In May, 1870, Henry O. Wagoner, Jr., the twenty year old son of one of black Denver’s leading civil rights advocates, was given the rare privilege of addressing a local audience gathered to celebrate the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Wagoner congratulated the audience and praised those who had fought for the amendment but he also warned of the civic responsibilities that accompany the newly won voting rights. Part of his address is reprinted below.
Mr. President and Fellow Citizens: My own youthful appearance will naturally suggest the improbability of my being a public speaker of either experience or ability, and hence an extended apology would be needless repetition of what is already apparent. But the occasion is one well calculated to move even the most subtle and most timid from silence. I see before me a vast audience of my fellow people, glowing with enthusiasm, and I am inclined to ask what is the cause of this meeting? For what purpose are we assembled here tonight? Is it to give aid and comfort to some runaway slave? Is it to adopt resolutions declaring the existence of rights whose exercise we are unjustly denied? Is it to appoint representatives to be sent to state capitals, there to plead our cause… Is it to give expression to our utter horror and indignation at some violence perpetrated on the person or property of some of our fellow people? No sir. No such objects as these bring us here tonight. No longer must we come together stealthily by night to give relief to fugitive slaves. No more need we send champions of our rights to state capitals or national conventions; for the reason no longer exists. No more do we hear the heart rending cry of poor mortals bleeding under the lash…. Such things….happily for ourselves, happily for our posterity…are doomed to exist only in the memories and records of the past.
We are here tonight for thanksgiving and rejoicing at the ratification of the fifteenth amendment to the constitution of the United States, whereby manhood and fealty are made the conditions of suffrage irrespective of color, race or creed…
The consummation which we celebrate is of great practical importance. It adds, instantaneously, nearly a quarter of a million voters…. This act is the completion of one of the greatest reforms ever accomplished by any nation. The revolution has been vast, rapid, grand. The despised chattel of 1860 is the respected voter of today.
To the colored Americans, among the proudest recollections of the past will be the part they took in their own deliverance. They may justly boast that they did not remain passive observers of the great struggle for freedom and national existence. In the dark hours of the nation’s gloom, when a cloud of despair rested all over this broad land, when the Union party at last consented, if triumphant, to “break the yoke and let the oppressed go free;” then did the sable sons of America rally at the call of the chief, and spill their life-blood in defense of the flags of their country, which had hitherto been to them an ensign of tyranny, but now the palladium of their rights. The negro soldiers have won for themselves an undying fame for valor and patriotism by their valiant conduct at a Fort Pillow, a Fort Wagner, and a Pittsburg. But while we dwell upon the struggles of the past and the triumphs of today, let us not forget the duties of tomorrow. Long indulged prejudice can not be legislated away, and in the exercise of our new privilege we will be jealously watched. In a government like ours no race or set of men who are deficient in intellectual attainments can hope to retain power or to exercise any considerable influence in shaping public affairs any more than a single individual can expect to rise to a position of honor…who is destitute of these qualities…. It behooves us, then, to look well to our mental cultivation. Be studious and ever ready to receive and impart instruction. See to it that your children are provided with ample schools and competent teachers, and assist them, by all means in your power, in gaining a good education, which will enable them to become good, wise and great; thus you and they will live to a good and noble purpose and honor God….