By Sean Yoes
AFRO Baltimore Editor

“Two centuries have elapsed since the first Colored man was landed on the shores of Maryland and from then until now there has been no such gala day among the race as this — the celebration of the legislative enactment which has made them the equal politically, of all men,” reported The Baltimore American newspaper in May 1870, regarding the nation’s biggest celebration of the ratification of the 15th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which gave Black men the right to vote.

The Baltimore Sun, the city’s other daily newspaper utilized the sub-headline, “Imposing Procession of Civic, Military, Trade and Beneficial Associations.” The overarching theme of the massive demonstration seemed overt and was not missed by the Sun: Black Americans were determined to be full citizens of this country and would not go back to being slaves.

In 1870, just five years after the official end to slavery in the United States, thousands of Black people, mostly men, some women and many children marched through the streets of Baltimore. Thousands of others watched the seemingly endless phalanxes, which lasted four hours.

Sean Yoes

The marchers represented dozens of Black organizations including: the Prince Hall Masons, Knights Templar; Order of the Eastern Star; Grand United Order of Odd Fellows; United Order of the Knights of Samaria; Grand United Order of the Nazarites; Maltby Shukers Association; Metropolitan Hook and Ladder company in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore Colored Journeyman Brickmakers’ Association, and many other groups representing every facet of Black Baltimore’s ascendent community.

“It was people doing normal things; voting teaching…those themes are reflected in the lithograph most associated with the parade,” said University of Maryland Law Professor Larry S. Gibson, who is organizing a massive re-enactment of the 1870 parade to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment. Perhaps one of the most striking features of the 1870 parade was the hundreds of armed Black men marching through the streets of the city, making it clear Black people were literally willing to fight to maintain their freedom.

“After the war the Whites in the Union army became the National Guard, but Blacks weren’t allowed,” said Gibson. “But, the U.S. military sold the guns back to Black Union soldiers…They were a deterrent to assaults; these were Black people with guns. They had an armory. It was Black people saying…we’ve got protection here.”

Last weekend, Gibson, perhaps the foremost authority on Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall and an expert on the history of Black Baltimore, convened a meeting at the University of Maryland to “brainstorm” and consolidate resources for the national celebration of the 15th Amendment.

“Brainstorm” was the operative word; Gibson was able to bring together some of the most nimble and formidable brains from the worlds of academia, politics, business, culture and other arenas. It was a venerable who’s who of many city leaders from the present, stretching back more than 50 years, including grassroots community activists, State Senators, City Council members, scholars, attorneys and developers. Several individuals in attendance identified several others as “living legends.” The assessment was not hyperbole. The point is, this is how important putting on this celebration of the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment is to Gibson and so many others, who understand the significance of the event in 1870. But, Gibson and all assembled also understand the 21st century threat against Black voting rights.

“We’ve seen across the country a collective effort to remove Black people from the voting rolls,” Gibson said.  “There is a full scale assault against voting rights across the country.”

Going forward, I’ll report more in this column on the evolution of this event, which will be a national showcase of Black Baltimore’s transcendent history and hopefully, a rallying point in the fight for human rights and civil rights nationally and internationally.

Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Baltimore editor and the author of Baltimore After Freddie Gray: Real Stories From One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities.

Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor