Column: California’s shameful vote against Black suffrage in 1870 — and why it still matters today

In January 1870, one of history’s most consequential and morally freighted questions came before the California Legislature.

The state Assembly and Senate were asked to ratify the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which would guarantee nonwhite Americans the right to vote. The text was short and to the point, stating that the right of U.S. citizens to vote could not be denied or abridged on the basis of “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

For the amendment to be adopted, three-quarters of the 37 American states needed to vote yes.

Both houses of the California Legislature voted no.

It might be tempting to shrug and say that, well, we can’t judge yesterday’s legislators by today’s moral standards, but the fact is that the amendment — one of three post-Civil War Reconstruction amendments that extended civil and legal protections to formerly enslaved people — was approved by all but seven states, enough that it became part of the Constitution in early February 1870.

Were you aware of this shameful racist episode in California history? I suspect most residents of the state are not. It’s entirely possible to go through school, taking California history in fourth grade, and American history in fifth grade and eighth grade and again in 11th grade, and never learn about it. It’s not mentioned in the state’s voluminous content standards or curriculum framework documents.

But it matters. It’s relevant. Even though none of us were here in 1870 and many of our families were not yet even in the United States, and even though the state is today mostly liberal — and majority nonwhite — that 150-year-old vote is part of the story of race relations, of tensions over immigration, of voting rights and a host of issues that are still being discussed today.

I bring it up because of its relevance in the national battle over how history should be taught.

On one side of these new history wars, Donald Trump and many others on the right insist that the teaching of U.S. history has been commandeered by the radical left, which emphasizes only America’s flaws. They want a renewed focus on American exceptionalism and greatness. California’s failure to ratify the 15th Amendment would not likely get a lot of consideration in those greatness-only classrooms.

Although the ludicrous “1776 Commission,” appointed by Trump to encourage what he called “patriotic education,” has been disbanded by President Biden, there are plenty of Republicans still pursuing its mission. Oklahoma, for instance, is considering a law under which teachers could be fired for teaching that the United States is fundamentally racist. In Mississippi, the governor has proposed a $3-million fund to combat “indoctrination in far-left socialist teachings that emphasize America’s shortcomings.”

Meanwhile, the history wars are being waged from the other side in San Francisco. There, the school board apparently thinks American history teaching has been too positive — glorifying colonizers, instigators of genocide, racists, sexists and the like. The board announced last month that it will rename 44 local schools, including those named for George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Dianne Feinstein and others who have failed to meet its test of political purity. (Last Sunday, the board — facing backlash and a recall effort — announced it would “slow down” its efforts to rename the schools.)

In my view, both Trump and the San Francisco school board are wrong about history, which is nuanced, complex and unsuited to simple stories. The idea that students need to be indoctrinated with patriotic propaganda is both ridiculous and dangerous — but it is also silly and naive to expect our historical heroes to be perfect people.

It seems obvious that students should be taught about the country’s strengths and its weaknesses, and that we can honor our heroes for their accomplishments while still being honest about their shortcomings.

Obviously, students can’t learn every event in American history. If they aren’t taught about California’s rejection of the 15th Amendment, that’s not the end of the world. But if they learn only one-sided history, that’s a problem.

I spoke to several elementary and high school teachers last week and they all seem to understand that.

Andrea Johnson, who taught California history for many years at a Venice elementary school, assured me that even her fourth-grade students were sophisticated enough to understand that there were things Americans should be proud of and things we should regret.

“History can be gritty and ugly sometimes,” she said, citing the mistreatment of California’s Indigenous population. “Of course students can understand that.”

Johnson emphasized the importance of teaching students to think critically. “We teach them that there is more than one side to every story,” she said. “They have to learn to debate issues and make determinations about what really happened based on the evidence.”

There’s no question that California was dead wrong 151 years ago when it rejected the 15th Amendment. There’s no ambiguity there.

But even the 15th Amendment can be taught with nuance.

Consider this: Many suffragists — including Susan B. Anthony — opposed its passage because, they said, any constitutional amendment on voting that didn’t include women’s suffrage was unacceptable. Surely that’s a point of view students should wrestle with. The right to vote was not extended to women for 50 more years.

Here’s another nuance: Anti-Black racism was not the only form of bigotry that led California legislators to reject the amendment. The legislators were equally — or even more — worried about extending the vote to those of Chinese and Mexican descent.

History matters because it gives us perspective about our place in the world. It helps explain us to others and others to us. It teaches us how we got where we are, reminds us of mistakes we’ve made and helps guide us through the present and on to the future.

But don’t fall for the mythmakers who peddle oversimplified versions of the past to defend their present-day politics.


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