Fifteenth Amendment Ratification Celebration in Portsmouth, Ohio

Allen Chapel of the AME Church Hosts Integrated Celebration in 1870

The ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 marked the culmination of a decades long struggle to end slavery and establish a new national republic that guaranteed equal rights to all its citizens, regardless of their "race, color, or their previous condition of servitude." The right to vote, guaranteed to African American men through the Fifteenth Amendment, was thought to be the capstone in a renovated representative democracy, one where racial discrimination was no longer the law of the land. The Fifteenth wrapped up the business first begun with the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for criminal violations of the law.  The Fifteenth Amendment was meant to establish true equality by opening elections and public office to African American men.

On Wednesday, the 27th of April 1870, a coalition of white and black residents turned out for a celebration hosted by Allen Chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. With ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, there was much to celebrate for those who had long championed the cause of equal rights in Portsmouth, Ohio. The gathering was a who's who of the old local abolition movement, which following the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment had become what today is recognized as the Civil Rights Movement. Many of those in attendance had been involved in local politics, the abolition movement, and the Underground Railroad as far back as the 1820s.

The host congregation of the program -- Allen Chapel -- had been intimately tied to the Underground Railroad, with many of its members engaged in the secretive work, tracing their church's roots to 1837, when African American Methodists began meeting on their own in the old Wheeler Academy building on Market Street. In 1868, the congregation purchased the old Methodist Spencer Chapel on Seventh Street, between Chillicothe and Gay Streets. This church structure originally had been built in 1853 by the city's German Methodist society and was named for Rev. R. A. Spencer, who had donated the lot on Seventh Street.  In 1868, Spencer Chapel was re-dedicated as Allen Chapel in honor of the Rev. Richard Allen, who is remembered as the founder of the AME Church. This was the location of Portsmouth's celebration of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment.

As the congregation grew and the city's black residential area of the city shifted northward, above the railroad tracks into what is now known as the North End, the location of Allen Chapel would move, as well. In 1920, the congregation built their present structure at Twelfth and Waller streets. 

The Portsmouth Tribune, a Republican party affiliated newspaper, reported on the Ratification Celebration, providing both a description of the chapel's decorations and the crowd that had assembled. Their detailed description was republished in the columns of the Portsmouth Daily Times and read as follows:

"The colored people of Portsmouth together with a number of their white friends, held a ratification jubilee on Monday evening last in Allen Chapel. The room was handsomely decorated with flags and portraits of John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, Grant and Colfax. John Cooper, (colored) was called to the chair, and G.W. Holland, (colored) appointed Secretary. The meeting was opened with singing by the choir, led by Mrs. Weaver and music on the organ by Miss Steele, followed by prayer by Rev. Jas. Mitchell, of Bigelow Chapel. The proclamation was then read by Miss Lizzy Baker (colored). The speaking was limited to twenty minutes each, and Milton Kennedy, the old Free Soiler, who has held on through evil as well as good report, opened with a very effective and appropriate speech. Remarks were then made in succession by Wm. E. Ross, (colored), H. W. Farnham, Capt. Isaac Fullerton, Hon. E. Glover, Rev. P. Tolliver, (colored), Rev. Summonds and Judge Searl. A song entitled 'The Colored Volunteer' was sung by Wm. E. Ross, the audience joining in the chorus. After the speaking, all united in singing 'John Brown's body lies mouldering in the tomb.' The colored folk were out en mass, men, women, and children, and the whites were sandwitched [sic] among them, all enthused with the spirit of the occasion. The celebration was a pleasant success. Everything was done with decency and in order, and no word spoken calculated to reflect upon political opponents."

John Cooper, a longtime member and trustee of Allen Chapel, served as the presiding officer of the program. At the time, Cooper managed a popular restaurant in the Biggs House on Front Street, Portsmouth's most luxurious hotel. In 1875, Cooper would open his own restaurant on Second Street in what was then known as the Huston Stone Front, but which had been originally built by Milton Kennedy in 1853.

A community choir was directed by a Mrs. Weaver, while a Miss Steele played on the Chapel's organ. "The old Free Soiler" Kennedy had been Portsmouth's most outspoken abolitionist, who, along with his brother-in-law Joseph Ashton, assisted runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. William E. Ross, another Civil War veteran, who led the singing of "The Colored Volunteer" would soon become Portsmouth's first African American city council member, when elected in 1894. The other speakers included black and white ministers, veterans, and other elected officials, most notably, Judge F. C. Searl of the Scioto County Probate Court, and the Honorable Elijah Glover, who then represented Scioto County in the Ohio House of Representatives.

Searl had been first elected Probate Judge in 1860 and served multiple terms. During the Civil War he served as the Chairman of the Military Committee of Scioto County, supervising the enlistment of volunteers. And, according to Nelson W. Evans, the noted Scioto County historian, Searl had been an abolitionist since the age of eight years old and as "a friend of the negroes, he believed in recruiting them for service and did so. He put them into service and secured them bounties from $150 for single men to $250 for married men."

Elijah Glover is often remembered as the founding editor of the Portsmouth Courier (what in time became the Portsmouth Tribune). He had a long career in Portsmouth politics, beginning as a Whig and then as a Republican. In early 1870, when the Ohio Legislature voted on the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, Glover turned out to be one of the critical votes that had ensured its adoption. The amendment passed by one vote.

When news of Ohio's ratification first broke, James Newman, the editor of the Portsmouth Times, the city's Democratic Party alligned newspaper, penned an editorial that credited Scioto County with its ratification. As the leader of the local Democratic Party and his party's candidate who had recently lost the election to Elijah Glover, Newman blamed ratification in Ohio on his own electoral defeat, demonstrating just how closely divided local residents were on the question of equal rights for African Americans. Glover had won the race by a mere twenty-three votes.

Newman told his readers: “Scioto County is responsible for the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment upon the part of Ohio.  The vote of the member from this county, in the House of Representatives, decided its fate. The change of one vote would have made the result a tie, and thereby defeated the ratification. Twenty-three votes in this county would have turned the scale. We can call the names of more than that many Democrats in Scioto county who did not vote at the last election. They can certainly never forgive themselves for this inexcusable dereliction of duty. Let this fact be a warning in the future, and prompt every Democrat never to forego exercising the right to the ballot.”

Ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment may have marked a new era for Ohio and the larger United States, but it did not mark the end of the struggle for equality and voting rights. The supporters of civil rights that gathered in Allen Chapel would go on to fight racial segregation and other forms of what became known as Jim Crow discrimination.


Nelson W. Evans, A History of Scioto County, Ohio, Together with a Pioneer Record of Southern Ohio (Portsmouth, Ohio, 1902): 299-301.

"Responsible," Portsmouth Times (5 February 1870).

"The Fifteenth Amendment in Portsmouth:  Grand Ratification and Speeches by White and Colored Speakers!," Portsmouth Times (30 April 1870).