The Early Fight For Black Suffrage 
In honor of Black History Month, all month long we will be sharing the legacies and stories of the heroes, sheroes, and events in the fight for Black suffrage on social media under the hashtag #VRABlackHistory. Follow us on Twitter (@VRAmatters) to share your own facts.

Today we honor an early fight for Black suffrage. In 1723-1724, Richard West, who was Legal Counsel for the Board of Trade, questioned the Virginia General Assembly as to why they took away voting rights from freed Black men.

This article exemplified the complexities of the fight for Black suffrage during a colonial era built on the immoral institution of slavery.

The beauty of documented law is that it stands in opposition to attempts to deny or erase America's racial history. Nobody can say that something didn’t occur if in court documents and state law it has already been chronicled. The law captures the values and norms of that particular generation. And so it is with voting rights. Many erroneously think that the fight for Black suffrage (voting rights) didn’t occur until around 1870, when the 15th Amendment was passed, granting African American men with the right to vote. However, that is just not true. In fact, some Black people were voting in the early 1700’s. A number of early state constitutions allowed for freed Black men to vote, including "those of Delaware (1776), Maryland (1776), New Hampshire (1784), and New York (1777)” (footnotes omitted). In fact, in “some early American towns such as Baltimore had more blacks than white voting in elections”.

It’s not just state Constitutions that recorded voting rights in the 1700’s, but even court documents such as the infamous 1856 Dred Scott decision, which said that Blacks of African descent, even if free, were NOT American citizens, as defined by the Constitution of America, and therefore did not have any of the rights of an American citizen. In this heinous opinion by the 1856 Democratic-controlled US Supreme Court, a non-Democratic Justice Benjamin R. Curtis, one of the only two dissenting judges in that opinion, provided a lengthy documentary history to show that man Blacks in America had often exercised the rights of citizens, such as the right to vote. Judge Curtis said in his dissent:
     " Of this there can be no doubt. At the time of the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, all free native-born inhabitants of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina, though descended from African slaves, were not only citizens of those States, but such of them as had the other necessary qualifications possessed the franchise of electors, on equal terms with other citizens." Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 572-73 (1856).  (Citations omitted)
Abraham Lincoln, after the same Dred Scott decision noted that some of those “Africans” who were affected by and referenced in the opinion had voted in elections to ratify the Constitution. In fact, in the 1600’s and 1700’s, in Virginian colonial times , many free Blacks enjoyed all the same rights as Black men, even as slavery expanded. Most of the time it was understood that freed Blacks would be generally treated the same if they didn’t have relations with Black slaves, and were able to separate themselves from that identity. Freed Blacks were expected to be like “Black Englishmen”. Black’s voting rights in colonial Virginia weren’t  targeted until May 1723, when the General Assembly declare[d] ‘[t]hat no free negro, mullatto, or indian whatsoever, hereafter have any vote at the election of burgesses, or any other election whatsoever.’”

So what changed?

How did we go from freed Black’s having many of the same rights as Whites and Blacks being able to vote in several places in the early 1600’s and 1700’s to things like the Dred Scott decision and places like Virginia disenfranchising entire races?

Change- even in law, you’ll find- is a slow process. Nobody ever wakes up one day, and things have suddenly changed- there were many preceding laws and court decisions that paved the way for a new norm to exist. One thing that changed is the institution of American slavery became racialized- and freed Blacks in places like Virginia were treated as less than equal. Among the inequities, Black women were taxed, and White Women were not, which meant that a Black family had to pay twice as much in taxes than a White family did.

In 1691, the General Assembly required that all newly freed slaves leave the colony and outlawed interracial marriage; other measures were taken by the Virginian government, so that by 1705, “free black men could not serve in any position of public trust, power, or authority over whites, whether ecclesiastic, civil, or military.”  As freed Blacks were having their rights taken away, it became harder for them to differentiate and separate themselves from their enslaved Black counterparts. This made Whites and the Virginian government worried about alliances between freed and enslaved Blacks, and the loss of their own political power.

And, then there was Richard West

Luckily, not all White Virginians agreed with disenfranchising entire races, and in 1723-24, the General Assembly faced some opposition by the Board of Trade’s legal counsel, Richard West. He went against the status quo of his day on this particular issue of voting rights. And the Board of Trade was so impressed with their counsel’s argument that they ordered the Secretary to write Lieutenant Governor William Gooch of Virginia and ask that they be supplied with reasons for, and the effect of, this act.

What was Richard West’s argument? He argued that he could not “see why one Freeman should be used worse than another meerly upon account of his complexion”. Richard West further explained the importance of voting in elections, and explained how freed Blacks contributed to society by owning land and paying for their own land, and the freed Blacks had obtained their own freedom. West continued:

“For my own part I am perswaded [sic] that it cannot be just by a generall [sic] Law without any allegation of Crime or other demerit whatsoever to strip all free persons of a black Complexion (Some of whom may perhaps be of Considerable substance) from those Rights which are so justly valuable to every Freeman.”

Paradoxically, Richard West, in this same letter, showed an indifference to slavery; however, this same man did not agree that the rights of one’s vote should be limited due to the color of their skin.

The Reply

For unknown reasons, it took the Board’s Secretary, Alured Popple, 11 years after Richard West’s initial 1724 inquiry, to send a letter to Lieutenant Governor Gooch. Gooch responded to Popple’s 1735 letter in 1736, citing the law was passed because there had been a “Cnspiracy [sic] discovered amongst the Negros to Cutt [sic] off the English”. Gooch continues, saying that they would always conspire and though there “could be no Legal Proof, so as to Convict them”, that the next Assembly thought it necessary “to not only make the Meetings of Slaves vert Penal, but to fix a perpetual Brand upon Free-Negros & Mulattos by excluding them from that great Priviledge [sic] of a Freeman”. Gooch continues that it’s not just the threat of uprisings that made the Assembly disenfranchise Blacks, but that Blacks would always “favour the slaves”. 

Perhaps Gooch’s most successful explanation that forever quieted the Board of Trade was at the very end of Gooch’s letter where he says that the number of freed Blacks that vote is “so inconsiderable” that it’s hardly worth while to take any notice of them, especially since other acts of the Assembly had disabled them from being jurymen or witnesses, thus excluding them from being “good and lawful men”.  He ends this paragraph by comparing the disenfranchised Blacks to “Villains” of Old by the Laws of England.

The fight continues

While there was no resolution and the law was not overturned in 1724 or 1735, it is good to revisit  this early history to know that advocacy for Black enfranchisement began at the dawn of the nation. Undoubtedly, African-Americans were also involved in advocating against the loss of their voting rights during this period. Not every-time and usually not right away is an ancient law overturned by the courts; however, it’s people taking action every step of the way and objecting to injustice that paves the way and opens minds to a more perfect union.