of working men. But racial equal opportunity was not universal nor were all workers regarded as equal in America. As was the custom of the day, African heritage working men were excluded from participation in the National Labor Union.
On the sixth of December in 1869, over two hundred African heritage laborers, mechanics, artisans, tradesmen, farmers and trades-women assembled in Washington, DC to organize the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU). Over several days, working men and women of color would elect Baltimore ship-caulker Isaac Myers president and adopt a broad platform covering relations between labor, education and economic prosperity. Most extraordinary for the day, the CNLU was egalitarian, accepting men and women, skilled and unskilled workers as active members. And unlike the National Labor Union, the CHLU welcomed all workers regardless of race. Fortunately, by the mid 1880’s, the Knights of Labor Union organized under the motto, “An injury to one is a concern for all” and became an integrated organization representing the labor rights of all American workers. Continue reading

Freedom Without Meaning

On this day August 1, 1834 the United Kingdom abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, nearly 30 years before the American Emancipation Proclamation. While British plantation owners received substantial financial compensation for the loss of their slave property, former enslaved African heritage people received nothing. Freedom without reparations. Regrettably, newly freed Africans across the Americas replaced the old chains of slavery with the new restraints of discrimination and segregation. This socio-economic burden would follow far too many persons of African descent even to this very day.

Possibly the most important effort towards slavery reparations , unmatched then and hardly recognized today, took place in 1795 when a group of twenty-eight recently emancipated Africans from Jamaica arrived in Philadelphia under a creative and organized plan to provide a form of reparations – for the personal suffering placed upon enslaved Africans by the owner class of Europe and the Americas.
Quaker David Barclay of Great Britain, recognized today as the founder of Barclay’s Bank, acquired through a settlement of a debt a plantation in Jamaica called Unity Valley Pen.

As a stanch Quaker and Abolitionist, Barclay was driven to not only free the slaves he inherited in faraway Jamaica, he underwrote an international reparations plan connecting Great Britain and Jamaica with Philadelphia, which that at the time had the largest free Black community in the Americas. Barclay had long family ties with Philadelphia and its Quaker community becoming an early member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society under friend Benjamin Franklin’s leadership.

At the direction of Barclay his agents in Jamaica transported the emancipates to Philadelphia arriving on July 22, 1795. The newly freed were placed in the care of the Quaker Abolition Society who had adopted a formal reparations plan entitled, “A Plan for Improving the Condition of the Free Blacks.” The group was initially clothed and cared for through Rev. Richard Allen and the Mother Bethel AME Church and Rev. Absalom Jones of the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. St. Thomas is the first African Episcopal Church in America founded in 1792. Mother Bethel is the first African American AME Church in America founded in 1794. Each of them were set up with access to education and in a trade skill, many as indentured servants with members of the Quaker community.

One of the youngest members of the newly arrived Jamaicans was a boy of eight named October, my great, great grandfather. Upon his arrival to Philadelphia he was renamed Robert Barclay and indentured for thirteen years as a “Windsor Chair Maker.” Robert Barclay would become a successful businessman and active member in black masonic and civic organizations including the Underground Rail Road that was active in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Today, I am blessed to have many heirlooms from the Barclay family household of Philadelphia including an original 1872 printing of the “Underground Railroad” by William Still. I also have been able to follow subsequent generations of Barclay family members into the 19th and early 20th century America as they continued their journey of freedom and prosperity. A journey made possible through an organized effort to provide my ancestor the access to education, training and opportunity that was denied so many other African heritage people.

So what is the value of emancipation and freedom without some method of reparations so that the oppressed have equal access to the means to become self-sufficient? As we celebrate the history of emancipation across the Americas we should also be mindful that emancipation without repairing the hundreds of years and many generations of African heritage people who suffered greatly under that peculiar system is at best, an unfinished effort or at worst, freedom without meaning. Maybe famed African American abolitionist, Fredrick Douglas knew this when he stated in 1876:

“You say you have emancipated us…But when you turned us loose, you gave us no acres. You turned us loose to the sky, to the storm, to the whirlwind, and worst of all, you turned us loose to the wrath of our infuriated masters.”

 

A FIGHT FOR LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE

July 11th has always been significant to me – after all, it is the day I was born. However, it is also the day, 241 years ago, that my ancestor, Moses Michael Hays stood before the majority government and religious establishment in Newport, Rhode Island to declare his rights of religious freedom and, as now imbedded in the 6th Amendment to the United States Constitution, to enjoy the right to be confronted with any witnesses against him.

On that 11th day of July, 1776, only one week after the fledging Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain, the Rhode Island General Assembly, led by Newport merchant Metcalf Bowler, declared some sixty Newport residents might be “inimical” or hostile to the Patriot cause. These men, including a number of Jewish residents, were required to come before the General Assembly and sign a declaration of loyalty to the American Colonies.

Before recounting how Moses Michael Hays responded to this official request, it is important to know the man and the time and place he lived. Hays was born in New York City in 1739 to Judah Hays and Rebecca Michaels Hays. His parents arrived in New York from Amsterdam in 1729 and were naturalized on the 12th of July of that year, taking the Oath of Allegiance on September 9, 1729. The Hays family became early and active members of New York’s Shearith Israel, recognized today as the oldest Jewish Congregation in America. Judah Hays took his son into his merchant and retail business and, upon his death in 1764, left him the largest share of his assets. In 1766, Moses Michael Hays married Rachel Myers, younger sister of eminent New York silversmith Myer Myers. In 1769, the couple relocated to Newport, living on Broad Street close to the recently completed synagogue and the state capitol within the Old Colony House. Hays was not only a well-known merchant trader, he would also organize and bring the warrant for the Scottish Rite Masonic Order to America.

But on the 11th of July in 1776, Moses Michael Hays was not seen as natural born citizen of America or as a successful merchant and civic leader in Newport, but as someone who might harbor unfriendly beliefs in support of the newly organized United State of America. While many of the accused simply came before the General Assembly and signed the oath of loyalty as written, Hays demanded to stand before the government body and present a letter that expressed not only his rights as a fellow American citizen, but as a member of a religious minority.

Hays refused to sign the oath, electing to instead come before the General Assembly to present a letter that not only affirmed his belief in the revolutionary cause, but also a belief in a just cause that respected religious differences and removed any religious means test for loyalty and citizenship. This was a bold, but necessary action taken by Hays since Rhode Island well before the Revolutionary War, was established as a Colony under the principles of religious freedom, but excluded the full rights of citizenship to those that did not profess the Protestant, Christian faith. Hays letter included this statement:

“I have and ever shall hold the strongest principles and attachments to the just rights and privileges of this my native land. … I decline subscribing to the Test [that is, to take the oath] at present for these principles: First, that I … call for my accusers and proof of conviction, Second, that I am an Israelite and am not allowed the liberty of a vote, or a voice in common with the rest of the voters … Thirdly, because the Test is not general … and Fourthly, … the General Assembly of this [colony has] never in this contest taken any notice or countenance respecting the Society of Israelites to which I belong.”

The General Assembly accepted Hays’ letter and he ultimately singed the oath. After the war, Hays would join others in Newport’s Jewish community to lead the effort to permanently remove any religious test for citizenship through a letter to newly elected President George Washington. This August 17, 1790 letter, signed by the warden of the Newport Hebrew Congregation declared,

“Deprived as we herefore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People, a government, which to bigotry give no sanction, to persecution no assistance, but generously affording to all liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship, deeming every one, of whatever nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental machine.”

Every year in August, Newport’s congregation Yeshuat Israel at historic Touro Synagogue celebrates the exchange of letters between the congregation and President Washington as a remembrance to the importance of unconditional and universal religious liberty.

As founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams sought to establish a “Lively Experiment” where a new colony would be governed by the principles of religious liberty, separation of church and state and most importantly, the liberty of conscience, where each citizen would have the freedom to follow one’s religious or moral beliefs. Moses Michael Hays’ life and his actions on that July date over two hundred and forty years ago, would best embody the freedoms so many of us take for granted today.

A Memorial Day Address

149th Annual Memorial Day Ceremony, Warren Rhode Island

THE WORLD OF WILLIAM BARTON & JACK SISSON
Let me begin with; there may be no more noble a cause than the men and women of the Armed Services who routinely place their lives in danger for our safety and benefit. I dedicate my remarks to those men and women, particularly those who died while serving our state and country. Without them, we wouldn’t be free. Continue reading