PROJECT XV MUSEUM'S MISSION IS TO BUILD THE FIRST VOTING RIGHTS MUSEUM IN THE STATE OF ILLINOIS AND TELL THE STORY OF THE FIRST BLACK MAN IN ILLINOIS TO VOTE, DAVID STOTHER.
15th Amendment Historic Preservation at The Legacy Building
David A. Strother (1843-1905), a barber, was the first African American to vote in Illinois after the passage of the 15th Amendment. On April 4, 1870, he voted the Republican ticket in the city election for mayor of El Paso. When no objection was made, Strother’s brother stepped up and cast his vote, choosing the Democratic ticket.
According to the El Paso Story published in 1954,
"In those days, El Paso operated under a special charter of the legislature, which had been approved by Governor Oglesby in 1867. Article XV of the United States Constitution was declared in effect March 30, 1870, and stated that the right of citizens to vote shall not be denied on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
March 30, 1870 was on a Wednesday, and the following Monday, April 4, 1870, was El Paso's city election under its special charter, one day earlier than almost all other elections were held. David Strother was a well- educated gentleman with an excellent shelf of especially good books, well regarded by all local citizens. James H. Wathen, then mayor, and Jacob Fishburn, accompanied Dave to the polls when they opened that morning, but the officials were nonplussed at his demand to vote, but they knew Dave's honesty so well that they told him they would investigate his statement that the new amendment had been proclaimed law and to come back a little later.
William Neifing, local harness dealer and undertaker, was one of the judges and he sent out for a copy of the amendment, and learned that it was adopted. The judges sent a messenger for Dave and he returned to the polls where apologies were made and he proceeded to cast his vote, no doubt for the reelection of Mr. Wathen as mayor. Later in the day, Dave's brother, Charles Strother also cast his vote, unquestionably the second Negro to vote under the new amendment. Needless to say, Strother's vote made history. Gersh Martin was then El Paso's newspaper editor, and he lost no time in telegraphing the news to the Associated Press, and soon people all over the United States were reading about an obscure Negro barber who had cast the first vote of his race following the change in the Constitution. Had it not been for our peculiar charter which called for an election on Monday, fame might have passed Dave up because there is no question other Negroes voted the following day when regular elections were held in many other communities.
David A. Strother (his signature shows the middle initial as "A", and not "H" as was generally written) was born in Lexington, Missouri, August 18, 1843, the son of parents who were slaves. His mother, according to Dave's oft told story, gave $50 in cash and for several years contributed to the education of a daughter of her former mistress as the price of her release from bondage. Dave had almost no formal education, but he was one of the best educated men of his race in his day. He had been a boy cook on a Mississippi steamer, and had traveled up and down that river in the days of Mark Twain's journeys. His culinary excellence found him a job in the army as a civilian cook with Company G, 17th Illinois Infantry, commanded by Captains O. A. Burgess and J. H. Rowell.
Strother came to El Paso at the urging of Troop "G", forty-four local area men having served at one time or another in the company where Dave was a cook, and in January of 1864 Jonathan D. Parks let him set up a chair in a corner of his insurance and J. P. office, located on the alley in rear of Janssen's grocery at 11 East Front Street. When Parks had a trial, the barber had to move his chair over to W. R. Willis' office next door, to return after the trial was over.
Soon Dave's mother and brother Charles followed him to El Paso, and Charles added his chair in Dave's new barber shop in the basement of the Eagle Block building, now called The Legacy Building. Business was good for the two genial and polite colored gentlemen, and all El Pasoans knew of their "Scalp-Food" tonic and "Genuine Rainwater Baths."
Charles Strother died of tuberculosis in April of 1897, and on July 12, 1901, Elizabeth Gaines Strother, Dave's wife, succumbed to the same malady. David continued alone after that, and his kindliness seemed a thing of beauty matched only by his apparent loneliness. On March 12, 1905, he was stricken with a heart attack and quickly died. He then lived at 197 West Fourth St.
The Methodist Church was packed by his friends, nearly all of another race, when he was eulogized by the Reverend Shoop, assisted by Reverend Stephan. Dave now sleeps in his own lot in Evergreen Cemetery with his mother, brother, and his wife. He left something far more valuable than the things which were divided among his friends and one rather distant relative – books of travel in the United States and the Arctic, a gold watch and chain, two violins which he had played rather well, a set of Dickens, and a few pieces of furniture. This year, the 1954 Centennial year, El Paso Post No. 59 of the American Legion is belatedly marking his grave with a suitable stone, believing that his vote the morning of April 4, 1870 marked a milestone on the road to human freedom."
Tours at The Legacy Building are designed to preserve the memory of the influential people and businesses that inhabited 1 W. Front Street. From the first black voter in Illinois, David Strother, to El Paso's first library, established solely by women, to the First National Bank, to the City Opera House, we hope you will join us in remembering and celebrating the progress made in this place.