Birthright citizenship, a legal right to citizenship for anyone born in the United States regardless of parentage, has been a hot topic in the news in the lead up to 2018 mid-terms. This right is guaranteed under the constitution, so debate about whether this right can be revoked by an Executive Order issued by the president is a distraction.
The historical context for this constitutional right however offers us all an important teachable moment. The origins of birthright citizenship are rooted in slavery. In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled that Dred Scott, an enslaved man suing for his freedom, was not an American citizen (slaves were property, not people), and therefore had no right to sue anyone in federal court.
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1865 after the Civil War, abolished slavery, but offered little clarity on the status of formerly enslaved persons as citizens of the United States. The 14th Amendment passed during the Reconstruction era in 1868 defined a legal right to citizenship for anyone born in the United States regardless of parentage and offered protections for various civil rights that come with citizenship. Birthright citizenship as defined in the 14th Amendment essentially made black people citizens of this country.
The majority of my ancestors prior to the Civil War lived in this country enslaved. So while their ancestry in America stretched back hundreds of years prior to their births, none were considered citizens of this country because they were property. The 14th amendment changed this for them, for us as their descendants.
I also have many ancestors who, prior to the Civil War, lived in this country as free people of color and were relegated to quasi-citizenship status. They were counted as citizens in census records, but were forced to live in an era of oppressive “black laws” passed by southern state legislatures which severely restricted their rights as citizens and were driven by growing white fears that the free colored population would grow and over-run the free white population and triggered by historical events like the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831. The 14th amendment offered them protections to their rights as citizens.
Here are examples I have uncovered of my ancestors’ fight for full citizenship in this country.
My great-great-great grandfather W B Harvell, born enslaved around 1828, served as a Republican delegate for the state of North Carolina during Reconstruction. This 1868 article identifies him as one of five appointed to draft formal resolutions following the North Carolina 1868 Constitutional Convention. Resolution four reads, “That we go into the coming contest in this County and State, with full confidence in the soundness and justice of our cause, (which is the restoration of our State to the Union on a loyal basis,) with a resolute purpose to achieve a victory worthy of the name of freeman.” Of all I’ve uncovered on him through my research, it’s become very clear to me that he emerged out of slavery as a leader within his freedman community. That he could go from being enslaved to participating in the state constitutional convention on behalf of his community in a span of 3 short years is truly remarkable to me. Reading this article makes me proud to be his descendant.
My great-great-great grandfather Exum White, born a free person of color in Suffolk, VA in 1830, was a leader with the Negro Industrial and Agricultural Society (NIAS). This article details how the NIAS led a fight against the Virginia Constitution of 1902 which disenfranchised large numbers of blacks from voting by, among other things, requiring a poll tax and implementing an “understanding clause” which required black citizens wishing to register to vote to explain any section of the state constitution at the demand of an all white registration board. The plan outlined is truly remarkable. It is inspiring beyond words to read about how one of my ancestors was leading this fight, 50 years before the start of the civil rights movement.
During the Jim Crow Era in America, poll taxes continued as a device for restricting black voting rights. Blacks were required to pay a poll tax to be eligible to vote. Here is a list of Colored Poll Tax Payers for Suffolk VA dated November 5, 1927. The list includes my great-great grandparents Jenkins Sharp born enslaved in 1861 in Harrellsville, Hertford County, North Carolina and Martha Hall (Sharp) born in 1868 to free people of color in Winton, Hertford County, North Carolina. The poll tax list also includes my great-great grand uncle Fenton Peele. My ancestors organized themselves and their community to inspire civic consciousness and preserve their right to vote in the face of discriminatory laws and taxes.
If your ancestors were ever not counted as citizens in this country, had to fight for the right to be full citizens of this country and for the right to vote, you have an obligation to vote. Each time I exercise my right to vote, I’m voting for my ancestors. Each time I exercise my right to vote, I’m honoring them and I am doing my part to protect the full citizenship of my descendants. Don’t be distracted. Get out and vote, Tuesday November 6th.