feature: know your black history – the first petition for black suffrage

July 1, 2014

Fully one hundred years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black activists in the South launched a bold campaign for universal black suffrage. It is a stirring part of American history that most Americans were never taught. And the history leading up to it—abolitionist activities and effective black resistance to slavery in the South—has also been obscured.

By Nick Douglas, AFROPUNK Contributor *

In the aftermath of the slave revolt that shook New Orleans in 1811, legislation to control free black people and slaves was racheted up throughout the southern states. Oppressive conditions worsened. In 1862 Admiral Farregut captured the largest southern city: New Orleans. Because New Orleans was such an important, strategic port for the Confederacy, its loss was considered one of the worst disasters suffered by the Confederacy.

Farregut installed General Benjamin Butler on May 1, 1862 as the military governor of New Orleans. Butler was hated as much by the white population as he was loved by the black population of New Orleans. First he enforced black citizen’s rights by giving them access to public transportation and institutions. Then Butler raised three battalions of black troops, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Native Guard, known as the Corps D’Afrique.

With Butler enforcing the rights of black people in New Orleans, the Roudanez brothers, J.B. Roudanez and Louis Charles Roudanez, founded L’Union in 1862, the first black bi-weekly newspaper in the South. In 1864 they founded The New Orleans Tribune the first black daily newspaper, with Paul Trevigne as editor.

In February 1864 a meeting took place between the free black men of New Orleans and Union officials. After forming a committee two of Lincoln’s emissaries were invited to meet with the black men of New Orleans. Colonel James McKaye, a member of the Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, and Major B. Rush Plumly addressed the assembled crowd. These two men had vastly different ideas about the path to black suffrage.

Col. McKaye in his statesman-like way told the audience to bring the newly free slaves up to the level of “educational or property qualifications” before asking for the vote for all black men. This was essentially the same “just be patient and you will get equality” argument used during the civil rights protests and demands for voting rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

Plumly on the other hand, told the group to go forward with their petition with its caveats intact. Plumly believed that the free blacks’ show of patriotism during the Civil War, and their competency would be enough to convince Lincoln and Congress they deserved the right to vote.

That month the committee and its members decided to present a petition to Lincoln and Congress for black suffrage.

The original petition only asked for voting rights for free black men who could prove that they had been free before the outbreak of the war. More than 1,000 signatures of free black men were gathered as well as the signatures of twelve white men. Many of the men who signed the petition were veterans of the War of 1812.
The petition was carried by two trusted committee representatives, J.B. Roudanez and Arnold Bertonneau. After meeting with more radical groups in the North, Roudanez and Bertonneau grasped the importance of the moment in history. They changed the petition for suffrage to include all black men.
In March of 1864 the petition was delivered to Lincoln and introduced to Congress. Although Lincoln and Congress did nothing with the petition, this bold action along with other events began the discussion that would later lead to the creation and ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.

At a dinner given in Boston in April of 1864 to honor Roudanez and Bertonneau, Arnold Bertonneau gave a speech explaining the situation and the feeling of free blacks about slavery and the need to end racism. His speech remains as eloquent and humble as the Gettysburg Address.
This March was the 150th anniversary of this important event.
Check the roll list on http://www.findingoctave.com/blog.html to see if your relatives signed this petition.
A copy of the speech by Arnold Bertonneau and the newspaper article by the Daily Tribune describing the meeting held in New Orleans are also available on http://www.findingoctave.com/blog.html.
  * Nick Douglas’ book, Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery…. Blog: http://www.findingoctave.tumblr.com/