At the end of the Civil War, the nation was confronted with the question of how to readmit Southern states into the Union. This long process of answering that question and reintegrating the South was called Reconstruction.
Reconstruction pitted those who wished the South to be readmitted with little change to their pre-war political structure against those who hoped the process would bring lasting change. In Arkansas, those differing forces came to a head in 1868.
Days after the opening of the convention, Cypert demanded the formal acceptance of the already established 1864 Constitution. To do otherwise, he asserted, would be to abolish “white man’s government of our fathers, and an erection of an Africanized government in its stead.” Cypert proposed an ordinance to accept the 1864 Constitution and end the convention.
Grey, the de facto leader of African American delegates in the convention, denounced Cypert’s ordinance. Grey began his address by expressing shock that Cypert would offer such an ordinance. “Now, sir, who having stood by the government and the old flag in times of trouble,” he continued, “for this and other considerations we are here not to ask charity at the hands of the honorable body, but to receive, at the hands of the people of Arkansas in convention assembled, the proportionment of our rights… I am here, sir, to see those rights of citizenship engrafted in the organic law of this state.”
Grey argued equal rights were owed to African Americans. “We are here, sir, to receive the amount due us as citizens of the United States and the State of Arkansas, and we are content,” Grey said. His speech, which was successful, was possibly the first time an African American voice was heard in Arkansas politics.
On Jan. 17, the convention rejected Cypert’s ordinance by a vote of 53 to 10. Following the rejection of Cypert’s ordinance, the convention passed a new constitution. The Constitution of 1868 was a revolutionary document that allowed African American men the right to vote.
After the convention, Grey remained in public life, serving as Commissioner of Immigration and State Lands and later as an assistant U.S. assessor. He died in Helena in 1888, leaving a lasting mark on Arkansas politics with his impassioned speech on behalf of African American voting rights.
About the Arkansas State Archives
Arkansas State Archives is a division of the Department of Arkansas Heritage and is responsible for collecting and maintaining the largest collection of historical materials on Arkansas in the world. The State Archives has two branch locations at Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives in Powhatan and the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives in Washington.