March 31st, 1870

Thomas Mundy Peterson Becomes First Black Man to Vote Under 15th Amendment

On March 31, 1870, Thomas Mundy Peterson becomes the first black man to vote under the new constitutional protections guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Ratified the day before, the Fifteenth Amendment granted the right to vote to African American men and, for the first time in American history, gave them legal authority to vote in all federal, state, and municipal elections. The amendment was passed during the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War and emancipation, as a means of ensuring citizenship rights to black people.

However, black Americans would face many more obstacles on the path toward political equality was still far from certain. When Reconstruction ended in 1877, southern state governments reverted to the control of former Confederates, and legislatures quickly passed laws to erect barriers to black voting like poll taxes, literacy tests, and felon disenfrachisement. In addition, widespread intimidation, terror, and violence also served to limit black access to the ballot. Black women remained wholly disenfranchised for several more decades, until passage of the Nineteenth Amendment created a constitutional guarantee of women’s suffrage, and then faced the same racial barriers to exercising those rights.

When Thomas Mundy Peterson cast his vote in the Perth Amboy, New Jersey mayoral election, voting for the first time at age 45, he marked a great achievement and began a new but continuing struggle. He would also become the first black person to serve on a jury in Perth Amboy, and also the first black person in the city to hold elected office. Peterson died in 1904 and is now buried in the cemetery of the historic St. Peter’s Episcopal Church where he was once a member.