Understanding Voter Suppression: Why Your Vote Matters

Freedom Center Voices

Understanding Voter Suppression: Why Your Vote Matters

The Presidential Election is now just a few weeks away and like many people, I find myself growing concerned about the ever-mounting presence of one topic: voter suppression.

Voter Suppression is defined as any effort, legal or illegal, to prevent eligible voters from registering to vote or casting their ballot in an election. New laws and/or administration rules that create barriers for voters are both examples of voter suppression.

This is arguably one of the United States’ most important elections. I personally feel that this moment could define my generation (hi millennials). A lot is at stake, and with the country continuing to move through a global pandemic, there are many concerns about exactly how votes will be counted this year.

For those of us who have studied history—specifically American history—we are no stranger to the idea of American voters being disenfranchised. For centuries, those in power in the United States have excluded certain people from voting based on things like race, gender, literacy, wealth and more. Most of these inhuman policies and treatments were not corrected until the passage of the Voting Rights of 1965.

Isn’t this 2020? Why and how are we still dealing with voter suppression in the United States? What does it look like? And most importantly, how can we combat it? To answer these questions, let’s first start with a little context.

Voting Rights in America

The United States of America was founded in 1776 on the basic principles of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yet we know that the Founding Fathers were mostly concerned with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for an America full of people who looked like them—wealthy, white, and male. This sentiment is reflected in the way voting was structured at this time. Many customs from England were adopted, including the idea that only “free holding” men could vote (meaning they owned property and paid taxes). The first voters in colonial America were male property owners ages 21 and older—they were overwhelmingly white and Christian.

The result? When the first U.S. election was held in 1789 to elect President George Washington, only 6% of Americans were eligible to vote. In that same year, the Constitution granted power to the states to determine their own set of voting requirements. Many states upheld the property requirement for white males. They also passed laws limiting voting rights for African Americans and immigrants after the passage of the Naturalization Act in 1790. In the 1820s, universal white male suffrage prompted most states to forgo the property ownership rules, opening the vote up to all white men in the United States.

African American men were granted the right to vote with the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870. Women and other minorities would have to wait for their suffrage.

The Jim Crow Era

The Jim Crow era is the time period in American history where state and local laws were passed that enforced racial segregation and disenfranchised thousands of African Americans in the southern United States. The threat of racial violence from terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan also had an impact, discouraging many African Americans from exercising their constitutional right.

Jim Crow laws began appearing in the 1870s, a result of the failure of Reconstruction (1865-1877). Many of the Jim Crow laws specifically targeted African American voting rights. Two examples of these racist and oppressive laws were literacy tests and poll taxes.

Literacy tests began popping up in the U.S. as early as the 1850s and were predominately used as a voter suppression tactic to disenfranchise African Americans and other minority voters. Literacy tests existed in the U.S. until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A payment of a poll tax was also required to register to vote in many states until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

While these voter suppression tactics largely targeted African Americans in the Jim Crow South, many other minorities in the United States were subjected to these types of unjust laws—such as Native Americans, Asian Americans, immigrants and women—until the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Above: United States President Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks at the signing of the Voting Rights Act on August 5, 1965

The Voting Rights Act

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were monumental in securing rights Americans deserved. The Voting Rights Act (VRA) was expanded in 1970, 1975, 1982 and 2006—extending more voting protections each time. This resulted in many states seeing increased African American representation in elected officials. For example, the ACLU found that the number of Black elected officials in Georgia grew from 3 prior to the Voting Rights Act to 495 in 1990.

So, what happened? The Voting Rights Act was widely supported in the United States by multiple Presidents of both political parties. In fact, all 4 Presidents who signed expansions of the VRA were Republicans—Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George W. Bush. Yet since 2006, voting rights have been attacked across the country along with the introduction of new methods of voter suppression. For example, the Brennan Center for Justice found that 25 states enforced new voting requirements in 2010 such as voter ID laws, closing polling places and cutbacks to early voting.

In 2013, the Voting Rights Act was attacked again with the U.S. Supreme Court Case Shelby County v. Holder. In a 5-4 decision, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In response to the decision, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Voting Rights Act was based on “decades-old data and eradicated practices… such as [literary] tests” and that they “have banned nationwide for over 40 years.”

Above: States and counties encompassed by the act's coverage formula in January 2008 (excluding bailed-out jurisdictions). Several counties subsequently bailed out, but the majority of the map accurately depicts covered jurisdictions before the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which declared the coverage formula unconstitutional.

Modern Voter Suppression Tactics

In addition to new voter ID laws, closure of polling places and cutbacks to early voting, states also began purging voter rolls, creating caging lists, attacking felon voter protections and enacting gerrymandering. Combined, these laws create a perfect storm of voter suppression, often targeted at communities of color.

To learn more about each voter suppression tactic, check out this article by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In the 2016 Presidential Election, it is estimated that up to 17 states may have had restrictive voting laws in place. On the eve of another Presidential Election, many are worried these restrictive laws will negatively impact voter turnout once again. As late as August 2020, President Trump announced his opposition for additional funding for the United States Postal Service (USPS) in order to make it more difficult to deliver mail-in ballots.

Looking Ahead

When discussing voting rights in the United States, voter suppression has been a part of the nation’s history just as equally as rights granted. For more than one hundred years, elected officials have made a targeted effort to disenfranchise certain Americans, enforce structural racism and uphold white supremacy. In the 21st Century, many of these elected officials continue to focus on communities of color, thinking of new ways to disenfranchise Americans from their constitutional right to vote.

However, the fight is not over. Now more than ever, it’s incredibly important for Americans to vote. Your voice does matter. Here are 3 things you can do:

1. In order to protect your voice, it’s important to know your rights.

The ACLU has put together a comprehensive plan to follow if you or someone you know face any issues while voting. Read it here.

2. You can also tell your Senators to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA),

which would enforce voting rights throughout the country. The House has already voted to pass the VRAA, but it is currently waiting in the Senate. Find more information here.

3. Finally, make a comprehensive plan on how to vote this year.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to determine what type of voting is available for you. For more information, check vote.org.

Most importantly—don’t give up hope. Together, we can fight for more inclusive tomorrow.

To learn more about voter suppression, consider tuning in to our upcoming program Unpacking Voter Suppression: A Virtual Discussion with Gloria Steinem, scheduled on Thursday, October 22 at 7pm.

Katie Bramell, Director of Museum Experiences
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Katie’s passion is sharing the untold stories of history, and she loves to think of new, creative ways to engage museum visitors. She is a graduate of Northern Kentucky University (Masters of Public History) and the University of Central Missouri (Bachelors of History). Her primary fields of study include the Underground Railroad, human rights, and early 20th century American History.

Tips for Researching the Underground Railroad

Freedom Center Voices

Tips for Researching the Underground Railroad

Many of us have been inspired by stories of freedom seekers and conductors who resisted the injustice of slavery in the United States via the Underground Railroad. We encounter their stories through books, films, local lore and family tales. Their heroism has captured our collective imaginations for generations and many of us genuinely wish to know more—How did the Underground Railroad actually work? Which stories are 100% true and which ones are not? Was my relative a conductor? Was my home a safe house?

This curiosity draws many of us deep into the research rabbit hole. Yet once we dive in ourselves, we often discover that uncovering this history can be both exhilarating and incredibly frustrating at the same time.

Maintaining perspective

The one point researchers must remember is that the Underground Railroad was a SECRET network of individuals and safe houses. Freedom seekers and conductors rarely talked openly about their experiences prior to the Civil War and only a handful kept secret notes about their experiences.  Involvement in the Underground Railroad was very dangerous. Some conductors were jailed, fined, sold into slavery and even murdered.  Freedom seekers that were captured were sent back into slavery and severely punished—some were even sold away from their families. These reasons and more made secrecy about this activity absolutely essential. It’s because of this secrecy that we know very little about most freedom seekers and conductors. Most of the details and first-hand accounts that have been documented about the Underground Railroad were written after the Civil War.

That being said, don’t let this discourage you from your research. These stories must be told; the legacy of these heroes must endure. Remember, it was the undeniable courage, cooperation and perseverance of these individuals that helped free over 4 million enslaved people and brought an end to over 200 years of legal slavery in the United States. These individuals changed the course of American history like no others. So on behalf of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, we’d like to offer you some tips on researching the Underground Railroad, freedom seekers and conductors. We wish you the best on your researching journey.

Primary sources from freedom seekers and conductors

The best way to understand the Underground Railroad and the experiences of freedom seekers and conductors is through primary sources. New York conductor Sydney Howard Gay kept secret notes on over 200 freedom seekers. Philadelphia conductor William Still wrote the first book on the Underground Railroad, published in 1872, about his experiences helping freedom seekers. Slave narratives can provide some great information as well—over 6,000 have been written.

Secondary sources from abolitionists, abolitionist organizations and abolitionist newspapers

You can find information on freedom seekers, conductors and safe houses by examining personal letters, diaries, organizational documents and newspaper articles from these three sources:


Numerous books have been written about the Underground Railroad, freedom seekers and conductors. Visit a library or bookstore and see what they have. A quick search online might be helpful for your research. Just make sure that any books you reference were written by a reputable source like John Hope Franklin, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Eric Foner and David Blight.

Local and state historical societies

A great way to find out if there was Underground Railroad activity in your area is to contact your local or state historical society. These individuals specialize in all aspects of your local or state history, and are a great resource.

National and state park services

Some Underground Railroad or abolitionist landmarks may fall under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service or a state park service. For example, Frederick Douglass’ house at Cedar Hill is a national historic site, and is managed by rangers of the National Park Service. You can find out more at nps.gov.

Colleges and universities

If you’re not sure where to start on your research, local history professors may be able to point you in the right direction.  Some of them may also be experts on Underground Railroad history, or specific conductors and freedom seekers. Some colleges and universities create online databases that focus on specific historical topics. Here are a few examples:

Public libraries

Libraries, and more specifically librarians, are a great resource for historical research.  Librarians are experts at finding the right primary and secondary resources for your project. Books, journals,  newspapers and databases are just a few of the resources that are often available at libraries.

Library of Congress and National Archives

Two reliable and respectable databases to search are the Library of Congress and National Archives.  Unlike Google and other public search engines, documents on these websites go through a verification and authentication process. The Library of Congress will pull up over 40,000 “results” when you search “Underground Railroad.”


Interactive learning is a great way to educate yourself and your family about the Underground Railroad, and museums like ours offer multiple learning experiences. Look up what museum are closest to you and plan your visit.


If you’re looking for a general introduction to the Underground Railroad, I recommend watching a reputable documentary. Underground Railroad: The William Still Story will give you an educational and inspirational look at the Underground Railroad and William Still, a true American hero.

Photograph of William Still. Source: Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College

African American Churches

African American churches were often the epicenter of their communities and some were actually used as safe houses. Leaders of these churches were know to hide, feed and clothe freedom seekers, as well as help them find jobs and housing. The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), founded by Richard Allen, has been around since 1794. Some of these old African American congregations may be able to help you with your research.

James Harrington, Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Photograph of Harriet Tubman, full-length portrait, standing with hands on back of a chair. Source: Library of Congress

Women and the Vote: 100 Years Later and Still Fighting

Freedom Center Voices

Women and the Vote: 100 Years Later and Still Fighting

This year, we celebrate the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment and ultimately women’s right to vote. Woo! This is amazing right?! 100 years of voting for women in the United States! Well, not exactly.

Here’s the thing about the 19th Amendment—not all women were granted the right to vote when it was signed into law in August of 1920.

19th Amendment Overview

The 19th Amendment states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” In theory, this should apply to every single person in the United States who identifies as female. Yet many women were effectively excluded from the vote. In the Jim Crow South, for example, both African American men and women were prevented from voting due to the passage of racist laws that unjustly targeted people of color. Beyond the system that made voting nearly impossible, the threat of lynching—unchecked in the United States for decades—hung over many African Americans in the South like a bad storm that would never clear out.

Other women of color, such as Native and Asian American women, were also prevented from voting since they were denied United States citizenship. Women across the country were tasked with navigating the shifting landscape, sometimes still unable to cast their votes due to unmet “qualifications” like their age, residency or even mental competency.

Here’s my point—obtaining the vote for women was a long, hard-won struggle. It took nearly 100 years of protest to see the passage of the 19th Amendment. Unfortunately, the movement that got us there lacked unification, solidarity, and sisterhood.

The Early Movement

Born out of the abolitionist movement of the early 19th century, the first formal gathering in support of women’s rights occurred in late July, 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. Attended by those who would later declare themselves suffragists, the convention was unique in that women were at the forefront of the discussion for the first time in American history. Famous abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Lucrecia Mott all participated in these early gatherings. From this point on, it seemed everyone was on the same page: women deserved the same rights as men. That is, until the issue of race divided them.

Divisions and the 15th Amendment

After the end of the Civil War, the United States ratified the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. These amendments (part of the “Reconstruction Amendments”) were passed to 1) grant African Americans citizenship and 2) grant African American men the voting rights. Though progress was made, both women of color and white women were left out.

Many in the women’s suffrage movement were angered by these new amendments—they felt that women should have been included in this moment. Suffragists were forced to make a choice: support suffrage for African American men as more urgent priority or withhold support based on the desire for universal suffrage for all.

Ultimately, the passage of the 15th Amendment caused suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to split off from the rest of the movement to form the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) with the mission of universal suffrage. One of their core beliefs was that African American men should not be granted the right to vote before women. I mean, let’s be honest—before white women.

Not all suffragists supported Anthony and Stanton, however. Suffragists like Lucy Stone supported the 15th Amendment and quickly worked with others to form the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). This organization supported not only women’s suffrage, but suffrage for African American men as well. The AWSA’s approach was to work on passing women’s suffrage state-by-state without alienating 15th Amendment supporters. African American women suffragists supported this idea while also fighting for their own set of priorities, since they faced even greater hurdles than white women. African American women continued to fight for suffrage, often working with both the NWSA and the AWSA when the time called.

The divide between white and African American women grew, even as both groups worked toward the same goal. White suffragists would fan the flame of tension, even appealing to racist leaders in the South for support. Meanwhile, African American suffragists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett and others mobilized throughout the country, continually pushing to become part of the narrative of universal suffrage. And despite the discriminatory behavior of their white-counterparts, many African American suffragists continued to work in interracial spaces to keep the fight for the vote moving forward.

Legacy of the 19th Amendment

Ultimately, the women’s suffrage movement did succeed when the 19th Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920. It’s estimated that around 8 million women voted that November for the first time. However, as I have pointed out, many women were left out of this monumental moment. For many women of color, the moment of celebration came much later with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It’s this point that makes it hard for me to put on my white dress in honor of my suffragette foremothers and champion the centennial. As often in history, most of our knowledge of the women’s suffrage movement is limited. From a young age, we learn the names of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but rarely if ever hear about the accomplishments of Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Francis Ellen Watkins Harper—equally worthy women who fought for their suffrage while also fighting for their place in American society as Black women.

As a white woman myself, I’m frustrated by how often these narratives are still excluded. We choose not to address the fact that Elizabeth Cady Stanton asked Frederick Douglass, an early champion for women’s rights, not to appear on a stage in Atlanta, GA in 1890 for fear it would upset the white men whose support she was vying for at the time. We choose not to highlight how Mary Church Terrell told Walther White of the National Association for the Advancement of Color People (NAACP) that she believed suffragists like Alice Paul and others would exclude Black women from the 19th Amendment if they could.

Women’s Rights Today

What’s even more frustrating to me is that we don’t seem to be making much progress with the idea of intersectional sisterhood—even today. In 2017, myself and a few friends excitedly made the 8-hour journey to Washington D.C. to participate in the Women’s March. Signs in hand, I felt I was part of history as a walked with an estimated 470,000 people to protest to the new administration’s stance on human rights. It was in the later weeks that I would come to re-think my decision, as many women of color voiced concerns about the all-white feminist narrative that seemed to be at forefront of popular discussion. This was only reinforced the next year, when movement groups began to splinter across the country in response to racism, anti-Semitism, and the push back against intersectional feminism.

Feminism cannot exist without intersectionality—period. If your brand of women’s rights is exclusively based on a white narrative and you’re unable to expand that—then you’re part of the problem. Just as many the early suffragists fell out due to the 15th Amendment, I watched in amazement as I read accounts (some from people I know) of white women defending their brand of feminism while discounting valid criticism that calls out discriminatory behavior.

We have a long way to go in this country for voting to be fair and equitable. In 2020, we still face the challenge of voter suppression in every single state. My hope (and ask) is that we learn from the mistakes of our foremothers and do not repeat them. I ask this specially of my fellow white women—it’s time to embrace inclusivity and equality, otherwise we risk becoming part of problem instead of the solution.

Katie Bramell, Director of Museum Experiences
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Katie’s passion is sharing the untold stories of history, and she loves to think of new, creative ways to engage museum visitors. She is a graduate of Northern Kentucky University (Masters of Public History) and the University of Central Missouri (Bachelors of History). Her primary fields of study include the Underground Railroad, human rights, and early 20th century American History.

World Day Against Trafficking in Persons

Freedom Center Voices

World Day Against Trafficking in Persons

Today is the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. Designated by the United Nations in 2013, July 30 is observed globally every year to raise awareness about human trafficking, and to promote and protect of the rights of victims.

An Introduction

When you hear the term “human trafficking,” what does that actually mean? The term is defined as:

“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose.”

Human trafficking is a broad injustice that can take many forms. Some of these include domestic servitude, sex trafficking, forced labor, bonded labor, child labor and forced marriage. You learn more about each of these specific forms of slavery at EndSlaveryNow.org.

When discussing the scope of human trafficking, the numbers can be quite overwhelming. It’s estimated that between 21 million and 45 million people are enslaved in the world today. With staggering numbers and victims present in countries across the world (including the United States), it’s difficult to pinpoint how we can stop this cycle. What can we do to make an impact?

A Modern Abolitionist Struggle

 In 2012, President Obama stated:

“The outrage, of human trafficking . . . must be called by its true name – modern slavery.”

These words reflected an ongoing development in the US anti-trafficking movement—the shift toward viewing this movement an inclusive struggle against enslavement and oppression in all forms.

For much of its history, the anti-trafficking movement had been widely perceived as rescuing upper-class women from “white slavery”—specifically, sexual enslavement by foreign smugglers. However, many anti-trafficking activists will tell you that this is not the typical story. Brooke Hathaway-DeSantis, founder of End Slavery Now, points out that modern-day victims of sexual enslaved are rarely kidnapped or even smuggled from one place to another. Instead, they are most often lied to and deceived by traffickers who lure them with false promises of glamorous employment or supportive romantic relationships. For this reason, most victims and survivors of this form of trafficking are members of disadvantaged populations, such as poor immigrants and refugees, rather than middle class or wealthy people.

And while anti-trafficking activists are committed to fighting all forms of sexual exploitation, they will also tell you that forced labor is by far the most common form of modern-day enslavement worldwide. This doesn’t even include forced labor in prisons, which many consider to be another form of modern-day enslavement. For these reasons, most anti-trafficking activists today view the fight against modern-day enslavement to be as much about social justice as one against exploitation. It’s an abolitionist cause directly related to the struggle to end pre-Civil War chattel enslavement.

Who Are Anti-trafficking Activists?

Much like the pre-Civil War abolitionists, those fighting modern-day enslavement are a diverse group. They are comprised of law enforcement personnel, social workers, members of the clergy, academics, trafficking survivors, and politicians from both parties. They are ordinary people of all genders, gender identities, ethnicities, abilities, and sexual orientations. They agree on one important thing: nobody should be enslaved.

Photo: Mohamed Diaby and friends. Diaby is a refugee from forced labor in Mauritania who lives in Ohio. He has spoken at the Freedom Center about his fight against deportation.

A Call To Action

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center invites you to become a modern-day abolitionist. We believe that while chattel enslavement of African Americans was a unique evil whose effects still linger, human trafficking results from inequalities that continue to exist in our society.

Start by checking out End Slavery Now, a project of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. You can sign up to receive a weekly action email with ideas on what you can do to fight against  modern-day enslavement. You can also visit the Polaris Project, a national organization dedicated to this fight, and the National Human Trafficking Network that operates a hotline – (888)-373-7888 – where you can report suspected instances of human trafficking.

It will take a monumental effort to end human trafficking, but please know that no action is too small to make a difference. Take the first step, educate yourself, get connected, bring your passion to the table—roll up your sleeves end help us end slavery for good.


Jonathan Turbin

Coordinator of Initiatives against Modern-Day Enslavement
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

July 18, 1863: The Bravery of the 54th Massachusetts

Freedom Center Voices

July 18, 1863: The Bravery of the 54th Massachusetts

When southern states began to secede from the Union in 1860, talk of civil war was prevalent throughout the country. For African Americans, this war was about one thing—bringing an end to slavery. Frederick Douglass and other prominent African Americans petitioned Congress and President Lincoln to allow African American men to enlist in the military. Douglass’ words and determination laid heavy in the mind of the President.

“A war undertaken and brazenly carried on for the perpetual enslavement of colored men, calls logically and loudly for colored men to help suppress it.  Only a moderate share of sagacity was needed to see that the arm of the slave was the best defense against the arm of the slaveholder.”

- Frederick Douglass, “Men of Color, To Arms!” March 21, 1863


Storming Fort Wagner. Print shows Union soldiers storming the walls of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina, and engaging some Confederate soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. Source: Library of Congress.

Laying the Ground Work

The first step in recruiting African Americans was the Second Confiscation and Militia Act which gave Lincoln the authority “to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion…in such manner as he may judge best for the public welfare.” This act formed a number of unofficial African American regiments in Louisiana, Kansas and South Carolina. However, it wasn’t until the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863 that official African American regiments formed.

Forming The 54th Massachusetts

On January 26, 1863, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized the official recruitment and formation of African American regiments. Shortly after, Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew reached out to Boston’s African American and abolitionist communities to help with recruitment of soldiers to the Union Army. Excited by the news, these individuals worked tirelessly to recruit soldiers. Church sermons, public events, newspapers, posters and pamphlets were all used to promote recruitment. Frederick Douglass and Major Martin Robinson Delany also assisted with recruitment. Douglass’s two sons, Charles and Lewis, were some of the first to enlist.

Recruitment was so successful that over 1,000 men had volunteered by May 14, 1863. Volunteers came from all over the country, and even Canada and the Caribbean. This new regiment became the 54th Massachusetts, the second African American regiment of the United States Army. Roughly 25% of the volunteers were from southern states, many of them formerly enslaved.

Early Days

Trainings were done just outside of Boston at Camp Meigs, and the unit was commanded by Colonel Robert Shaw. Once training was complete, over 20,000 people (including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison) gathered at Boston Commons on May 28, 1863 to send them off to active duty. The crowds cheered as the soldiers boarded the ship De Molay that was destined for South Carolina.

After weeks of manual labor and engaging in a small fight with Confederate troops on James Island, Colonel Shaw requested that his troops have the opportunity to lead the next assault against Confederate troops. When the 54th arrived outside of Fort Wagner, South Carolina on the evening of July 18, 1863, Colonel Shaw got his wish. That evening he told his men:

“I want you to prove yourselves… The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight.”

This was the moment they all had waited for. The opportunity to prove their valor—to fight for freedom.

View of Forts Wagner and Gregg on Morris Island, evacuated by Confederates, September 6, 1863. Source: Library of Congress

The Assault at Fort Wagner

The 54th led the union assault. They advanced at dusk, bravely marching toward the Confederate line. When they got within 100 yards, Shaw gave the order to attack. Outgunned, the 54th was assaulted by a wall of bullets. Shaw witnessed the carnage and chaos, regrouped his men and led the charge over the outer wall of Ft. Wagner. Before the Colonel was shot and killed, his last words were, “Forward Fifty-Fourth!”

When the flag bearer was shot, Sergeant William H. Carney grabbed the flag before it could hit the ground. Despite suffering several serious gunshot wounds, Carney carried the symbol of the Union to the base of the fort where he planted the flag in the sand. Carney later told his fellow soldiers:

"As quick as a thought, I threw away my gun, seized the colors, and made my way to the head of the column."

His heroic efforts earned him the Medal of Honor—the first black recipient of the award in United States history.

Photograph of Sergeant William H. Carney, circa 1864. He was the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor.

Photograph of Sergeant William H. Carney, circa 1864. He was the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor.


Although the 54th fought valiantly, they were eventually repelled by Confederate troops and the union forces failed to take Ft. Wagner. Approximately 280 soldiers from the 54th were either killed, wounded, captured or missing. Some of captured men were sold into slavery. Yet despite the loss, the bravery shown by the 54th Massachusetts at the charge of Fort Wagner proved that African American troops were valuable, effective soldiers. This would be remembered as one of the most famous battles of the Civil War—inspiring artwork, poetry and songs for generations to come.


James Harrington

Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Ida B. Wells: A Legacy of Justice Deferred

Freedom Center Voices

Ida B. Wells: A Legacy of Justice Deferred

Ida B. Wells-Barnett rose to prominence in the 1890s, bringing international attention to the lynching of Black Americans in the South. After three of her friends were lynched in 1892, Wells became one of the most vocal anti-lynching activists in history.

Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Henry Stewart owned a local grocery store in Memphis, TN known as the People’s Grocery. Their economic success angered the white owners of a store across the street. On March 9, a group of white men gathered to confront McDowell, Moss, and Stewart. During the scuffle that followed, several of the white men received injuries and authorities arrested the three black business owners. A white mob subsequently broke into the jail, captured McDowell, Moss, and Stewart, and lynched them.

Anti-Lynching Campaign

Incensed by the murder of her friends, Wells launched an extensive investigation into lynching. She published a pamphlet in 1892 titled Southern Horrors which detailed her findings. Her reporting highlighted the stories of lynching victims that challenged white authority or were able to successfully compete with whites in business or politics. As a result of her outspokenness, a mob destroyed her office at the local newspaper and threatened to kill her. She fled Memphis determined to continue her campaign to raise awareness about lynching. Wells took her efforts to England and established the British Anti-Lynching Society.

Photo: The pamphlet "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all Its Phases"

Following her tour in England, she returned to the U.S. and settled in Chicago, Illinois. In 1895, Wells married attorney and newspaper editor Ferdinand L. Barnett. Together, the couple had four children who Ida raised while balancing her activism for human rights.

Wells-Barnett gave one of her most significant speeches on lynching in January 1900. In this speech, she poignantly challenged America’s morality and tolerance for the degradation of black humanity.

“Our watchword has been 'the land of the free and the home of the brave.' Brave men do not gather by thousands to torture and murder a single individual, so gagged and bound he cannot make even feeble resistance or defense. Neither do brave men or women stand by and see such things done without compunction of conscience, nor read of them without protest. Our nation has been active and outspoken in its endeavors to right the wrongs of the Armenian Christian, the Russian Jew, the Irish Home Ruler, the native women of India, the Siberian exile, and the Cuban patriot. Surely it should be the nation’s duty to correct its own evils!”


Ida also worked to advance other political causes. She helped launch the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896 and was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. She also actively campaigned for women’s suffrage, establishing the first Black women’s suffrage club in Chicago— the Alpha Suffrage Club. When Wells-Barnett travelled abroad, she often challenged white suffragists who refused to acknowledge lynching. As a result, she was often criticized by women’s suffrage organizations in the United States.

The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill

In 1918, with pressure from Wells-Barnett, Congressman Leonidas Dyer of Missouri first introduced his anti-lynching bill—known as the Dyer Bill —into Congress. The NAACP supported the passage of this bill from 1919 onward. The Dyer Bill was passed by the House of Representatives on January 26, 1922 and given a favorable report by the Senate Committee in July 1922. Even so, its passage was halted by a filibuster in the Senate. Efforts to pass similar legislation were not taken up again until the 1930s with the Costigan-Wagner Bill. The Dyer Bill influenced the text of anti-lynching legislation promoted by the NAACP into the 1950s, including the Costigan-Wagner Bill.

Photo: The pamphlet "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all Its Phases"

Photo: Ida with her children, 1909

If We Truly Value All Lives, Why Is This Still A Debate?

In 2020, animal cruelty is a federal crime. Yet the lynching of human beings as a federal crime is still a matter of debate among U.S. lawmakers today. The bill, called the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, was passed by the House in February 2020 by a vote of 410 to 4. It was backed by 99 Senators who urged for this change to address a crime that continues to terrorize Black Americans. However, in June 2020, the objections of a few influential lawmakers prevented the bill from becoming law.

It’s remarkable that lynching, which has a horrific legacy of targeted abuse and trauma toward Black Americans, is not yet considered a federal crime. History reveals that the divisions that continue to exist in this nation have long been centered on the inequitable treatment of Black Americans. Our laws are tied to this social construct of race, and I feel that’s why we see efforts to suppress meaningful changes to the law when it comes to matters of racial violence and justice—the same meaningful changes that Ida B. Wells-Barnett crusaded for over 100 years ago. Because of our inability as Americans to acknowledge and correct our painful history, it is my argument that her legacy remains deferred today.

Honor Ida B. Wells Today

Do you think Congress should pass the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act? Become a part of the conversation by adding your name to the Change.org petition urging Congress to pass the Anti-Lynching bill now. You can find the petition here: https://www.change.org/p/rand-paul-pass-the-anti-lynching-bill-now


Christopher Miller

Senior Director of Education & Community Engagement
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Singing an Anthem is Not Enough

Freedom Center Voices

Singing an Anthem is Not Enough

There has been a mixed response to the NFL’s recent announcement to have Lift Every Voice and Sing performed before every week 1 kickoff. It’s my opinion that performing this anthem at sporting events is a nice symbolic gesture, but it does not actively dismantle any of the structural racism that permeates nearly every sector of our society. The recent uprisings across the country are a direct response to continued systemic inequity, abuse and violence enabled by racist ideologies and policies. Deep-rooted changes are required for genuine progress.

In learning from authentic accounts, as opposed to tales of nostalgia, it’s critical for us to unpack the social need and desire for anthems. The Star-Spangled Banner has only been the national anthem for 89 years, while Lift Every Voice and Sing has been an anthem embraced by people of color for at least 111 years. Very few Americans are aware of this reality.

The Star Spangled Banner

In 1814, Francis Scott Key wrote a poem that would become the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner. Key’s poem reflected his account of the War of 1812. While the first verse of The Star-Spangled Banner is most widely known, the last three verses are generally omitted from the American consciousness. This is largely due to fact that the other verses could be interpreted as supporting slavery and white supremacy.

In 1916, a year before the U.S. entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order designating The Star-Spangled Banner as the national anthem. It was sung publicly for the first time at the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. It’s important to note that this moment happened in the midst of World War I, when there was a need to boost the morale of America’s mainstream with a unifying anthem.

The US Congress did not confirm the executive order to adopt The Star-Spangled Banner until 1931 during the Great Depression. Timing is everything. Once again, the argument could be made that this gesture was intended to boost the nation’s morale in a turbulent moment.

Knowing this history, we must ask ourselves this question today—how can Black Americans embrace an anthem tied to an exclusionary perspective of freedom?

Image: Portrait of James Weldon Johnson

Image: Portrait of James Weldon Johnson

Lift Every Voice and Sing

In comparison, the anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing holds a tone and tenor of universality and inclusion. James Weldon Johnson, an influential novelist, poet, composer, educator, diplomat, lawyer, social critic, and civil rights activist, wrote the lyrics to Lift Every Voice and Sing in 1900. Like The Star-Spangled Banner, it was initially a poem. It served as a tribute to the endurance, persistence, and restless hope for justice and equity in America.

The Story of Juneteenth

Freedom Center Voices

Image: “Emancipation of the Negroes – The Past and the Future” Harper’s Weekly. January 24, 1863. Source: National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Collections.

The Story of Juneteenth

Major General Gordon Granger and 1,800 Union troops landed in Galveston, Texas on June 18, 1865. The next day, June 19, 1865, he issued General Order, No. 3, declaring that the last remaining enslaved people in the United States were finally free.

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

—General Order, No. 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865

Why was this order needed?

You may be asking yourself, “Why was this order necessary?” After all, the Emancipation Proclamation that declared “all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free” was issued more than two years before on January 1, 1863. The United States Congress had also already passed the 13th Amendment to end slavery nearly 6 months before on January 31, 1865. And General Robert E. Lee had already surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, marking the end of the Civil War.

There are a few reasons: (1) The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free all enslaved people, (2) the United States had no means to enforce the 13th Amendment, and (3) because of Texas’ remote location, slave owners were able to maintain and enforce slavery after Lee’s surrender due to the minimal number of Union troops available to enforce emancipation.


Image: General order No. 3 of June 19, 1865, issued by General Gordon Granger to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 in the Department of Texas. Source: blackpast.org

A day to celebrate

General Order, No. 3 solidified emancipation in the United States and made way for 250,000 people still enslaved to finally gain their freedom. June 19, 1865 offered a first to African Americans—a definitive date when freedom was gained.

Imagine you and your family had suffered through 10 generations of enslavement, and experienced the trauma of watching family members being sold away from each other. Imagine punishments so severe, they nearly ended your life. Imagine being reminded every day you’re nothing but property, and constantly feeling the desire for freedom. Now, imagine the day freedom finally comes for you and your family. What would that day mean to you?  Would you remember that date?  Would you cherish and celebrate that date for generations to come? Would you use that date to continue the fight for inclusive freedom? This is what Juneteenth means to millions of African Americans across this country.

Texas Juneteenth Day Celebration, 1900. Credit: Austin History Center.

Image: Texas Juneteenth Day Celebration, 1900. Credit: Austin History Center.

Juneteenth traditions

From 1865 forward, African Americans gathered in Texas every year to honor and celebrate their freedom. These celebrations evolved into what is known today as Juneteenth, but were also referred to as 'Jubilee Day' and 'Emancipation Day' early on. African Americans were prohibited from using public spaces to celebrate Juneteenth, so they collected money to purchase land to carry on the tradition. Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas was purchased for this purpose in 1872 for $1,000.

Outdoor activities, dressing up and shared food were the three main elements of Juneteenth celebrations. Rodeos, fishing, baseball, prayer services, singing, dancing, and reciting the Emancipation Proclamation were all common activities. Guests often dressed in their finest clothing for the occasion and everyone brought food to share with others. The barbeque pit became one of the most important aspects of the day.

“More traditional and just as popular was the barbecuing, through which Juneteenth participants could share in the spirit and aromas that their ancestors—the newly emancipated African Americans, would have experienced during their ceremonies.”

–Excerpt from Juneteenth.com

Juneteenth today

Juneteenth became more than just a celebration of freedom. It became a way for families to reunite; a way for African Americans to organize politically, economically and spiritually; a way to educate and inspire future generation to come; and a way to show their pride, strength and resolve.

“Juneteenth today, celebrates African American freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures.”


From its humble beginnings in Texas, Juneteenth is now celebrated in cities and towns throughout the country.  Millions of Americans gather to experience this celebration.  In 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday. Today, 41 states either recognize or observe Juneteenth as a state holiday.


James Harrington

Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

10 Steps You Can Take to Fight for Inclusive Freedom Today

Freedom Center Voices

10 Steps You Can Take to Fight for Inclusive Freedom Today

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, many across the country are looking for ways to get involved. We at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center believe in equity and justice, and encourage everyone to take action in the fight for inclusive freedom. There are many ways to do this, but here are 10 recommendations:

1. Fight against racism and bias by understanding the biases you possess.

We are all influenced by implicit bias—zero in on your own blind spots by taking the Implicit Association Test. Find it here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html

2. Learn about the complicated history of racism in America.

A great place to start is this list: A History of Race and Racism in America, in 24 Chapters, created by the National Book Award-winning-author and professor Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi compiled this list for The New York Times Book Review, highlighting influential works about the black experience for each decade of the nation’s existence including the poems of Phillis Wheatley and Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved.

3. Combat racial inequality by supporting Black-Owned businesses in your city, state, or online.

In fact, if you are looking to buy some books to help you gain knowledge, check out this list of 12 Black-Owned Bookstores You Can Support Right Now.

4. Not a reader? Watch documentaries, tv shows and films to learn more about racial injustices.

Here is a great list: 11 Shows and Documentaries to Help You Learn About Racial Justice and Police Brutality.

5. Learn how to become an ‘Upstander,’ with the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center.

An upstander is a person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied. We can all be upstanders if we use our unique talents and characteristics in positive ways. In this time of crisis, take the museum’s VIA Character Strengths survey to determine what your top character strengths are and how you can leverage them to address challenges and make a difference. CLICK HERE to take the survey.

6. If you are able, protest.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center supports the right to protest, as it has historically proven to be the best means of communication for oppressed people. Read our full statement here.

7. Are podcasts your preferred way to absorb information? Listen to a podcast dedicated to discussing issues of racism and inequality.

Check out this list of 24 Podcasts That Confront Racism in America.

8. Sign petitions demanding change for racial violence.

For example, find the change.org petition Justice for Breonna Taylor here.

9. Urge your city, state and/or county officials to adopt recommendations for policing equity and accountability by writing letters and calling your local offices.

If you live in Cincinnati, here is a list of recommendations put together by the Cincinnati Black United Front and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center: http://www.ohiojpc.org/protests-pandemic-recommendations-equitable-cincinnati/

10. If you are able, donate to organizations fighting against social injustice on the front lines.

Here is a list of organizations from around the country: https://blavity.com/heres-a-list-of-black-organizations-you-can-donate-to-for-bailouts-and-other-protest-efforts?category1=news.

And finally, whatever you choose to do in this difficult time—do so with empathy and passion.

Special thanks to the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center for their contributions to this post.

OPINION: Reconstruction Failed in the United States. What If It Had Succeeded?

Freedom Center Voices

OPINION: Reconstruction Failed in the United States. What If It Had Succeeded?

As a white public historian who has spent years trying to understand what makes people hate, there is one thing I always go back to: what if Reconstruction succeeded in the United States?

In light of the events that have unfolded over this past weekend, I find myself wondering now more than ever, what would have happened if Reconstruction didn’t fail? Or, I should say, if the United States did not fail African Americans? If Reconstruction succeeded, if African Americans were granted rights deserved to them as human beings, if the United States would have held up their end of the bargain—would we still experience racial violence at the alarming numbers we do today? Would, in the midst of a global pandemic, we still turn on the TV and see yet another unarmed African American killed at the hands of the police?

Many Americans are taught in grade school that the Union Army won the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln ended slavery. For most of us, that is where the story ended. We learned little to nothing about the Reconstruction Amendments, the Freedman’s Bureau, and the racial violence that plagued the country for nearly 100 years following the Civil War.

For many of us, the reason the story ends there is because America is still uncomfortable with its past, and that includes discussing Reconstruction. We’re uncomfortable admitting that although we passed the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery, it still allowed for forced incarcerated labor that still exists in the country today. We’re uncomfortable admitting that although we passed the 14th amendment granting citizenship to formerly enslaved African Americans, incidents like the Wilmington, NC massacre of 1898 occurred as a reassertion of white power in the South. We’re uncomfortable admitting that although we passed the 15th amendment granting African American men the right to vote, no state in the South allowed this to occur in practice until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, nearly 95 years later.

There are many reasons why Reconstruction (1865-1877) was arguably unsuccessful in the United States. For example, President Andrew Johnson believed in states’ rights and allowed many southern states to govern themselves after the Civil War—essentially putting the slave-owning Democratic Party back in control.

Print titled "Andrew Johnson's reconstruction and how it works." In reference to Shakespeare’s 'Othello,' an African American Civil War veteran represents Othello, while Andrew Johnson is portrayed as the deceitful Iago who betrays him. Source: Library of Congress.

Print titled "Andrew Johnson's reconstruction and how it works." In reference to Shakespeare’s 'Othello,' an African American Civil War veteran represents Othello, while Andrew Johnson is portrayed as the deceitful Iago who betrays him. Source: Library of Congress.

There was also the failure of “Radical Reconstruction,” (1867-1872) a strategy developed by the Republican Party of the North aimed to fully integrate African Americans into political life throughout the South. At the time, the strategy was referred to as being “radical” (as was the Republican Party who created it) due to its underlying principle belief that African Americans deserved equal rights in the United States. During Radical Reconstruction, Southern states were required to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments before they could rejoin the Union. By 1870, all former Confederate States had returned to the Union while enacting some of the most progressive policies the region had seen in its history. This included allowing the participation of African Americans in democracy such as elections to state governments and the U.S. Congress. However, by 1867 many southern states began to push back and responded by forming white supremacy organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan to enact racial terror and intimidation. As the 1870s continued, support for reconstruction throughout the country began to wane. The combination of white intimidation, a significant economic depression in the South, and the Democratic Party winning control of the House of Representatives in 1874, resulted in Reconstruction beginning to fade away. It officially ended with the Compromise of 1876 and the removal of federal troops throughout the South.

It is my argument that Reconstruction failed in the United States and that more importantly, the United States failed African Americans. I believe this failure led to a legacy of oppression and racial violence still felt in the streets of America today, causing me to ask myself yet again: if Reconstruction, and more specifically Radical Reconstruction, would have succeeded—would America be different? If those who incited rebellion against the United States would have been punished accordingly; if reparations were recognized and honored—allowing opportunities such as land for formerly enslaved African Americans and the right to an equal education; if monuments glorifying war criminals and white supremacy were not allowed to be placed on pedestals throughout the South; if symbols of hate were destroyed and forbid for being displayed ever again in the United States—would we in 2020 still see examples of the very same institutionalized racism present in the Black Codes of Reconstruction?

History is complicated and uncomfortable, but it is important. I don’t have the answers on to how to reverse years of revisionist history, generational trauma, and white supremacy. However, I can offer some suggestions on how to move forward. Take some time to learn about our history—us as Americans—in a way you may not have before. Unfamiliar with Reconstruction, Jim Crow, or the Civil Rights era? Add some books to your summer reading list to help supplement knowledge (this article, titled “Understanding and Dismantling Racism: A Booklist for White Readers” is a great place to start). Have children that you want to introduce these topics to? Explore our Online Learning Resources, targeted for various grade levels. But above all—push yourself to learn if you are unfamiliar, and then urge others in your circle to do the same.

And lastly, when we reopen—we encourage you to visit our museum. We’ll be here to help you navigate this uncomfortable history in order to gain tools to help fight for an inclusive future.

Katie Bramell

Director of Museum Experiences
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center