Monday, May 6, 2019

Impassioned Speech Led to African American Voting Rights

Photo of Mr. William H. Grey, courtesy of
the Persistence of the Spirit Collection
at the Arkansas State Archives.
At the end of the Civil War, the nation was confronted with the question of how to readmit Southern states into the Union. This long process of answering that question and reintegrating the South was called Reconstruction.

Reconstruction pitted those who wished the South to be readmitted with little change to their pre-war political structure against those who hoped the process would bring lasting change. In Arkansas, those differing forces came to a head in 1868.

Arkansas began Reconstruction in 1863, after the capture of Little Rock by Union forces. In 1864, Arkansans met in a convention to ratify a new constitution. Other than the abolishment of slavery, the new constitution made few changes from the state’s pre-war constitution. One of the most striking parts of the new constitution was it extended voting rights only to white men, which left out the possibility of African American voting rights.

The U.S. Congress took control of Reconstruction in 1867, after the impeachment of U.S. President Andrew Johnson, and stringently demanded more political change in the South. Lawmakers, led by Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, required Southern states to write new state constitutions extending voting rights to African Americans. Seventy delegates met in Little Rock to write a new constitution in January 1868. Among those delegates was William H. Grey of Helena, Arkansas.

Grey was born to free African American parents in 1829 in Washington, D.C. In the 1850s, he worked as a servant in the house of Virginia Gov. Henry A. Wise. Wise often took Grey to the Capitol, where Grey undoubtedly learned the art of politics.

After Gen. Sterling Price captured Little Rock in 1863, Grey moved to Helena where he established a farm, practiced law and became a minister in a Helena church. Grey became involved in the Republican Party and quickly became one of its leaders.

In 1867, Grey became a delegate to Arkansas’s constitutional convention and was the leading African American voice in the convention. Among the eight African American delegates at the convention, six had been born slaves, which made their presence in the convention all the more poignant.

On the other side of the political aisle was a group of men, many of whom were Confederate veterans who were opposed to a number of the Republican-backed laws. They were led by Jesse N. Cypert, a Confederate veteran from White County who had been a delegate to the 1864 Constitutional Convention and the Secession Convention in 1861.

As the convention progressed through the winter of 1868, it became clear that one of the major issues was voting rights. Grey’s camp was intent on excluding Arkansas’s former Confederate government officers and politicians from the voting rolls, while including African Americans on those rolls. Cypert’s faction called for voting rights to be extended to white men only.  

Days after the opening of the convention, Cypert demanded the formal acceptance of the already established 1864 Constitution. To do otherwise, he asserted, would be to abolish “white man’s government of our fathers, and an erection of an Africanized government in its stead.”  Cypert proposed an ordinance to accept the 1864 Constitution and end the convention.

Grey, the de facto leader of African American delegates in the convention, denounced Cypert’s ordinance. Grey began his address by expressing shock that Cypert would offer such an ordinance. “Now, sir, who having stood by the government and the old flag in times of trouble,” he continued, “for this and other considerations we are here not to ask charity at the hands of the honorable body, but to receive, at the hands of the people of Arkansas in convention assembled, the proportionment of our rights… I am here, sir, to see those rights of citizenship engrafted in the organic law of this state.”
Grey argued equal rights were owed to African Americans. “We are here, sir, to receive the amount due us as citizens of the United States and the State of Arkansas, and we are content,” Grey said.  His speech, which was successful, was possibly the first time an African American voice was heard in Arkansas politics.

On Jan. 17, the convention rejected Cypert’s ordinance by a vote of 53 to 10. Following the rejection of Cypert’s ordinance, the convention passed a new constitution. The Constitution of 1868 was a revolutionary document that allowed African American men the right to vote.

After the convention, Grey remained in public life, serving as Commissioner of Immigration and State Lands and later as an assistant U.S. assessor. He died in Helena in 1888, leaving a lasting mark on Arkansas politics with his impassioned speech on behalf of African American voting rights.

For more information about Arkansas history, visit the Arkansas State Archives at 1 Capitol Mall, Suite 215, or call 501-682-6900. Information is also available at