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A cabinet card portrait of an African-American man, Thomas Mundy Peterson, wearing a three-piece suit with the medallion of the city of Perth Amboy presented to him to commemorate his historic vote.
Cabinet card portrait of Thomas Mundy Peterson. Photograph by William R. Tobias. 1884. https://nmaahc.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2015.190

Thomas Mundy Peterson, First African American Man to Cast a Ballot

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The following is a guest post by Fanely Caba, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is an undergraduate student studying history and Spanish at Williams College.

On February 26, 1869, Congress passed the 15th Amendment, the last of the Reconstruction Amendments. This amendment states that “[t]he 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.” Congress later ratified this amendment on February 3, 1870. A year later, on March 30, 1870, the amendment was formally adopted and President Ulysses S. Grant commented to the Senate and the House of Representatives that “the adoption of the 15th amendment to the Constitution completes the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came into life.” While the New Jersey State Legislature had not initially voted in favor of the ratification of the 15th Amendment, the New Jersey Senate and House of Assembly ratified the 15th Amendment through a Joint Resolution approved by the Governor, Theodore F. Randolph, in mid-February of 1871.

Thomas Mundy Peterson was born on October 6, 1824, in Metuchen to an enslaved mother, Lucy Green, and a father, Thomas Sr. whose status as a free man has long been questioned. He worked in various trades such as on ships, digging sewer trenches, and maintaining lawns and farms. Additionally, Peterson was staffed as a janitor and handyman for the first public school built in Perth Amboy from 1871 to 1877. Census records from 1870 and 1880 suggest Peterson had three known children with his wife, Daphne Reeve Peterson: one son and two daughters (Bond, page 9).

Thomas Mundy Peterson recalled being encouraged by a fellow Perth Amboy native to head on over to the poll booth. He said, “I was working for Mr. T. L. Kearny on the morning of the day of the election, and did not think of voting until he came out to the stable where I was attending to the horses and advised me to go to the polls and exercise a citizen’s privilege.” While casting his historic vote for the town charter of Perth Amboy on March 31, 1870, Peterson endured racism from a white man who “upon seeing him vote, ripped up his own ballot, declaring the franchise worthless if a Negro could do it.” (Bond, page 12) Nevertheless, Peterson joined the overwhelming majority of those in favor of a revised charter. (Bond, page 12) He said:

“I thought I would not vote to give up the charter after holding it so long; so I chose a revised charter ballot. Our side won the election by a vote of 230 to 63 and I may mention as a coincidence that I was afterward appointed one of a committee of seven to revise the charter.”

A drawn map of Perth Amboy in 1876 with the town’s street names and landmarks.
Map of Perth Amboy drawn and compiled by A. Forsey Brion C.E. ca. 1876. Rutgers University Special Collections. https://mapmaker.rutgers.edu/PERTH_AMBOY/PerthAmboy_1876.jpg

He subsequently engaged politically as a delegate for the Middlesex County Republican Convention around 1880 and as Perth Amboy’s first person of color to serve on a jury and to hold elected office in the Middlesex County Commission. By 1886, he had left the Republican Party to join the Prohibitionist Party as he felt the former was not addressing alcoholism and its damage to his race adequately. A few years later, in April 1879, city records show Peterson ran for city councilman as “Thomas Mundy” and lost 2 to 274 to the victor, Chester Smith. (Bond, page 13)

Another black man, Moses Schenck of Princeton, claimed to be the first African American to vote in New Jersey leading Mundy Peterson to request the formation of an investigation committee. This mostly Democrat committee reached out to the Princeton Press who had authored an earlier article on Schenck, and they learned that the Princeton man had voted on April 4, 1870. After the committee ensured there were no other elections that could potentially challenge Peterson’s historic vote, Perth Amboyans took up a collection so that the Perth Amboy native could have a commemorative gold medallion like Schenck received from the town of Princeton. The City of Perth Amboy presented Peterson with a medallion hanging from a 2-inch wide gold bar engraved with “Thomas Mundy, Perth Amboy” on March 30, 1884 (better known as Decoration Day or current day Memorial Day). One side of the medallion portrays the engraved face of Abraham Lincoln and the opposite side reads: “Presented By Citizens Of Perth Amboy, N. J. To THOMAS PETERSON, The First Colored Voter In The United States Under The Fifteenth Amendment, At An Election Held In That City, March 31, 1870.” Peterson was reported to have proudly worn his medallion on the left breast of his shiny Prince-Albert style coat for services at the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The medallion eventually made its way to Xavier University of Louisiana. This historically Black university currently houses it in its Archives and Special Collections division.

A double-sided medallion given to Thomas Mundy Peterson by the City of Perth Amboy with an engraving of Abraham Lincoln on the front and a commemoration message on the back.
Medallion prepared for Thomas Mundy Peterson. Perth Amboy, 1884. Xavier University of Louisiana Archives and Special Collections. https://xula.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/PetersonMedal/search/order/title/ad/desc

At the age of 79, Peterson died in his native Perth Amboy on February 4, 1904. The obituary for his widowed daughter, Alice, shed light on the family’s poor financial situation, “Mrs. Johnston [sic] lived on charity for several years,” and added, “Her father died in poverty five years ago.” (Bond, page 19) Due to the financial instability of his kin, Peterson’s grave went 5 decades without a gravestone but was finally dedicated a flat granite marker by members of the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on November 1, 1959, which read in small caps,

“Here Lies The Body Of
THOMAS PETERSON
first negro voter in the united states
under the Fifteenth Amendment
at an election held in Perth Amboy
March 31, 1870 Member of
A Committee To Revise the City Charter
Born October 6, 1824
Died February 4, 1904
Also His Wife
DAPHNE REEVE PETERSON
Born October 2, 1820
Died November 23, 1891.”

In his honor, Perth Amboy’s School No. 1 where he worked was renamed Thomas Mundy Peterson School in 1989, and decades later, Perth Amboy’s Thomas Mundy Peterson Park was built with state and municipal funding. As for state recognition, the New Jersey Legislature passed a resolution in April 1998 that declared March 31 thereafter as Thomas Mundy Peterson Day.


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Comments (2)

  1. Thomas Mundy Peterson’s historic act of casting a ballot as the first African American man is a testament to the ongoing struggle for voting rights and equality in America’s history.

  2. This was a very interesting article. I look forward to learning more about this history–thank you Fanely Caba for this research and informative article!

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