Maryland Votes: Historic Places Tell the Story of The Struggle For Suffrage

11/03/2020
By Nicholas A. Redding

As Marylanders head to the polls, election day provides an opportunity to look back and reflect on the long struggle for universal suffrage – the right of all citizens to vote – and here in the Old Line State, that story is recorded in countless historic places and buildings.

white male property owners and no others

The story of voting and elections in Maryland goes back beyond the founding of the nation to the earliest days of the colony and even before to the native peoples who practiced a form of democratic governance and which has been recognized with providing a foundation for our own constitution.

At the very beginning of European habitation and settlement, only white male property owners were enfranchised with the vote. Margaret Brent is widely recognized as the first Marylander to object to this arrangement when she appeared before the colonial legislature in 1648 and asked the governor and assembly to admit her with two votes, one as a landowner and one as Lord Baltimore’s attorney. History records that she was denied both. Places like Historic St. Mary’s City provide an intimate and physical connection to this earliest form of self-determination in Maryland and the story of Brent and others of her generation. It was here that the earliest written record of voting in Maryland was recorded.

a new republic – an expanding franchise

The long march towards full, universal suffrage was not a steady progression but a story filled with advances and retreats. Take, for example, the fact that in 1649, Maryland’s colonial assembly passed the landmark Religious Toleration Actbut then in 1718 – the colony abandoned that approach and stripped Roman Catholics of their right to vote.

After the fledgling nation emerged from the revolution and established the new constitution, it would take nearly another two decades before Maryland dropped the property ownership requirement for white male voting (1802). It was not until 1825 that Maryland granted Jewish males the right to hold elected office – the result of the so-called “Jew Bill” championed by Washington County legislator Thomas Kennedy. Kennedy’s advocacy for the bill is honored today with a statue dedicated in 2019 in his native Hagerstown, Maryland.

Thomas Kennedy statue in Hagerstown, MD.

While white male voting rights expanded during the early republic, women and Black people were continually denied the right, and free Blacks were stripped of their right to vote in Maryland, and most other southern states, after a short period in which they were extended the franchise.

from the ashes of war comes more ballots

As the nation emerged from the carnage of Civil War, the US Congress passage of the 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution expanded the ballot to African Americans. The right that was guaranteed in those amendments was quickly subverted – with nearly a century of suppression keeping many black citizens from the polls until the modern Civil Rights era.

In Maryland, Jacob Francis Wheaton, who lived in the Jonathan Street community, is largely believed to be the first African American to vote after the Civil War when he casted his vote in the Hagerstown Mayoral Election of 1868. In 1897, he became the first African-American to sit on a petit jury in Washington County and was also the first African American court officer in Washington County, serving as a bailiff from the 1890s to 1924. Wheaton was also an advocate for the creation of a high school for African-American youth in Washington County. His home still stands, and today, the park at the center of the community bears his name as testament to the power of the ballot.

The struggle for true, free and open, Black suffrage in Maryland was hard-fought and not entirely secured until the 1960s, with the work continuing to the present when in 2016 the state overturned its long-time prohibition on convicted felons who completed their sentences from voting.

Baltimore Heritage, which completed an in-depth study of civil rights’ history in that city, has developed a detailed map of the sites associated with this struggle along with a website containing a full contextual history.

women earn the ballot

On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was signed into law and officially granted twenty million American women the right to vote. This mass expansion in voting rights was the result of over 70 years of intense activism driven by the hard work and commitment of a nationwide pool of women of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, including thousands of Marylanders.

Maryland’s suffragists played an important role in the passage of the 19th Amendment. Even though the Maryland legislature failed to ratify the suffrage amendment at the time, the women’s suffrage movement had a powerful impact on the state. Mass activism by suffragists throughout Maryland permanently changed the social and political roles of women by bringing them into new spheres of civic and political engagement. Regrettably, in Maryland, as in many states, the suffrage movement itself was also segregated, but despite the odds Black women suffragists played a critical role and used the experience to hone their capacity for organizing and advocacy on behalf of their rights.

Learn more about Maryland Suffragists on our Ballot and Beyond podcast

Although full female enfranchisement, which often overlooked and did include Black women, would come in 1920 — there are several examples of female suffrage at the municipal level in the state prior to the passage of the 19th amendment. In Still Pond, Maryland, today a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, women of Maryland cast their first ballots in 1908 – 12 years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Residents such as Anna Baker Maxwell, Jane Clark Howard, and Lillie Deringer Kelley voted in the local election. That year, the town recognized the suffrage rights of women over the age of 21. Fourteen women were registered, including two African Americans. The town later repealed this rule, and women were once again left without the vote until 1920.

voting houses & ballot boxes

The physical vestiges of voting live on across Maryland’s historic landscape — from election houses to battered and worn ballot boxes. Maryland State Historic Preservation Officer Elizabeth Hughes recently explained, “On [election day] Marylanders will cast votes in public places ranging from schools, community centers, and libraries to churches, fire houses, and office buildings. In years past, private homes, stores, and purpose-built polling houses also helped meet this need. Today, the handful of polling houses that survive speak volumes about how local communities have long valued their right and duty to vote on Election Day.”

One of the more unique and recently restored voting houses is located in Sang Run State Park in Garrett County. According to the Maryland Historical Trust,

The Sang Run Election House’s historic significance to the area could be best characterized by an anecdote from a bygone election: While counting ballots some officials wanted to declare a winner, another official halted the declaration by reminding them that the votes from Sang Run had not arrived yet.  Evidently, the voting power of the area was substantial!  Residents’ feeling for the Sang Run Election House was emphasized during the restoration project by the constant arrival of folks who talked about their memories of the building, expressing their appreciation of its being preserved.  Several people remembered casting their first ballot in the building. Many others remember, as children, going on Election Day, so their parents could vote.

Vote and Make History!

Like every generation before us, each of us have the opportunity to vote and shape the future of our nation. Casting a ballot – whether it be in a voting house or a high school gymnasium –your vote is historic and will be remembered and counted for years to come.

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Nicholas A. Redding · Executive Director

Nicholas A. Redding is Preservation Maryland’s Executive Director and between announcing major organizational updates, he often blogs about Maryland and Civil War history.

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