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African Americans and the Vote 2020: The First African American to Vote

A graphic of several notable African American leaders.

(Courtesy graphic)

Graphic illustration

(Courtesy Graphic)

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- Born October 6, 1824 in Metuchen, New Jersey, Thomas Mundy Peterson was given life by his father Thomas and Mother Lucy Green.

Peterson was a school custodian and general handyman in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

Active in the Republican Party, he became the city’s first African American to hold elected office in the Middlesex County Commission. He was also the city’s first colored person to serve on a jury.

Peterson voted in a local election held at Perth Amboy City Hall regarding the town’s charter.

Some citizens wanted to revise the existing charter while others wished to abandon the charter altogether in favor of a township-form of government. Peterson cast his ballot in favor of revising the existing charter. This side won 230 to 63.

Peterson was afterward appointed to be a member of the committee of seven that made the revisions.

To honor Peterson as the first African American voter after the passage of the 15th Amendment, the citizens of Perth Amboy raised $70 (equivalent to $1,854 in 2020) to award him with a gold medallion in 1884.

The medallion had the face of President Abraham Lincoln engraved on one side. On the other side reads, “Presented by citizens of Perth Amboy N.J. to Thomas Peterson the first colored voter in the U.S. under the provisions of the 15th Amendment at an election held in that city March 13, 1870.”

It was presented to Peterson on Memorial Day – at the time called Decoration Day - May 30, 1884.

He is said to have loved the medal and never considered himself properly dressed without it affixed to his left breast.

Later in life, financial instability forced Peterson to sometimes pawn the medallion. It is currently housed at the historic African American Xavier University of Louisiana.

Thomas Peterson is buried at the St. Peters Episcopal Church cemetery in Perthy Amboy, New Jersey. When his grave was found years after his passing in 1904, it was given a historical marker.

In New Jersey, March 31 is celebrated annually as Thomas Mundy Peterson Day in recognition of his historic vote.

In October 1989, the school where Peterson had worked was renamed after him. Now currently on State Street, Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
All men are created equal…
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