The Fifteenth Amendment contains two short sections. The first prohibits the government of the United States or of any state to deny any male citizen the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The second section grants Congress enforcement power.
The defeat of the Confederacy and the abolition of slavery in 1865 left many unanswered questions about the newly freed population. Among those questions was whether they should be allowed to vote, then regarded as one of the essential rights of citizenship for American men. Very few states at the time allowed African American men to vote, but President Abraham Lincoln and some other national leaders came to believe that men who had fought in the United States Army and Navy during the war had earned that right of citizenship. As part of the overall plan that Republican Party leaders in Congress developed after the war to guarantee that freedom from slavery could become genuine freedom, not merely an absence of slavery, Congress submitted the proposed constitutional amendment to the states on February 26, 1869. It granted African American men the right to vote by prohibiting the states from denying the vote to any citizen because of race, skin color, or having once been held in slavery.
Because Virginia had been a Confederate state and had not yet been fully reinstated to the Union, no Virginians served in Congress when it submitted the amendment to the states. Following the end of the Civil War, the Senate and House of Representatives placed the states of the former Confederacy (except Tennessee but including Virginia, part of which had remained one of the United States during the war) under military rule and refused to seat any men elected to either house of Congress from those states.
Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868
The disfranchisement of former Confederates was the most controversial part of the new constitution and it delayed the scheduled 1868 ratification referendum. Eventually, a group of men known as the Committee of Nine worked out a compromise with President Ulysses S. Grant that authorized separate voting on the section that disfranchised former Confederates. On July 6, 1869, in the second election in which African Americans voted in Virginia, the voters approved the new constitution and rejected the disfranchisement section. On that same day, voters elected statewide officers and members of a new assembly.
On the fourth day of its next session, the General Assembly ratified the Fifteenth Amendment, making Virginia the eighteenth state to do so. Both houses of the General Assembly ratified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments on October 8, 1869. The vote on the Fifteenth Amendment was 132 to 0 in the House of Delegates and 40 to 2 in the Senate of Virginia. All twenty-one of the twenty-three African American members of the House of Delegates who were present voted for it; one of the six African American senators, Isaiah L. Lyons, voted against it. The Fifteenth Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution on February 3, 1870, when the legislature of Iowa was the twenty-eighth state to ratify it.
Virginia’s ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments and enfranchisement of African Americans in the new state constitution ended Congressional Reconstruction in the state. Congress passed a bill that the president signed on January 26, 1870, permitting Virginia’s senators and elected representatives to take their seats in Congress.
Many white Virginians disapproved of black men voting. In 1876 a majority of Virginia’s voters, who were white men, ratified a constitutional amendment requiring pre-payment of a poll tax for men who wished to vote. The tax reduced the number of African Americans who were able to vote during the remainder of the decade. At the end of the 1870s, a biracial coalition known as the Readjuster Party gained control of both houses of the General Assembly and two years later elected a governor. The Readjusters then repealed the poll tax. After Democrats regained control of the assembly and the governorship in the mid-1880s, they adopted new laws governing the conduct of elections that made it increasingly difficult for black men to vote in Virginia.
Constitutional Convention of 1900–1901
Registering and voting remained difficult for African Americans in Virginia until ratification of the Twenty-fourth Amendment in 1964, passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections in 1966 removed most of the barriers.