Boston’s Black citizens were in a celebratory mood as hundreds streamed toward Faneuil Hall on New Year’s Day 1903. It was Great Emancipation Day, the 40th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, marking the beginning of the end of slavery in America.
Organized by prominent members of the Black community, such as William Monroe Trotter, editor of the Guardian newspaper, daylong festivities included musical performances of “John Brown’s Body,” a recitation of “Negro Soldier” by poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and a speech by former Massachusetts Gov. George S. Boutwell, an architect of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th and 15th amendments, which guaranteed citizenship and equal protection under the law, and granted Black men voting rights. As revelers, both Black and White, settled into their seats, they likely didn’t know Faneuil Hall, revered as the “cradle of liberty” since the American Revolution, took its name from colonial Boston merchant and slave trader Peter Faneuil.
Trotter and Boutwell were staunch defenders of Black civil and political equality at a time when Jim Crow laws in the South and increased segregation in the North had relegated 10 million Black Americans to second-class citizenship. Boutwell founded the Republican party in the 1850s, while Trotter, whose father had been enslaved, was an ally of scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois in fighting the ascendancy of Jim Crow and White supremacist policies in the early 1900s.
Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, was president during this time. Yet both Trotter and Boutwell were fiercely critical of the party for taking Black votes for granted while promoting the economic interests of America’s financial and industrial elite. Boutwell’s message that day was about the need for a “new” Emancipation Proclamation, whereby Black voters would oppose a Republican party that imposed an American imperialism on Cuba and the Philippines that was little different from slavery.
For his part, Trotter joined Du Bois and Boston lawyer Archibald Grimke in promoting a “race first” electoral strategy, urging Black voters to emphasize their own interests above all else. As Tufts University historian Kerri Greenidge has written, Trotter accused Roosevelt of sacrificing Black goals on the altar of White supremacy, of casting Black people “overboard from the Republican ship as a barrel to amuse the Southern whale.”
In an editorial titled, “No Republican Congress Without Black Votes,” Trotter urged Black citizens to leverage their support at the ballot box by putting pressure on Republican candidates. Similarly, Boutwell argued that Black voters in Pennsylvania (30,000), Ohio and New York (20,000 each), and Illinois (13,000), represented a critical mass that could tilt the balance of power in favor of their interests. By 1920, Du Bois had codified this “balance-of-power” strategy in his widely read article in The Nation magazine, “Republicans and the Black Voter,” arguing that Black people should vote strategically depending on the candidate and issues involved.
Today, our political situation may seem different, with Republicans and Democrats having exchanged places in being supported by Black voters, but the dynamics of how best to maximize Black voting power remain the same. As Trotter and Boutwell argued in the early 1900s, it’s vital today that the country’s Black voters assert their strategic electoral importance. Addressing age and geography are two methods of doing so.
The recent midterm elections demonstrated the importance of Gen Z and younger millennial voters, ages 18 to 29, in blocking the anticipated Republican wave of victories to control the U.S. Congress. In Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Nevada, voters under 30 provided the margins of victory for Democratic Party candidates in crucially important swing states. Such voters will be even more important in the 2024 presidential contest if their turnout continues to increase.
Why is this significant? Because eligible Black voters tend to skew younger than other parts of the American electorate. If future elections are to be heavily influenced by the youth vote, as is predicted, young Black citizens will play a defining role.
The other electoral focus is geography. According to Pew Research Center, more than half of Black voters nationwide are concentrated in a handful of states, including Texas, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana. The latter three, along with the District of Columbia, have the highest share of eligible Black voters. In coming years, registering these potential voters and getting them to the polls could provide key margins of victory in county, state, and national elections.
To help solidify that advantage, author and New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently argued for a “reverse great migration” that would encourage Black people to move to select areas of the South where their voting power could be magnified. In “The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto,” Blow described his own move from New York to Atlanta as an example of what could be “the most audacious power play by Black people in the history of this country” in seeking to build political majorities in the South.
Interestingly, Boutwell made the same proposal more than 150 years ago. As the Civil War was ending, he urged the federal government to set aside confiscated Confederate lands in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida so Black citizens could voluntarily move and “build up states of their own, from which they might send Black representatives to Congress.” Tragically, ex-Confederates and White “redeemers” reclaimed political power in the South through violence and intimidation, denying Black citizens the right to vote for the next 100 years.
Black people freed themselves once before, and at this 1903 occasion, Trotter and Boutwell called on them to do it again with a New Emancipation Proclamation based on Black voters looking to their own self-interest and voting strategically to maximize political power. As the country approaches the crucially important presidential election in 2024, the need for doing so once again has never been greater.
Jeffrey Boutwell, Ph.D., is writing the forthcoming “Redeeming America’s Promise: George S. Boutwell and the Politics of Race, Money, and Power,” to be published in 2023. A distant cousin of George Boutwell, he grew up in the Boston area and now lives in Columbia, Maryland.