On June 30, 1870, 10,000 African-Americans gathered in Court Square in Louisville, where slaves had historically been sold and separated from their families.
They came to celebrate the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited using race as a disqualification for voting.
George C. Wright recounted the event at Court Square in his book, Life Behind a Veil: Blacks in Louisville, Kentucky, 1865-1930. According to Wright, those gathered sang: "Come all ye Republicans, faithful and true, here is a work for you/The Democrat Party its race has run, to give a way for an era that freedom has won."
It was the Republican Party that ushered in abolition, then emancipation and then voting rights. And blacks — virtually all blacks — became Republicans.
Democrats in Louisville, led by Courier-Journal editor Henry Watterson, were implacably opposed to blacks voting. Watterson wrote in the Courier-Journal that his opposition was "founded upon a conviction that their habits of life and general condition disqualify them for the judicious exercise of suffrage."
Wright's book also tells of Democrat-turned-Republican John M. Palmer, an abolitionist and Civil War general who commanded the federal forces in Kentucky.
President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but it had only applied to the occupied South. Slavery still existed in Kentucky. On July 4, 1865, an estimated 20,000 blacks gathered in Louisville hoping that Palmer would declare them free.
Palmer stood before the crowd and said: "My countrymen, you are free, and while I command, the military forces of the United States will defend your right to freedom."
The crowd erupted in cheers. (Palmer was soon met with an indictment by a Louisville grand jury for aiding fugitive slaves.)
Meanwhile, Kentucky's Democratic-controlled legislature would vote against the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
Another Republican, William Warley, was an influential black civil-rights activist from Louisville. Born in 1884, Warley was editor of the Louisville News and president of the Louisville chapter of the NAACP.
But Warley is most famous for fighting and overturning the notorious Louisville ordinance that mandated segregated housing.
Warley bought a house on Pflanz Avenue in the white section of Louisville, in defiance of the ordinance.
The case became Buchanan v. Warley and it made its way to the Supreme Court. In 1917, the Supreme Court ruled the ordinance unconstitutional, holding unanimously that Kentucky law could not forbid the sale of a house based on race.
Unfortunately, it wasn't long before Republicans (like today's Democrats) took the black vote for granted.
Warley rebelled when Republicans opposed letting black Republicans run for office. He broke away to form an independent party. In 1935, Kentucky Democrats, sensing an opportunity to court the black vote, ran a black candidate for the General Assembly.
Republicans responded by finally allowing a black candidate on the ballot. That candidate was Charles W. Anderson who became the first African-American elected to the Kentucky legislature. By electing a black state legislator, Republicans finally broke the color barrier in Frankfort.
At the time, almost all blacks were Republican. In fact, in 1931 there were 25,730 black Republicans in Louisville and just 129 black Democrats. The Democratic Party paper was the Courier-Journal (some things never change). From 1870 until the 1930's more than 99 percent of blacks voted Republican.
Nationally, it was no different. The first 20 African-American U.S. congressmen were all Republican. The Republican Party has had more African-American U.S. senators than have the Democrats.
One of those Republicans was Edwin Brooks of Massachusetts, who remarked that if Democrats had the incredible history of emancipation and election of African-Americans you'd hear about it non-stop.
The Republican Party's history is rich and chock full of black history and the fight for civil liberties.
I still believe in a Republican Party that has a zeal for equality before the law. A party that prizes the sense of justice that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of when he said: "an unjust law is any law the majority enforces on a minority but does not make binding upon itself."
I believe in a Republican Party that never shrinks from the idea that minorities — whether determined by the color of your skin or shade of your ideology — should warrant equal protection.
If we continue the fight for these ideals, I know that African-Americans will again look to us as the party of emancipation, civil liberty and individual freedom.