By the summer of 1870 black suffrage was irrevocably established in California. With the passage of the Enforcement Act, not only had the Los Angeles County Clerk given in, but blacks began to register in Barclay "Brad-awl" Henley's Sonoma County. Even the Butte clerk bowed to the inevitable and accepted black registrations. The lone holdout was Fresno County Clerk Harry Dixon who, as late as January 1871, still insisted that under California law only whites could register to vote and refused to accept a black registrant.1

In some counties blacks did not register. Humboldt, Lassen and Mono counties reported no African Americans residents in the 1870 census. In Tulare County none of the adult blacks listed in the census are found on the Great Register, but there is no indication that their registration was thwarted by a recalcitrant clerk. In other counties, even those with more than a handful of African Americans, the spring of 1870 saw very few registrations, white or black. With elections that year only for town or school offices, registration was largely meaningless except for the symbolism it held for African Americans and the sense of pride it offered them. Not until 1871, which brought a statewide election for major offices, did a real opportunity for black participation in California politics occur.

At the 1871 Democratic state convention delegates resolved unanimously "That we regard the three ... amendments to the constitution, recently adopted, as a settlement in fact of all the issues of the war, and that the same are no longer issues before the country." In a companion resolution Democrats demanded that the rule of strict construction, "as proclaimed by the democratic fathers, and embodied in the tenth amendment" be applied to the constitution as it is, "including the three recent amendments."2 For the state election that fall, blacks organized political clubs in the larger cities to urge all African Americans to vote Republican.3

Concerned that full civil rights were still denied blacks, a San Francisco meeting the following January commemorating emancipation adopted two resolutions, raising the first indication of serious dissatisfaction with the state's Republican party:

1. that we must make our future political watchword admission to our public schools for every child in the state, without regard to color.

2. That we will vote for no man, for any position, who is opposed to that means of justice.4

Some defections had already taken place. In the San Francisco municipal election of 1871 editors Philip Bell and Peter Anderson both denounced African Americans who backed Democratic candidates.5 Yet by 1873 Anderson had joined the critics, charging that Republicans had failed to keep their promises. At a state African American convention that year delegates displayed their discontent with the lack of political patronage offered to blacks, increasingly questioned their attachment to the Republican party, and began to consider Democratic candidates.6

As if in response to the criticism, Republicans adopted a resolution for the state election of 1875 declaring that "all citizens, without distinction of color, are entitled to equal advantage of public school education."7 Despite the Republican resolution, two years later Bell's Equal Rights League declared its independence from the Republican party and backed the Democrats, the first important black defection from the Republican party.8 Many militant blacks left the Republican party in disillusionment in the mid and late 1870s. Historian Frances Lortie found the Compromise of 1877 - the withdrawal of Union troops from the South in return for acceptance of a Republican victory in the disputed presidential election of 1876 - to be the last straw.9

Although declaring that their political preference was with the Republican party, a black convention in San Francisco in 1880 lamented that the party ignored their political rights and failed to give blacks proper recognition in the form of patronage. Still, the convention endorsed the presidential candidacy of Republican James Garfield.10

Despite a division among the delegates in the 1882 state African American convention, they moved toward support of Democratic candidates, believing that this would lead to more patronage and political rewards for blacks.11 Many pro-Republican blacks walked out of the meeting, protesting adoption of a resolution offering support to candidates of any party who opposed discrimination on account of color. Instead of approving a resolution supporting the Republican platform, the convention endorsed the Democratic ticket headed by gubernatorial candidate George Stoneman.12 Delegates were swayed by a speaker who argued that Stoneman promised to offer blacks positions as notary publics, an office considered political patronage in that era.13 A rump convention, composed of those who walked out, then endorsed the Republican ticket.14 In late 1883 Stoneman finally named a black to the position of notary public.15

Despite these defections, most California blacks remained true to the Republicans. The Democratic party of the late nineteenth century offered little to attract them.16 Although the positions Republicans promised blacks in return for their support usually never materialized, those African Americans who switched to the Democratic party found conditions there no better.17

Only gradually did black candidates for office appear on the ballot. The name of the first African American office-seeker whose name was printed on a ballot remains unknown. In 1888 the Prohibition party in Los Angeles nominated S. B. Bows for constable, the first black nominated by a political party in that county. Bows' nomination took place in a local convention composed almost entirely of white men. A Los Angeles black newspaper, the Observer, endorsed Bows, to the disappointment of local African American political leaders who still maintained close ties to the Republican party. Bows was defeated by Martin Aguirre, a popular Mexican-American and a regional hero for his daring rescues during one of the severe floods on the Los Angeles River.18 In 1894 Isaac T. Sanks, son of the African American who received votes in the 1870 Grass Valley town election, was the Republican party's candidate for Grass Valley constable. As his father before him, he lost.19

In 1888 Edward Duplex, a barber by profession but also a successful businessman, was elected mayor of Wheatland, a small, rural town in the Sacramento Valley, the first black to hold such a position in the state. Others would follow him, with African Americans, at a much later date, holding the highest municipal offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland.

In state politics blacks, following the civil rights revolution of mid-twentieth century, were chosen by fellow legislators as speaker of the assembly and head of the state senate, and won an election for Lieutenant Governor. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley twice ran close but losing races as the Democratic candidate for governor in the 1980s. By then, as a result of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies of the 1930s, the growing conservatism of the post-World War II Republican party, and the civil rights movement following the U. S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, black voters had moved overwhelmingly into Democratic ranks.

For many years the Fifteenth Amendment offered other ethnic groups few benefits. Denied citizenship by restrictions in the Naturalization Act, and with further immigration prohibited after Congress adopted the Exclusion Act in 1882, Chinese in California were only important politically as a whipping boy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While Americans of Chinese descent born in the United States were eligible to vote as native-born citizens, as Henry George had noted many years before, their numbers were not such as to give them significance in state elections.

Immigration legislation of the 1920s continued Asian exclusion, and it was not until the United States fought as an ally of China during World War II that exclusion was abolished through passage of the Magnuson Act in 1943. That law made Chinese immigrants eligible for U.S. citizenship, although the number allowed to immigrate was minuscule until major immigration reform legislation was adopted in the 1960s.20

In that decade Chinese Americans became a significant force in California politics. March Fong Eu became the first Chinese-American elected to the state legislature when she won a seat in the assembly in 1966. Eight years later her election to Secretary of State made her the first Asian American elected to statewide office in the United States. The appointment of Wilma Chan to the post of Assembly majority leader in 2002 marked the first time either a woman or an Asian had held that position.21

While native-born Chinese Americans legally had voting rights with passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, Native Americans remained without the ballot. Despite the rhetoric of Democratic politicians in the 1870 debate over the intent of the amendment, there is no indication that any Indians living off reservations registered, or attempted to register, in that year. The Indian Naturalization Act of 1890 permitted Indians to apply for citizenship in much the same way that immigrants did. In 1917 Ethan Anderson, a Pomo Indian resident of Lake County who did not live on a reservation, tried to register to vote but the county clerk refused his application. Anderson sued, and in 1917 a state court ruled in his favor, finally securing voting rights for non-reservation Indians in the state.22

Indians living on reservations were still without suffrage. In 1924 Congress extended citizenship - and indirectly the right to vote - to all Native Americans born in the United States. Despite this, California Indians were not an influence in California elections until casino gambling emerged in the late 1990s, making Native Americans a powerful force in the state's elections and in legislative lobbying.23

In the early 1960s, in the midst of the civil rights revolution, an editorial in the Sacramento Bee noted that California had never ratified the Fifteenth Amendment. That prompted State Senator Albert Rodda, a Sacramento Democrat, to introduce a resolution of ratification. Years later Rodda recalled that the legislature had belatedly approved the Fourteenth Amendment in 1959, but no action had been taken regarding the Fifteenth. On April 4, 1962, the legislature gave final approval to Senate Joint Resolution 9. The Rodda proposal passed the state senate, 31-0. The assembly approved it, 66-0.

Rodda noted that his party had been responsible for the failure to ratify the amendment in 1870. He took pride in the fact that modern Democrats, with support from Republicans, had finally corrected that error.24 The "seal of condemnation" that Democratic Speaker of the Assembly George H. Rogers (San Francisco) had successfully urged his fellow assemblymen to place on the Fifteenth Amendment had finally been removed.


[1] Fresno Expositor, Jan. 4, 1871, as reprinted in the Sacramento Union, Jan. 17, 1871.

[2] Winfield Davis, Political Conventions in California, 1849-1892 (Sacramento: California State Library, 1893), p. 298.

[3] Davis, Political Conventions, p. 310.

[4] Ibid.; George H. Tinkham, Men and Events (Stockton: Record Publishing Co., 1915), pp. 224-225.

[5] Frances N. Lortie, San Francisco's Black Community, 1870-90 (San Francisco: San Francisco State College, 1970), pp. 35-6.

[6] James A. Fisher, "A Social History of Negroes in California, 1860-90," M. A. Thesis, Sacramento State College, 1960, p. 111; James A. Fisher, "The Black Community in California," in Roger Olmsted and Charles Wollenberg, Race and Racism in California (San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1971), p. 40.

[7] Tinkham, Men and Events, p. 224, writing in 1915 took this to mean that "For the first time in California politics the color line was erased."

[8] Fisher, in Olmsted, Race and Racism, p. 40.

[9] Lortie, San Francisco's Black Community, p. 35.

[10] Fisher, "Social History of Negroes," pp. 111-12.

[11] Fisher, in Olmsted, Race and Racism, p. 40.

[12] Fisher, "Social History of Negroes," pp. 115-16.

[13] Douglas Daniels, Pioneer Urbanites: A Social and Cultural History of Black San Francisco (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980), p. 51.

[14] Fisher, "Social History of Negroes," p. 117.

[15] Ibid., p. 119.

[16] Rudolph Lapp, Afro-Americans in California (San Francisco: Boyd and Fraser Publishing Co., , 1979), p. 24; Tinkham, Men and Events, p. 290.

[17] Daniels, Pioneer Urbanites, p. 50.

[18] Los Angeles Observer, Oct. 20, 1888; Douglas Flamming, letter to Ralph Shaffer, Dec. 9, 1997.

[19] Pat Jones, "Nevada County's Black Pioneers," Nevada County Historical Society Bulletin, Vol. 29, No. 3, July, 1985, p. 23.

[20] www.autry-museum.org/explore/exhibits/suffrage/suff_time.html; www3.niu.edu/ptaa/history.htm.

[21] www3.niu.edu/ptaa/history.htm; www.geocities.com/chrisknea/wilma.html; www.politicalcircus.com/archive/article_733.shtml; http://democrats.assembly.ca.gov/members/a16/biography2.html.

[22] www.autry-museum.org/explore/exhibits/suffrage/suff_time.html; www.lakecounty.com/history.htm; www.middletownca.com/LAKECOHISTORY.htm.

[23] www.autry-museum.org/explore/exhibits/suffrage/suff_time.html.

[24] Albert S. Rodda, letter to Sheila Skjeie, April 13, 1973; Sacramento Bee, April 5, 1962.