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Steve Cottrell: It took 92 years for California to ratify the 15th Amendment

Last month, we explained how former Nevada County District Attorney Bill Stewart, as a Republican U. S. senator, came to write the words that in February 1870 were ratified as the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, providing suffrage for black men. This month, let’s look at why the Democratic-led 1870 California Legislature rejected the 15th Amendment.

The issue in California was not so much that blacks would be given the right to vote, although that was certainly part of the debate. Of greater concern was a fear by many that Chinese, Native American and Mexican males might eventually be granted suffrage.

Although there were only about 1,700 black males 21 or older in the state in 1870, there were 37,000 potential Chinese male voters, plus thousands of Mexican and Native American males of voting age. But with Democrat Henry Haight serving as governor from 1867-71, and Democrats in solid control of the state Legislature, the 15th Amendment stood no chance for ratification in California.

There were 37 states at that time, so approval from 28 state Legislatures was necessary for final adoption by Congress — a three-fourths threshold reached Feb. 3, 1870, when Iowa voted in favor of ratification.

Three weeks earlier, when the California Legislature had considered the suffrage measure, freshman state Sen. William Gwin, Jr., from Calaveras County, introduced a resolution advising Congress that California was rejecting what Gov. Haight had labeled the “so-called 15th Amendment.” The 21-year-old son of pro-slavery California pioneer politician William Gwin, Sr. said suffrage was a state issue, not federal. “The Constitution confers no power upon Congress to propose to three-fourths of the states such an amendment,” he claimed, “and gives no power to three-fourth of the states to ratify the same.”


Following debate in the Senate, Gwin’s resolution to have California reject the 15th Amendment was adopted 23-8, with Republican Sen. Edmund Roberts, a Grass Valley lawyer and former Nevada County judge, voting with the minority. The next day, Democrat Assemblyman Samuel Oates, a blacksmith from Nevada City, voted to support Gwin’s resolution.

In early April 1870, shortly after the 15th Amendment’s formal adoption by Congress, Nevada County black males of voting age began having their names entered in the Great Register — a list of all registered voters. The first to do so was Nevada City pioneer John Adams, 31, from Illinois, who had arrived here as an 11-year-old boy. Also among the several dozen local black men to register that April were Preston Alexander from Nevada City and Isaac Sanks from Grass Valley.

Alexander, a Nevada City resident since 1853, was a bill poster and janitor. When a circus or entertainer was coming to town and there were announcements to post, or City Hall had legal notices to post, Preston was the one who did it. In addition, he was the Nevada Theatre’s janitor. It seemed most everyone in town knew and respected Mr. Alexander, so it was no surprise when, following his death in 1889, the unnamed alley connecting Main and Coyote streets – where he and his wife, Louisa, raised five children – was officially named Alexander Street, perhaps the first public street in California named for a black man.

As for Sanks, in 1870 he received two votes for the Grass Valley Board of Town Trustees, (now called City Council), becoming one of the first California black men to receive officially tallied votes for public office.

Then, in 1894, Ike Sanks’ son, Isaac T. Sanks, ran for Grass Valley constable as the Republican Party’s designated candidate. Sanks lost and returned to his duties as janitor at the Grass Valley Wells, Fargo & Co. office and two downtown saloons, but left his mark on history by being the first black candidate in California to appear on a major political party ticket.

Meanwhile, years and decades rolled by without California ratifying the 15th Amendment. Nor, for that matter, had it ratified the 14th Amendment — assuring equal protection for all citizens. But in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, as civil liberties and voting rights became hot-button issues nationally, it was time to rectify some 19th century racism here. Two things happened:

The 14th Amendment was unanimously ratified by the state Legislature in May 1959 — 91 years after becoming the law of the land. And in April 1962 — also unanimously and 92 years after its adoption by Congress — the 15th Amendment was finally ratified in California.

As the adage reminds us, “Better late than never.”

Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at exnevadacitymayor@gmail.com.


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