On 22 October 1867, African American men cast votes for the first time in Virginia; this significant event was recorded in poll books in counties and cities across the state. After the Civil War, Congress passed the 14th Amendment which, among other things, provided citizenship for freedmen and women born in the United States, guaranteed them equal protection under the law, and included provisions protecting the right to vote for male citizens over the age of twenty-one. The Virginia General Assembly failed to ratify this amendment, and as a result, Virginia was placed under federal military rule. Under the provisions of the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, it was necessary for the states of the old Confederacy to call conventions to draft new state constitutions. The commander of the Military District No. 1, to which Virginia belonged, registered male citizens twenty-one years of age or older and supervised the election that asked voters to vote for or against a convention to draft a new constitution and also to elect delegates to the convention, if held. The call for convention was approved and twenty-four African American men were elected as delegates to the constitutional convention. Over 93,000 African American men participated in this election and as each voter arrived at his polling place, his name was dutifully recorded in the poll book for that district.
The poll books for 1867, part of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Military Rule Election Records collection (Acc. 50706), consist of lists of the names of registered voters polled in voting districts throughout the state who participated in this historic election. The names are listed alphabetically by first letter of the surname (though last names are not generally listed alphabetically beyond this first letter), with separate lists for white and African American voters. While it would be gratifying enough just to know that your forefather took part in this momentous election, these poll books also allow genealogists who are researching their African American roots to place ancestors in a geographic location directly after the Civil War and prior to the 1870 census. And, if you are lucky enough to have ancestors from Mathews County, the poll books will also provide the age, occupation and birthplace of the voter (if only all of the poll books contained this additional information!). Please note that poll books are not extant for all localities, so see the finding aid for a comprehensive list of available lists.
The 1867 African American poll books are currently being scanned and The Library of Virginia is excited to make these digital images available in Making History: Transcribe. With this crowd-sourcing project we ask volunteers to transcribe these voter lists, which will allow us to provide keyword searching for all the names included. Once transcribed, the digitized and indexed records will be available and searchable in Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative as part of an ongoing effort to offer greater access to often difficult to find African American history and genealogy. This endeavor was announced at the recent African American genealogy conference held at the Library in September of this year and we have been so pleased with the enthusiastic response to transcribe these documents, but we continue look for volunteers to help make these records more accessible. If you are interested in volunteering your time for this project (or any of our other available transcription projects), please browse items in the collection to see which documents need work. We appreciate your help and will be adding more records as they are scanned, so please check back often!
-Paige Neal, State Records Archivist