The Fifteenth Amendment

Primary Source Set

The Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified on February 3, 1870, says that the right to vote cannot be denied or abridged on the basis of race, color, or prior condition of servitude. The Fifteenth Amendment is often grouped with the Thirteenth Amendment, ending slavery (1865), and Fourteenth Amendment, securing citizenship (1868), as one of the “Reconstruction amendments,” which were passed by the radical Republican-dominated Congress following the Civil War. In effect, the Fifteenth Amendment secured the right to vote for African American men. As many as one million African American men registered to vote throughout the South, where in many districts African Americans constituted the majority or near-majority of the population. This expansion of political power also resulted in a dramatic increase in political representation as African American men were elected to local, state, and federal offices throughout the North and South.

Many of the gains provided by the Fifteenth Amendment proved to be only temporary, however, because many white Americans strongly opposed black political power. Following the end of Reconstruction, many southern states quickly enacted laws that limited the voting power of black citizens in order to restore white supremacy. In some places, African Americans faced additional taxes or the threat of losing their jobs, homes, or even their lives if they tried to vote. By the 1890s, most black communities in the South were effectively disenfranchised by these state and local policies, despite the Fifteenth Amendment. During the 1960s, securing equal voting rights became one of the central issues of the civil rights movement, culminating in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The documents, images, photographs and articles in this set explore the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, responses to it across the United States, and its long-term impact on the struggle for equal voting rights.

Additional resources for research

  1. The Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, Our Documents Initiative.
  2. Amendment XV: Right to vote not denied by race, National Constitution Center.
  3. Octavius Catto: Philadelphia’s "Forgotten Hero," National Constitution Center blog.
  4. This Far By Faith: Henry McNeal Turner, PBS.
  5. Introduction to Federal Voting Rights Laws, US Department of Justice.
  6. Recalling an era when the color of your skin meant you paid to vote,” Smithsonian magazine.

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