*This post is part of our roundtable on “Contested Citizenship,” organized in collaboration with the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at the MacMillan Center at Yale University.
Though born in Baltimore sixty-two years earlier, in January 1869 George Hackett was a new citizen when he headed to Washington, D.C. for the National Convention of Colored Men of America. Dozens of delegates there would demand constitutional protection for Black voting rights. Before the week was over, Hackett was standing before members of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee as a member of a delegation demanding just that. Hackett knew how far he had traveled to arrive at this day, from scuffles in the local politics of Baltimore, to legislative battles at the Maryland state capital, and finally to efforts that led to changing the text of the U.S. Constitution. For Hackett, citizenship was made rather than conferred.
I first encountered George Hackett during my research into pre-Civil War Black citizenship: a native Baltimorean, a naval steward, a coal dealer, an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church deacon, and a champion of Black civil rights. He made his home in a city which sat on the middle ground between North and South, slavery and free soil, with a port that opened onto the Atlantic World. In my 2018 book, Birthright Citizens, Hackett’s life was a guide through the early decades during which Black Americans claimed to be citizens despite lawmakers who bungled nearly every opportunity to affirm that. Hackett lived in a harrowing legal limbo in which Black laws shackled everyday life and colonization schemes threatened banishment. Hackett looked to citizenship as a bulwark against these threats, an idea that took center stage in national debates years later.
This essay picks up the story of Hackett’s life at a fateful moment in 1860. It then follows Hackett as he moved between local struggles in Maryland and the new, national politics of Reconstruction. His efforts did not begin with the Civil War and slavery’s abolition, nor did his citizenship originate with the acts of public officials. Instead, citizenship was rooted in local claims to belonging, countless smaller acts that reflected the dreams and desires of formerly enslaved people and their descendants. Spending time in the deliberations of conventions and legislatures, we might miss how men like Hackett had always known they were citizens, and then made that manifest.
In winter 1860, Hackett was tested. Maryland proposed new Black laws that aimed to eliminate free Black people from the state. Either Black Americans would be enslaved or exiled beyond its borders. From Baltimore, Hackett promoted a petition that opposed the bill. We know what happened next from recollections recorded by an assistant librarian at the Library of Congress, Daniel Murray. Upon arriving at the state capital in Annapolis, Hackett “proceeded to the door of the Legislative chambers.” The bill’s proponent, delegate Curtis Jacobs, “confronted Mr. Hackett and with violent gestures inquired how dare he a negro bring a petition to the Legislature in opposition to a bill proposed by a white member?” This was, for Jacobs, an up-ending of the political order and he “without much more ado lurched a blow at Mr. Hackett.” Murray paints a raucous scene, but still Hackett managed to be part of defeating the threatening legislation.
Hackett and Jacobs finally did talk, meeting privately in Baltimore. Hackett recounted his early life, including his service aboard the U.S.S. Constitution and operation of a livery stable. In those years, Hackett explained, he had employed a white bookkeeper who had gone on to become “a very prominent gentleman, holding office and highly respected.” Jacobs, in turn, defended his bill: If it passed, “the negro would be much better provided for than he is now.” He was a slaveholder who knew what was “right” for Black people and argued that the Bible provided that “all the colored race should be slaves.”
Hackett countered with his own reading of the Bible: Black people were not destined to be enslaved. But he had come to talk politics and stood as a “representative of 90,000 freeman” in Maryland “who were recognized by the law of God and man as being free.” Hackett insisted that Jacobs respect “his constitutional and legal rights.” The terms of the troubling bill had been a violation of principles that Hackett deemed unalienable. For the legislature to enslave or remove him would have been “a great wrong and injustice.” Too few lawmakers might have concurred, but Hackett did not shy away from the claim that he and all Black Americans were citizens.1,” Weekly Anglo African, March 24, 1860.]
By 1861, the Civil War had divided white Marylanders. The state remained in the Union, but some young men fought for the Confederacy and more sympathized with secession. Hackett recruited Black men to the Union Navy, echoing his service twenty-five years earlier. When, in April 1864, Maryland’s 39th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops visited Baltimore, Hackett led the brigade “mounted upon a white charger, dressed in full military costume, commanding this regiment.” This was no modest display: “They marched, not through the back streets, lanes and alleys, but through the main, the fashionable, and the most aristocratic streets of the city.” Minister J.P. Campbell remarked that it was a “miracle” to witness: “A regiment of colored soldiers, commanded by black officers, marching through the streets.” The scene proclaimed that a new political order had arrived.2
Lawmakers abolished slavery—in Maryland in 1864 and nationally in 1865. But as a Union-allied border state, Maryland avoided the scrutiny to which Congress subjected the Confederate states. Black Americans like Hackett were left to assume their citizenship despite a tenuous legal foothold. Hackett led locally, but also brought Baltimore’s Black politics to a national stage. He headed to Washington, D.C., on April 20, 1865 to pay respects to the slain President Abraham Lincoln. As lead marshal, Hackett led the funeral procession’s “colored division” which was dominated by fraternal orders and churches from Baltimore. Still, their position—segregated at the rear—was a lesson in the work that remained to be done.3
Also in Washington, Congress was at work crafting the architecture of a new inter-racial democracy. Between 1865 and 1870, three Constitutional amendments wrote Black citizenship into the nation’s founding text. Back in Baltimore, Hackett was writing a local story of citizenship during scores of public gatherings of the Colored Odd Fellows, the AME Church, Black militias such as the Winter Davis Guard, and the Colored Republicans. Some white Baltimoreans judged Hackett to be out of bounds. Still, he aimed to change law and policy there such as in a July 1868 demand that the city provide schools for Black students and hire Black teachers.4
When it came to voting rights, Baltimoreans remained disenfranchised like many in the border states and a coalition emerged. In June 1868, hosted by Hackett in Baltimore, the “Convention of Border State Colored Republicans” met. They demanded changes to the “unrepublican” state constitutions that disenfranchised “150,000 voters on account of their color only.” It was an astute intervention that recognized how federal officials, intent on reforming the former Confederacy, gave too little attention to Black rights in the loyal slaveholding states of the upper South.
Delegates to the Border State Convention ended by calling for a national convention that would remedy “the partial or total exclusion of colored citizens from the exercise of the elective franchise and other citizen rights.” The result—the January 1869 National Convention of Colored Men of America—was unlike any other such meeting. Delegates arrived from the North, West, and the South: Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Maryland sent twenty-four men, Hackett among them.
The convention put Congress on notice: The “duty of a liberty-loving and a loyal Congress is to see that a Republican form of government is guaranteed to every state. That it is not guaranteed while any State is permitted to withhold from citizens, on account of color merely, the rights of citizens.” It was time then to lobby and smaller delegations readied to confront lawmakers including the House Judiciary Committee; the Senate Committee on Military Affairs; and President-Elect Ulysses Grant and Speaker of the House and Vice President-Elect Schuyler Colfax. Hackett was among the nine men who called on House members and made the case for a Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Isaiah Weir from Philadelphia spoke for them. They had come to “claim, from this nation, protection in the exercise of all political rights belonging to us as American citizens.”5
Weir invoked the Declaration of Independence. They were prepared “to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the law of nature and nature’s God entitle them.” He drew upon the Constitution. “We, the people” had delegated to the federal government the obligation to “secure the blessings of liberty” for all Americans. During the war, Black men had “performed their duties as citizens and soldiers.” Voting rights, once controlled by the states, must now be a matter of federal concern. A state might reject Black men as voters, but Congress was obligated to override it. This was, in Weir’s view, the obligation which the Thirteenth Amendment’s promise of freedom and the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship required. “Suffrage cannot be extended as a gratuity.”
Weir and Hackett’s delegation extracted assurances from the chair of the Judiciary Committee, and in a matter of weeks, Congress sent the proposed Fifteenth Amendment to the states for ratification. President Grant endorsed the change. States in New England and the Midwest came on board easily. Ratification was the key to readmission for those Confederate states that remained out of the Union: Virginia, Mississippi, Texas and Georgia quickly approved. Hackett’s home state, Maryland, rejected the Fifteenth Amendment, and Congress could not compel it to do otherwise. Still, on March 30, 1870 the Amendment became law.
Hackett ensured that Black Baltimoreans would have the last word on what the Fifteenth Amendment meant. In the first weeks of April, he was among those in “Republican” meetings who made sense of the Amendment in Maryland. A news report captured his words: “Now the colored man was entitled to all the rights and privileges enjoyed by white men in the State and the United States.” Still, there remained work to be done before Black men cast ballots and Hackett appeared ready. Then, sadly, one week later, he died. George Hackett was 61 years old.
Hackett was buried only after Black Baltimoreans filled the city streets in his honor with a procession that mirrored the “colored division” that had paid tribute to Lincoln not so many years before. And then, much in the spirit of how Hackett had understood citizenship to be an interplay of the local and the national, the Fifteenth Amendment came to his city. On May 19, Baltimore hosted a celebration of the Amendment that was larger than any other in the country. Among the banners that flew was that of the “Drednaught Association” that remembered “Captain George W. Hackett.” Hackett’s friend and former Baltimorean, Frederick Douglass, was a featured speaker. “You are not indebted to Maryland for the franchise,” he told the crowd of 20,000. Black Americans had wrought their own citizenship. “Build on for those who come after you,” he urged. With that, Douglass passed Hackett’s torch to a next generation.6
- “The Colored Population. Important Bills Before Maryland Legislature,” Sun, February 2, 1860. “The Colored Population,” Sun, February 8, 1860. “Legislative Acts/Legal Proceedings,” Annapolis Gazette, February 9, 1860. “The Legislature and the Colored People,” Sun, February 9, 1860. “Letter from State Capital,” Sun, February 11, 1860. “The Colored Population. Report of the Committee of the House of Delegates,” Sun, February 14, 1860. “Legislative Acts/Legal Proceedings,” Sun, February 15, 1860. “House of Delegates,” Sun, February 16, 1860. “The Free Colored Population,” Sun, February 17, 1860. Delphic, Weekly Anglo-African, February 18, 1860. Sun, “The Free Colored Population,” Sun, February 20, 1860. “Legislative Acts/Legal Proceedings,” Sun, February 25, 1860. Weekly Anglo African, February 25, 1860. “Legislative Acts/Legal Proceedings,” Sun, February 27, 1860. Weekly Anglo African, March 3, 1860. “Legislative Acts/Legal Proceedings,” Sun, March 7, 1860. “Legislative Acts/Legal Proceedings,” Sun, March 8, 1860. Weekly Anglo African, March 10, 1860. “Our Baltimore Letter [March 15, 1860 ↩
- “Baltimore Correspondence,” Christian Recorder, April 16, 1864. “Local Matters. Laying of a Church Cornerstone,” Sun, August 21, 1865. “Black Republicans at the Douglass Institute,” American, May 7, May 15, May 21, 1868. ↩
- “The Funeral. A Solemn Day. Impressive Features. The Immense Procession,” Sun, April 20, 1865. ↩
- “Large Demonstration of Colored Odd Fellows,” Sun, October 7, 1865. “The Winter Davis Guards,” Sun, August 6, 1867. “Colored Mass Meeting,” Sun, July 1, 1868. ↩
- Proceedings of the National Convention of the Colored Men of America, held in Washington, D.C., on January 13, 14, 15 and 16, 1869 (Washington, D.C.: n.p., 1869). ↩
- “Funeral of the Late George A. Hackett,” The New Era, April 28, 1870. “The Late Geo. A. Hackett, Esq.,” Christian Recorder, May 7, 1870. “The Fifteenth Amendment Ratification Celebration in Baltimore,” Sun, May 20, 1870. “The Fifteenth Amendment. The Grand Celebration Thursday. A Day of Jubilee,” Baltimore American, May 20, 1870. ↩