On March 31, 1870, Thomas Mundy Peterson of Perth Amboy, New Jersey became the first African American man to vote in an election under the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He cast his ballot to revise the town’s existing charter. The side he voted for won in a landslide (230-63) and he was elected to the committee to revise the charter
Born on October 6, 1824 in Metuchen, New Jersey, his mother was a slave of who was manumitted at age 21 and his father worked for the Mundy family. A school custodian and general handyman in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, he was very active in the Republican Party. He became the city’s first African-American to hold elected office and first “colored” person to serve on a jury.
Peterson voted in a local election held at Perth Amboy City Hall over 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 subsequent amendments leading to the final version that was approved by the State Legislature April 5, 1871. Historical records as to his contribution to revisions in the form of minutes, writing, or other records are still wanting.
To honor Thomas Mundy Peterson as the first African-American voter after the passage of the 15th Amendment, the citizens of Perth Amboy raised $70 (over $1,000 in 2010 dollars) to award him with a gold medallion. The full medallion consists of a gold bar from which a two-inch diameter medallion was hung. The hanging medallion featured a profile bust of a clean-shaven Abraham Lincoln. It was presented to Thomas Mundy Peterson on Memorial Day, which was then 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 historically African-American Xavier University of Louisiana.
While he is known today as “Thomas Mundy Peterson,” there are no contemporary records that include the three names together. The one exception is the cover for the program describing the ceremony when he was given the “voting medal,” and that calls him “Thomas Peterson-Mundy.” Contemporary documents refer to him as either Thomas Peterson or Thomas (or Tom) Mundy. His death certificate, the undertaker’s accounts book and a land deed all refer to him as “Thomas H. Peterson.” In the obituary appearing in The Perth Amboy Evening News he is called Thomas Henry Peterson.
Peterson passed away in 1904 and was buried in Perth Amboy, New Jersey
In October 1989, the school where Peterson had worked was renamed after him. Now currently on State Street, Perth Amboy.
In New Jersey, March 31 is annually celebrated as Thomas Mundy Peterson Day in recognition of his historic vote.