Emperor Norton on the Front Row of the Fight for Ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment Removing Race as a Barrier to Voting
The Row Was in a Black Church. The Speaker — An African-American — Was the Emperor’s Future Editor.
EMPEROR NORTON adopted the African-American-owned and -operated Pacific Appeal newspaper, in San Francisco, as his imperial gazette at the end of 1870.
Over the next four-and-a-half years, the Appeal would publish some 250 of the Emperor’s proclamations. One of the first of these, in May 1871, called for African-Americans to be allowed to ride in public streetcars. Another proclamation, in March 1874, insisted on the right of African-American children to attend public schools.
The African-American editor of the Pacific Appeal was Peter Anderson (1822-1879). As we noted recently in our article about Philip Bell — another African-American editor who engaged with Emperor Norton, and who became Anderson’s bitter rival — Anderson had been on the political front lines of the fight for African-American equality for many years.
In 1855, Anderson attended the first “colored convention” in California — formally, the First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California, held in Sacramento. At that meeting, Anderson led in making the case for the establishment of an African-American newspaper that could become the intellectual and political voice of the African-American equality movement on the West Coast. The San Francisco-based paper, called the Mirror of the Times, began publishing in September 1856.
Four years later, the Mirror recruited Philip Bell away from New York, to become the paper’s new editor in mid 1860.
In early 1862, Anderson and Bell converted the Mirror into a new paper, the Pacific Appeal, with Anderson as proprietor and Bell as editor.
Anderson and Bell quickly fell out over the editorial direction of the Appeal. Bell left — and Anderson became the Appeal’s proprietor and editor, both.
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ON THE OTHER SIDE of the Civil War — in late February 1869 — the U.S. House and Senate, passed the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which held that
[t]he 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.
On Monday 15 November 1869 — as ratification was making its way through the states, and with California still in the balance — Peter Anderson offered a lecture on the Amendment at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, located on the west side of Stockton Street between Sacramento and Clay. (The church, founded in 1852, adopted the name First A.M.E. Zion in the mid 1870s and now is located on Golden Gate Avenue between Central and Masonic.)
The next day, the San Francisco Examiner took note of the lecture — including the presence of Emperor Norton in “a front seat.” Here’s the introduction to the article:
A Colored Man on the Fifteenth Amendment.
Last evening, Peter Anderson lectured in the Fifteenth Amendment in the Zion A.M.E. Church, on Stickton street. The attendance was very small, but among those present was his Imperial Highness Norton I., an attentive listener. He occupied a front seat. The lecturer said, in his opening remarks, that although the meeting was small they could conduct themselves with dignity (Emperor Norton fully agreed with this remark of his loyal subject, and that colored folks only recognized the fact that where he was there was dignity and pomp).
Clearly, the Emperor was drawn by the subject matter.
It’s reasonable to guess that his was one of the few white faces in the room. Was the Emperor known and considered a friend by members of the church? Was the A.M.E. Zion church part of the “rotation” of churches that the Emperor attended from Sunday to Sunday?
Too: Had Emperor Norton and Peter Anderson already been introduced by 15 November 1869, or did they know one another only by reputation?
Was this gathering where Anderson and the Emperor met and began cultivating the friendship that led to Anderson’s taking on the Emperor as a regular, even weekly, contributor to the Pacific Appeal starting a year later?
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AS IT HAPPENS, the Fifteenth Amendment had difficulty gaining enough support in California for the state legislature to ratify it. The Amendment was opposed both by those who saw it as too conservative and by those who saw it as too liberal.
The first group included people who wanted a broader suffrage amendment — one that lifted both race and sex as barriers to voting. Unspoken in the Amendment’s language was that “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote” would continue to be “denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of” sex. This Amendment would extend the voting franchise only to men of color. Given that abolitionists and women’s rights advocates long had been political allies helping to advance one another’s causes, it’s not surprising that there would have been resistance within those quarters to an Amendment that would not bring both African-Americans and women to the ballot box.
The second group of California opponents to the Fifteenth Amendment were those who felt threatened by the fact that the Amendment’s general ban on using “race” or “color” as a barrier to voting would give voting rights not only to African-American men but also to Chinese men.
In 1870, the total population of San Francisco was just shy of 150,000, according to that year’s U.S. Census. Only 1,330 (0.8%) of these were African-American — but 11,728 (7.8%) were Chinese (see table 2 here).
Notwithstanding the passage of the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 — which opened up Chinese immigration to the United States and protected these immigrants from religious persecution — by the time the Fifteenth Amendment was being considered in 1869 and 1870, the influx of Chinese immigrants already was being reflected in worsening anti-Chinese racism, especially on the West Coast.
Ultimately, it was this anti-Chinese sentiment that doomed the Fifteenth Amendment in California. The state legislature rejected the Amendment on 28 January 1870.
The Amendment was ratified on 3 February 1870 and certified on 30 March 1870.
Remarkably, California — represented as a pesky fly in this Harper’s Weekly comic of 12 March 1870 — didn’t ratify the Fifteenth Amendment until 92 years later: 3 April 1962
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SO, WHAT was Emperor Norton’s take on the Fifteenth Amendment?
Well, at least as early as 1868, the Emperor was issuing Proclamations and engaging in other actions to demand fair treatment, equal rights and an end to violence against the Chinese. It’s hard to imagine his being swayed by an anti-Chinese argument against the Amendment.
And, as we saw earlier, the Emperor did issue Proclamations in 1871 and 1874 insisting on access for African-Americans in other areas: public schools and public transportation.
Although there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that Emperor Norton might have been a little less forward on the issue of women’s “place,” he is reported to have signed an October 1878 petition to amend the California Constitution to recognize women’s right to vote. In general, it appears that the Emperor was a “pragmatic progressive”: someone who wanted to see society move forward when and where it could, and who therefore would not have wanted to see the desire for the “perfect” — an Amendment extending the vote both to people of color and to women — stand in the way of the “good” of extending the vote to non-white men.
All in all, it stands to reason that the Emperor must have supported the Fifteenth Amendment.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that Peter Anderson would have given four-and-half-years’ worth of front-page column space to a white man who didn’t.
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