Coloradans voting in the 2016 election have an opportunity to remove a reference to slavery from the state constitution. The language, written in 1876, says, “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime.” Amendment T seeks to remove that exception.
This language got KUNC wondering about African-American history in Colorado. So we asked state historian Patty Limerick for her reflections. Limerick, who is also the chair of the board at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center of the American West, was reminded of the story of a group of barbers in Denver who fought for the right of black men to vote.
State historian Patty Limerick talks with Erin O’Toole about the history of the African American vote in the western territories.
Tell us how the fight for black suffrage started in Colorado.
PATTY LIMERICK: Some folks in Colorado in the 1860s wanted to get to statehood. To do that, they had to have Constitutional Conventions, draft a constitution, send it to Congress, and see if Congress would approve the transition from territorial status to statehood. Several African-American men in Denver — three barbers in particular — took up this cause. (One of them, William Jefferson Hardin, would later go on to become Wyoming’s first black legislator.)
They pushed, in 1864 and again in 1865, to get the Colorado constitution that would be submitted to Congress to include equal suffrage for Black men. That didn’t entirely succeed. But they organized, they spoke, they acted, they talked to the governor — a territorial governor — and they contacted a very influential senator, Charles Sumner, who was a radical Republican in the Senate, and a person very concerned about Black rights.
In January of 1867, Congress passed the Territorial Suffrage Act, which prohibited restrictions on suffrage because of color in all U.S. territories. That means that following on the awarding of black male suffrage to the District of Columbia [that same year], and the imposition of that on the southern states that had once been the Confederacy, then the next important action in black suffrage is this Territorial Suffrage Act by which black men in the territories — not the western states, but the western territories — receive the vote with this bill.
We now have African American men voting in the territories. Was there any kind of backlash?
LIMERICK: There [were] some loud remarks made of dismay or opposition by a few people, but the threats don’t materialize. The authorities support the new regime of black suffrage, and influential people like William Byers at Rocky Mountain News, they go and fall in line with it. Some people, some editorials in some smaller newspapers say, ‘We didn’t like this, we didn’t want this, but we won’t oppose it now. We’ll accept it.’ It’s a recognition of federal authority, it’s a recognition that, in fact, the white majority in the territory who originally voted against black suffrage — they lost. And it’s a fairly remarkable, kind of mature recognition that it’s better just to go with that outcome… So — onward we go.
This act did not give the vote to everyone in the western territories, though…
LIMERICK: No — and that, of course, is one of the most complicated aspects of progress in American history, is the relationship between the campaign for women’s suffrage focused on white women, and the campaign for black suffrage, focused on black men. We just have to say these were important steps; and in the 1893 successful vote — by men — in favor of women’s suffrage, African-American women were very active forces in that in the 1890s. So there’s something about the passage of time that is frustrating and heartening about this.
What lessons do you draw from this episode in history?
LIMERICK: Well, I think the lesson is that you don’t know the outcome when you take up an important cause. And not knowing the outcome and thereby being defeated and fatalistic to say, ‘Oh, the nation is in such a state of disruption, it just finished the Civil War, we are numerically insignificant, there’s only a sparse population of African-Americans in the West, why would we bother?’
That kind of fatalism is an active force for going nowhere. [The lesson is] to reject that fatalism and to say, ‘Let’s give it a try. Let’s write Sen. Sumner, let’s see what we can get going here. Let’s go see the governor.’ Those kinds of things have remarkable outcomes sometimes. Not all the time, you can’t bet on it, you can’t guarantee it. But to see that refusal of passivity and resignation and fatalism – that’s the key thing.