Thomas Mundy Peterson was the first African American to vote in the United States after the passage of the 15th amendment which prohibited the government from denying a citizen the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
The 15th amendment was ratified February 3, 1870, was adopted on March 30, 1870, and on March 31, 1870, in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Thomas Mundy Peterson went down in history as the first African American to vote under the new amendment, casting his vote in favor of revising the town’s existing charter.
Peterson is quoted to have said that he originally had not planned to vote, but after a conversation with a man he worked for at the time, Mr. T. L. Kearny, he was encouraged to vote and “exercise a citizen’s privilege.” He recalls going to the polls and being handed “a ticket bearing the words ‘revised charter’ and another one marked, ‘no charter.’ I thought I would not vote to give up our charter after holding it so long: so I chose a revised charter ballot.” (http://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/5614)
The revised charter won by an overwhelming vote of 230-63, and Peterson was elected to the committee to revise the charter. In 1884, in honor of being the first African American to vote under the 15th amendment, the citizens of Perth Amboy awarded him with a medallion with the face of Abraham Lincoln engraved on one side, and on the opposite side, these words: “presented by citizens of Perth Amboy N.J. to Thomas Peterson the first colored voter in the U.S. under the provisions of the 15th Amendment at an election held in that city March 31, 1870.” That medallion is now housed at the HBCU, Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Although Thomas Mundy Peterson lived in a northern state and didn’t have to go through obstacles like poll taxes and literacy tests, like black potential voters in the South, he is still an important figure in black history. However, I doubt that many of us know of him. Until I started this series, I didn’t. This is why I wanted to start a series on the lesser known heroes of black history, who are overshadowed by the bigger names from the Civil Rights and Abolition movements. This man, who was just a custodian at a local school, is just as important. The school he used to work for is now named after him, and in New Jersey, March 31st is known as Thomas Mundy Peterson Day, but other than the people of New Jersey, or more specifically, Perth Amboy, who else knows of this man? Every black man and woman old enough to vote should be like Peterson and exercise their “citizen’s privilege.” To all you black voters who enthusiastically mobilized to the polls and helped elect Barack Obama to become the first African American President of the United States in 2008, remember who helped you get there. President Obama, you too. Everyone remember Thomas Mundy Peterson this Black History Month.