Fifteenth Amendment: Educational Activities

On February 3, 1870, the United States ratified the 15th Amendment, which allowed all African American men the right to vote. The educational materials in these activities were developed around the ratification of the 15th Amendment.

This guide includes several object-inquiry activities, from which teachers can choose those that best suit their students and classroom needs. All can be done as individual, group, or full-class exercises. In each of these activities, students will be asked to consider the guiding questions and use graphic organizers to investigate primary source materials.

By exploring primary source materials around the topic of national enfranchisement of black American men through the ratification of the 15th Amendment, students will develop a better understanding of the context surrounding this important step in America’s history. They will build visual literacy and comfort with historical documents. Students will hone skills necessary to interpret historical texts and primary sources to learn how events long past continue to shape our country and world today.

Background Information

  • The 14th & 15th Amendments and the Post Civil War Climate


    Reconstruction, which began during the Civil War, had two main goals: to reincorporate the former Confederate states into the Union, and to transition the entire Southern population from slavery to freedom. President Andrew Johnson, a Southern Democrat, and the Republican-controlled Congress disagreed over what a “reconstructed” South should look like. Johnson instituted a plan for Reconstruction that put many ex-Confederates back into power in the Southern states, which had instituted Black Codes that severely restricted the rights of African Americans. By the end of 1865, Congress was so irritated with Johnson’s discriminatory policies that it seized control of Reconstruction, placed the South under military rule, and enacted new laws that empowered the federal government to implement equal rights. Johnson was impeached but avoided conviction and remained in office, although his power was greatly weakened.

    Between 1866 and 1869, Congress passed civil rights laws and the 14th and 15th Amendments in an attempt to make America a more inclusive democracy. The 14th Amendment promised all American citizens equal protection under the law, and the 15th Amendment guaranteed black men the right to vote. These initiatives encountered widespread resistance from whites in both the South and the North.

    By the 1870s public opinion began to turn against Republican policies in the South. Northerners, many of who never had a commitment to racial equality, grew tired of the endless turmoil of Southern politics. By 1876 the Democratic Party, strongly Southern and made up of many ex-Confederates, had a majority in the House of Representatives. Most of these officials wanted to eliminate the racial progress achieved during Reconstruction. Even the Supreme Court narrowed the scope of the 14th and 15th Amendments. In 1877 Pres. Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew the last of the federal troops from the South, and Reconstruction was officially over. But state and local policies known as Jim Crow Laws began, legalizing discrimination against African Americans in all facets of public life. Jim Crow Laws, upheld primarily in the South but also present in the North, were enforced for nearly a century.

The Fifteenth amendment, 1870 by Thomas Kelly

Activity 1

Decoding an Image

What did the artist think the ratification of the 15th Amendment would provide for African Americans?

Pardon and Franchise, Harper's Weekly August 5, 1865

Activity 2

Compare, Contrast, and Consider

Engaging Question: After the American Civil War, could African Americans vote?

“Of Course He Wants to Vote the Democratic Ticket!” Harpers Weekly, October 21, 1876

Activity 3

Politcal Cartoon Analysis

Did the 15th Amendment give all African American men the ability to vote?

Ticket to the Celebration in Honor of the Ratification of the 15th Amendment, Washington D.C., 1870

Activity 4

Artifact Analysis

What information can an object provide about the people, events, or time period in which it was made?

The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

The First Step to Freedom: The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

In early 2020, an an original draft of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation written in Lincoln’s own hand was on view at the NYSM. Learn more about the exhibition here.