Today’s Tribute Thursday goes to Thomas Mundy Peterson (October 6, 1824 – February 4, 1904) of Perth Amboy, New Jersey. He was the first African-American to vote in an election under the just-enacted provisions of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution. His vote was cast on March 31, 1870.
Thomas Mundy Peterson was born in Metuchen, New Jersey. His father, also named Thomas, worked for the Mundy family. It is unclear if he was a slave of the family or not. His mother, Lucy Green, was a slave of Hugh Newell (1744-1816) of Freehold Township, New Jersey. She was manumitted at age 21 by Newell’s will.
He was a school custodian and general handyman in Perth Amboy. Active in the Republican Party, he became the city’s first African-American to hold elected office, on the Middlesex County Commission. He was also the city’s first “colored” person to serve on a jury.
Peterson voted in a local election held in Perth Amboy, NJ 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 the revisions. 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.
The back of the medal reads: PRESENTED by CITIZENS OF PERTH AMBOY N.J. TO THOMAS PETERSON THE FIRST COLORED VOTER IN THE U.S. UNDER THE PROVISIONS OF THE 15TH AMENDMENT AT AN ELECTION HELD IN THAT CITY MARCH 31st 1870.
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.
Thomas Peterson is buried at the St. Peters Episcopal Church cemetery in Perthy Amboy, New Jersey. When his grave was found years after his passing in 1904, it was given a historical marker. March 31st is considered Thomas Mundy Peterson Day in New Jersey.
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.
In October 1989, the school where Peterson had worked was renamed after him.
In New Jersey, March 31 is annually celebrated as Thomas Mundy Peterson Day in recognition of his historic vote.