Race and Statehood

Slavery was an issue in the statehood struggles of many U.S. territories. But even after the Civil War settled the slavery question, race was an issue in the admission of some states.

Before it can become a state, a territory must draw up a constitution, and Congress can require changes in that constitution before admitting the territory as a state. Once it becomes a state, it has rights and sovereignty that territories do not have. Congress has several times tried to ensure racial equality in territories, while it still had the power to dictate laws.

Nebraska

Nebraska was one example. The Northern Territory applied for admission after the Civil War, and slavery had been outlawed there in 1861, six years before they were admitted.

However, Nebraska’s constitution specified that only white men could vote. Congress passed an enabling act for Nebraska Territory which specified that Nebraska could become a state only if they removed the requirement that voters be white.

They were fine with refusing the vote to women.

President Andrew Johnson vetoed the enabling act. He felt that Congress should not tell a state that they couldn’t limit voting rights.

Congress voted to override the veto. They offered statehood to Nebraska, but only if it got rid of its whites-only voting rule.

Nebraska’s legislature met to discuss the issue, and in just one day they agreed to get rid of their racist rule on voting. They became a state in 1867. In 1870, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. The 15th Amendment says this:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

In other words, all men in the United States could vote, even if they had previously been slaves. Nebraska had to change their law a few years early.

This is a case in which Congress did the right thing while they had control over the Territory. Congress has much less power over states.

Oregon

In 1844, Oregon Territory passed a law forbidding slavery, but also preventing Black people from living in Oregon for more than three years. The 1857 constitution forbid Black people to come to Oregon at all. Congress accepted that constitution, and in 1900 the citizens of Oregon voted to keep the exclusionary law.

In fact, it wasn’t until 2021 that Oregon’s legislature voted to remove the last vestiges of their exclusionary laws.

The argument in Congress over the racist language in Oregon’s constitution pitted representatives objecting to the inequality against representatives who felt strongly about states’ rights. Missouri Senator John B. Clarke said, “Whenever we surrender the right to determine who shall vote in the States, we do not know how soon we will be deprived of that right ourselves.”

Reading the whole discussion makes it very clear that many of the people in Congress at that time held ideas and attitudes about ethnic diversity which we would not tolerate today. Just as the Insular Cases are full of language that we now find objectionable, the record of debates in Congress is full of racist language. This shows the attitudes which were common at the time.

Oregon became a state in spite of the exclusionary laws, but not without objections from Congress.

Oklahoma

Following the Civil War, Oklahoma developed more than 50 all-black towns, something found in no other territory. The Oklahoma Historical Society suggests that the towns sprang up as a result of the slaves belonging to the Native Americans living in what was then Indian Territory. When they gained their freedom after the Civil War, they chose to establish towns together for safety and economic support.

By the time Oklahoma gathered for a statehood convention in 1906, many of the people living in the two territories which would become Oklahoma wanted to continue living in racially segregated towns. The idea that Black people and white people would be separated by law was proposed as part of the Oklahoma constitution.

President Teddy Roosevelt assured Oklahoma that he would veto Oklahoma statehood if that happened. Black leaders traveled to Washington to ask for Roosevelt’s help in avoiding the strict segregation in the proposed state constitution. Congress passed Oklahoma’s enabling act only if the territory agreed to “make no distinction in civil or political rights on account of race or color.”

Oklahoma’s leaders agreed…but once they became a state, with the sovereignty of a state, they passed laws segregating schools, railroad cars traveling through Oklahoma, and other public spaces.

Over the years, Congress has tried to ensure justice for the citizens of states by insisting on fair laws while they were still territories. They did not always succeed. Congress should work to ensure equality and justice for the people of Puerto Rico by admitting the territory as the 51st state. Tell your reps that you want them to be on the right side of history!

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