By Tanner Probst
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
If you’re like me, a high school teacher taught you this amendment and told you it granted former slaves the right to vote. This is great, but it doesn’t capture the complicated, sometimes heart-breaking, often inspiring truth of what actually happened. What were the stories surrounding its ratification — the emotions, experiences, and decisions voters felt and made back in 1870? The website History.com brings to life this and many other events from a vivid period of fascinating and thought-provoking moments.
One such story is of Ida B. Wells. Her life puts our societal problems in perspective, and, despite the deeply ingrained problems we still must fight, she shows us the great progress we have made as a country through voicing our beliefs and voting. Wells was born a slave in Mississippi, freed at a young age by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, left alone by the Yellow Fever that killed her parents and brother, she was witness to a slew of lynchings in her new home in Tennessee. Stirred by her sorrowful beginnings, she turned to writing to push for equality. She started a newspaper and published compelling pieces such as “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all Its Phases” urging those not directly affected by the horrors of racism to let their voices be heard, too.
Wells faced some unlikely adversaries. Lauded suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton made public arguments that white women deserved the vote before African American men in 1870. As an African American woman, Wells was beneath even the consideration of leading women’s suffragists. What strikes me about this story is not that Anthony and Stanton are villains (they’re not); they were progressive visionaries with good souls, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t make mistakes. But their history serves to remind us to check our own strongly held assumptions, and be gentle in how we view others’ perspectives.
Wells persevered to work with people who initially disagreed with her to let her voice be heard and echoed. In a suffrage movement defined by calm, Wells was the epitome of quiet strength. She worked with the at times discriminatory white suffragists, co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and sought to gain greater rights for women and people of color. She succeeded, living through the ratification of the 15th and 19th Amendments.
When I think about how this story influences my life today, I realize I need to work with people who disagree with me. Shouting at people who won’t listen doesn’t work as well as conversing with someone who will. We need to let our voices be heard and listen to others, and we need to take advantage of the work of Wells and the suffragists by exercising our own right to vote.
Other stories about the 15th amendment can be found here, but feel free to go down the rabbit hole — the website tells thousands of stories that weave the strings of history together. There are lots more interesting stories we’ve never heard that can be found meandering through History.com. Here’s a fun challenge: Can you get from the above website to a page on Barrack Obama using only hyperlink?
Tanner Probst is a student at the University of Pennsylvania. He serves in an academic-based community service class under Professor Lorene Cary, helping to share stories promoting civil engagement while working with the youth voter registration initiative Vote That Jawn.