What Is the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution?

American democracy voting poll

While you research your ancestors, take time to learn about local, regional, and national laws that may have affected their lives. One example is the 15th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which affected the lives of African Americans freed from slavery in 1865.

What Is the 15th Amendment?

The 15th amendment, ratified in 1870 after vigorous debate, gave male citizens of the United States of America the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (slavery).


What Was the Purpose of the 15th Amendment?

Following the American Civil War, the United States Congress debated the rights of formerly enslaved persons and passed three amendments designed to recognize their civil rights. The 13th Amendment, passed in 1865, abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment, passed in 1866, guaranteed citizenship and equal protection under the law regardless of race. The 15th Amendment acknowledged the right of formerly enslaved men to vote.

How Did the Amendment Affect Our Ancestors Living in the United States?

During the 1870s and 1880s, the 15th Amendment allowed African American men to vote and be elected to public office. The estimate is that during this period nearly 500,000 African American men voted, with 16 serving in Congress and 2,000 more who served in local, state, and federal position.

Unfortunately, the language of the amendment was too narrow, and when federal troops left the area after the Reconstruction period, measures were taken to keep African Americans in some states from voting. These measures included poll taxes (a per-person tax that had to be paid annually for two years for a person to be allowed to vote), literacy tests and tests about state constitutions, white-male-only primary elections, intimidation, violence, and segregation. By 1892, only 6 percent of African American men of voting age were registered to vote, down from more than 90 percent during the preceding two decades.

Mosaic of illustrated images related to the 15th Amendment.

Strengthening and Reinforcing the 15th Amendment

During the 20th century, the United States Supreme Court began to strike down unconstitutional laws aimed at restricting African Americans from voting. For example, the court struck down the white primary system in a series of decisions starting in 1927 and ending in 1953. Other judicial decisions ended literacy tests and other voting restrictions.

Finally, during civil rights marches and protests during the 1960s, voting rights were reinforced. In 1964, the 24th Amendment was passed prohibiting poll taxes. In 1965—100 years after the end of the American Civil War—the Voting Act of 1965 was passed, strengthening and reinforcing the right of African Americans to vote. As a result, by the end of 1965, there were 250,000 new African American voters. The Voting Act of 1965 was strengthened again in 1970, 1975, and 1982.

Seeking Your Ancestors

As you search for African American ancestors, keep in mind the impact that the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments had on your ancestors’ lives, and share what you find in the FamilySearch Family Tree. For more information on the subject, see 13th Amendment, 14th Amendment, 15th Amendment, 24th Amendment, Voting Act of 1965, and voting in the segregated South.

You can find more information about finding records of your African American ancestors on the FamilySearch Wiki and FamilySearch Blog:

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