THE NEGROES OF NEBRASKA
The Negro Becomes a Citizen
(24) In the State of Nebraska Negroes, as citizens of the United States of America, are entitled to the rights and privileges accorded the citizens of all races. This situation was theoretically true even during the days of slavery in this country, inasmuch as Nebraska is north of the Mason-Dixon line, which was the boundary between slave territory and free territory. As stated earlier there have been a number of cases of slavery in Nebraska during its Territorial days, since slave-holders who settled in the Territory were permitted to bring their property with them. The question which arose, then, whether or not to permit slave-holding in the Territory, and, in (25) addition, whether or not to accord to Negroes a legal status equal to that of white citizens, was a political issue for some years to come.
It was thought at one time that the Missouri Compromise permanently settled the question of slavery in Nebraska. This measure, introduced in Congress in 1819 and enacted in 1820, though not effective until 1821, admitted Missouri into the Union as a slave state, but forever prohibited slavery north of the southern boundary of Missouri; namely, 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude. This compromise, the first act in American history which by law divided the North and the South respectively into free and slave territories, remained in force until repealed by the Nebraska-Kansas Bill of 1854.
The first Nebraska bill for territorial organization, introduced in Congress in 1844, failed to pass. The bill was reintroduced in 1848, and again failed to pass. In the meantime the controversy over the territorial restrictions on slavery as outlined by the Missouri Compromise had become so heated that in 1860 a substitute bill, known as the Compromise of 1850, was enacted. By the terms of this measure the question of whether or not to permit slavery in any new State or Territory was left to the will of the people of that particular State or Territory.
A third bill for the territorial organization of Nebraska, introduced in 1853, failed of passage. The following year, 1854, a fourth measure, the Nebraska-Kansas bill, was introduced in Congress. By its provisions the Missouri Compromise was repealed, leaving the question of slavery to be decided by the new Territories themselves. It was finally passed and enacted, and by the terms of the Organic Act the Territory of Nebraska was admitted to the Union in 1854.
The question of the legal statue of the Negro in Nebraska was still far from being settled. In 1855 a bill to prevent the settlement of free Negroes in Nebraska Territory was introduced in the First Territorial Legislature. Although the bill never became a law, it served to indicate the current strife over the slavery question. So far as the Territory itself was concerned, this question was settled a few years later. In 1859 the Sixth Territorial Legislature passed a bill to abolish and prevent slavery in the Territory of Nebraska. Governor Black vetoed the bill in 1860, but in 1861 the Seventh Territorial Legislature passed it over his veto, and it was enacted into law.
The Emancipation Proclamation in 1883 freed all slaves in the United States. The Ninth Territorial Legislature of Nebraska in 1864 passed a point resolution endorsing this action of President Lincoln. In spite of these developments, which theoretically allowed to Negroes the same rights possessed by other races, many of these privileges were still denied to them in Nebraska. In 1866 there were, among other restrictions governing Negroes, those which prohibited their giving evidence in court against whites, and sitting as jurors at a trial by fury. Some of these restrictions were removed in this year by the passage, over the veto of President Johnson, of the Civil Rights Bill.
Nebraska applied for admission to the Union as a State in 1866, and was actually voted in by Congress. The Constitution offered by Nebraska was, however, returned as unacceptable because it denied to Negroes the right to vote. In 1867 the last Territorial Legislature passed, over the veto of Acting-Governor Paddock, a bill for the removal of distinctions on account of race or color. Congress accepted the revised Constitution, and a bill admitting Nebraska to full statehood was passed over the veto of President Johnson.
(26) The Negro ceased to be a political issue in Nebraska in 1870, and his legal statue was defined and established on an equal basis with that of all citizens by the State's ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
In spite of the provisions of the Bill of Rights, which in theory ensures the equal exercise and enjoyment of all rights and privileges, by all Nebraska citizens, regardless of race or color, Negroes through the years have found that white prejudice has limited their activities in this respect. Even appeals to the courts have brought them little satisfaction; cases concerning the civil rights of Negroes have usually been decided against them, often on a alight technicality. In one case, however, the Supreme Court of Nebraska decided for Negroes, affirming their right to sit as jurors equally with white citizens.
Even though, according to the Constitution of the State of Nebraska, Negroes as citizens of the state exercise the right to vote, at first the white voters were reluctant to grant them this privilege. In 1867, the year in which Nebraska became a state, Negroes were warned to stay away from the polls at Nebraska City. In Omaha, in the same year, white voters intimidated them with guns and knives. The first Negro ever to vote in Nebraska was James Walker, who, though unsuccessfully challenged on the grounds of residence, cast his ballot at a city charter election in Plattsmouth, April 3, 1867. Negroes no longer encounter any difficulties in voting in Nebraska; in this respect, at least, their citizenship is unquestioned.
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