In 1870, Washington, D. C. Mayor Sayles Jenks Bowen was up for re-election. It was a contentious campaign. Bowen was a controversial figure. He was a staunch abolitionist pre-Civil War. He was also a founder of and activist for the Republican Party.
Bowen was elected Mayor of Washington, D. C. in 1868.This was the first time that African Americans could vote in Washington. Their overwhelming support helped Bowen win, despite his minimal support in the European American community. Bowen’s agenda focused on economic and educational opportunity and integration for the newly freed African Americans. Unfortunately, he was so focused on those things that he neglected the basic activities of governing a city. Bowen was so focused on his own agenda that he diverted funds from city services and programs to support job creation for freedmen and school creation for their children. He was impatient with those in the Republican party who would not fully support integrated schools and full employment for the freedmen. He was even willing to invest large sums of his own personal money to augment these efforts. Understandably, he was very popular in the African American community. However, as noted, he neglected other important issues and was draining the city’s financial assets. As the 1870 election approached, many in the Republican Party began to organize along with Democrats against his campaign for re-election.
On Monday, 7 February 1870, the National Republican reported that the previous Saturday there was a “large meeting at Union League Hall.” The meeting had been advertised in all the local newspapers. The turnout reflected “the large number of citizens favoring reform in the affairs of the Republican party of the city, and who are opposed to the present municipal administration…” According to the article’s sub-titles, there were “Prominent Citizens Present,” and “Old Original Republicans in Council.” Among those whose names were mentioned as being in attendance was Islay Walden. Islay had only arrived in Washington around January 1868, based on Freedmen’s Bureau records. Was he being considered a “Prominent Citizen?” Prominent enough to be named? Apparently so.
One speaker, William H. Brown, Jr., of the Seventh Ward, an area east of the Anacostia River, referred to as being part of “Anacostia,” said that “an effort must be made to induce legislation to protect men in their exercise of the franchise.” He explained that “If a colored man attempts to vote a ticket other than that prepared for him by Corporation Attorney Cook and his satellites, he would be put to flight by a lawless mob.” It was reported that at this point, Islay Walden interrupted the speaker (Brown), asking if there was anyone assaulted other than those “colored men” who were voting for Democrats. Mr. Brown responded that Congress had granted “colored men” the right to vote and therefore their vote was their “with their conscience and their God, and it was not right that they should be disturbed in their rights by a lawless mob.” It would seem from his comment that Islay was loyal to Mayor Bowen and his administration. So, why was he at this meeting? Good question.
The meeting then went on to discuss and approve a constitution for the new reformed association now being called, “Independent Republican Reform Association.” The meeting went on to discuss the problems that had resulted from Mayor Bowen’s administration. At the end of the evening, a Chaplain J. M. Green spoke. He spoke in support of a Collector Boswell in Mayor Bowen’s administration. The reporter for the National Republican noted that Chaplain Green was “interrupted frequently by Isley Walton [sic], a colored man, who was evidently in favor of Mr. Bowen.” Apparently, Chaplain Green was not angered by the interruption but did grow frustrated as he “answered him good naturedly, finally giving way to allow Walton to deliver a harangue in favor of the present municipal administration.” Chaplain Green may not have been distressed by Islay’s interruptions, but it appears that others had heard enough since the meeting adjourned after Islay finished speaking. Nevertheless, the meeting was “characterized with the best order, and the proceedings conducted in a deliberative and impressive manner.”
Mayor Sayles Jenks Bowen was defeated in 1870 by his Democratic opponent, Matthew Gault Emery.
There have been other hints at Islay’s interest in the political landscape of his time. Not long after arriving in Washington, D. C., in 1868, he went to Philadelphia to attend the Republican Convention, where General Grant was nominated the Presidential candidate for that year. He talked about that trip in the introduction to, and in, his poem, “Ode to Mr. Dunlap and Family.”
1870 would have additional significance for Islay. That was year the Fifteenth Amendment was passed. Celebrations were held in Washington and around the country on 2 April 1870. Islay didn’t write a specific poem about his attendance of those celebrations. Rather, he references his presence in poems that address events around those celebrations. One poem he dedicated to a young girl, Clara Saunders, who helped him cross the street. The other referenced Charles Sumner’s speech at that celebration.
After reading about Islay’s assertiveness at the Republican meeting above, one cannot be surprised that Islay managed to have a personal meeting with President Ulysses Grant. In a letter to his niece, Catherine Hill, Islay mentioned that he had met the President, who encouraged him to never give up trying to get the education he sought. Islay added that he gave the President one of his poems. It would be wonderful if the poem was preserved somewhere among Grant’s papers in the Presidential Library on the campus of Mississippi State University.
Islay’s political boldness continued as years went by. By 1883, he had returned to his home community in Randolph County, North Carolina. There, he founded a church and school, then known as Promised Land Church and a school, called Promised Land Academy. Islay had long been an advocate for temperance and apparently was a strong advocate in his community, even doing so before the North Carolina General Assembly. In March 1883, Islay was able to convince the General Assembly to pass “an Act to prohibit the sale of spirituous liquors within one (1) mile of the Promised Land Academy in New Hope Township, …”
It is apparent that Islay Walden, who was a talented missionary and poet, was also a gifted politician. Sadly, he died at age 40, in February 1884, only a year after his victory in the General Assembly. I can’t help but wonder what he would have accomplished had he not died so young.
Although Promised Land Academy is long gone, after serving the community’s children for over forty years, including my maternal ancestors, the church has continued to serve those in the community and descendants of the founding families, for 142 years, this past October (2021). In 2014, the church site, now known as “Strieby Congregational UCC Church,” became a Randolph County Cultural Heritage Site, and in 2021, was named a United for Libraries Literary Landmark.
 Tindall, William, “A Sketch of Mayor Sayles J. Bowen,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., Vol. 18 (1915), pp. 25-43 Retrieved from: JSTOR.org
 “Reform: Large Meeting at Union League Hall,” National Republican, February 7, 1870, p. 4. Retrieved from: Newspapers.com.
 Islay Walden, in Letter to Mr. Beckley, January 20, 1868, Records of the Field Offices for the District of Columbia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1870; NARA M1902, Roll 19. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 Williams, Margo Lee, Born Missionary: The Islay Walden Story, (Silver Spring, MD: Margo Lee Williams, Personal Prologue), 2021, pp. 23-25.
Ibid, p. 28.
Ibid, pp. 29-31.
Ibid, p. 26.
Ibid, p. 77.
3 thoughts on “#52 Ancestors – Voting: The 1870 Washington, D. C. Mayoral Election, and Islay Walden”
It does make you wonder what he would have accomplished next. It was a strange political era after the war.
Yes, but when wasn’t it? lol. I wonder what he would think about these times.