On Mar. 30, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was formally adopted. The next day, Thomas Mundy Peterson cast the first African-American vote.
A man of firsts, Thomas Mundy Peterson was first African-American to vote, serve on a jury and hold elected office.
Ironically, the “Mundy” part of his name comes from the family who “owned” his slave parents.
The Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed that no U.S. citizen could be “denied the right to vote based upon race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
The issue on the ballot that day was whether to revise or abandon Perth Amboy’s charter.
Peterson not only cast his vote, he was also later selected to serve on the committee of seven to revise the charter after the election.
Some were appalled at a black man voting—one man was said to have torn up his ballot and not voted again for a decade!
A counterclaim of priority came from Princeton.
But Moses Schenck was found to have been the first African-American to vote in that town, not first in the nation.
Still, Princeton had seen fit to bestow a medal to Schenck.
Perhaps the civic pride of Perth Amboy was a little bruised.
In 1884, the town citizens raised $75 (over $1,000 in 2015 dollars) to buy a gold medallion for Peterson which featured a clean-shaven profile of Abraham Lincoln.
Apparently, he never felt fully dressed unless he wore the medal on his coat and over his heart.
Peterson would go on to embrace civic life, serving on juries, running for local office, and representing his hometown at political conventions.
Despite his local prominence, he nevertheless died a pauper in 1904. Sadly, he even had to sell his precious medal.
In New Jersey, March 31 is annually celebrated as Thomas Mundy Peterson Day in recognition of his historic vote.
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.