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The Power of the Passport

How the 14th Amendment Guaranteed African Americans U.S. Citizenship and the Right to Travel Abroad


“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, [including former slaves who were freshly freed after the Civil War under the 13th amendment via the Emancipation Proclamation.] and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” In light of those words, either a birth certificate or a naturalization certificate is all that is needed to prove U.S. citizenship and to gain all the rights that come along with it—to vote, to hold public office, and to enter and remain in the United States.”

On July 28, 2020, the United States marks 152 years since the adoption of the 14th Amendment in 1868, and for African Americans, this Reconstruction Act was a watershed moment, which laid the framework, although hugely imperfect, for a legal basis for citizenship grounded in equal protection and, in theory, the right to own and travel on a passport.

In an era where African Americans now have the right to fly from Thailand to Timbuktu to “flex

for the ‘gram,” one can easily forget that this privilege was severely contested and threatened just in the last century. For the average American in the 21 st century, the only barrier to traveling internationally is cost.


[1] Not so for Madame C.J. Walker, the first African American woman to be a self-made millionaire in the United States. In 1919, she attempted to travel to the Versailles Conference in France to be an alternate delegate of the National Equal Rights League.

[2]  However, because of her activism against lynching and other forms of violence in the South, she was denied a U.S. passport, the only document next to a state-issued birth certificate that is evidence of citizenship for a person born on U.S. soil.

[3] The infamous Dred Scott Decision of March 1857 explicitly denied American citizenship to

former slaves and their descendants, even to those who lived as free people. It was Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Taney who said that Black people were “an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

One of the most severe consequences of the Dred Scot Decision was that it set a legal precedent for the denationalization of all African Americans and enforced regulation on black travel overseas, leaving some free Black Americans who held previously-issued passports in limbo on their trips abroad. The passports, now invalidated by the Dred Scott Decision, were replaced with “certificates” that confirmed the holder’s birth in the United States. [4]

In the Court opinion Justice Taney delivered at Dred Scott’s trial, he outlined the distinction

between being entitled to a state-issued certificate versus being entitled to a passport and the

significance each designation carried. “…We must not confound the rights of citizenship which a State may confer within its own limits, and the rights of citizenship as a member of the Union. It does not by any means follow, because he has all the rights and privileges of a citizen of a State, that he must be a citizen of the United States.”


Denying Madame C.J. Walker a passport gave her entry to an elite club of Black intellectuals who were denied overseas travel on the similar grounds. [5] In October 1857, the Liberator, an

abolitionist newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison reported on a passport refusal

concerning Thomas Howland, an African American attempting to travel to Liberia for business.

Despite Howland being the first African American elected to public office in the city of

Providence, Rhode Island, upon applying for a passport, he received a letter stating, "passports are not issued to persons of African extraction. Such persons are not deemed citizens of the United States.” [6] Two years later, in 1859, Frederick Douglass was denied a passport to travel to France from England on the grounds that he was not a U.S. citizen.

It was not until the adoption of the 14 th Amendment that African Americans were explicitly granted full citizenship and equal protection under the law. Recent events from the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement to the protests in 2020, prove that the 14th Amendment was only a step and not a major leap toward racial equality. The imperfection of the 14 th Amendment was embodied in the practice of denying black passports to critics of racial discrimination even after the amendment’s adoption. [7] Even internationally-known black leaders such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois were denied passports to travel to Ghana in 1958.

The amendment did, however, create the legal ramifications by which African Americans could theoretically and constitutionally travel on an American passport, a right that had been denied to many black lives that mattered previously. [8] Despite the consequential flaws of the 14th Amendment, there would have been no constitutional basis for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 without it.

Despite that current right to travel abroad freely, an overwhelming majority of African Americans do not hold passports. Those numbers are even more alarming for African Americans who study abroad. [9] The 2019 Open Doors Report noted that just under seven percent of African Americans studied abroad in 2018 compared to 70 percent of Caucasians that traveled abroad in the same year.

The passport itself reaffirms your right to citizenship guaranteed by the 14 th Amendment and

recognizes the sacrifices of African Americans who came before us and fought for the ability to travel beyond the boundaries of the United States.

The founders of the HayesXChange podcast implore you to exercise your constitutional right to own a passport and for African American students to prioritize studying and interning abroad. If you are a Black American, full-time high school or university student enrolled in a four-year institution in the state of Florida, you can apply for a scholarship to cover the fees for your passport application at hayesxchange.com/passportinitiative.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Government. 


BY: Calvin & Kindall Hayes


1. Latham, Charles. “MADAM C. J. WALKER (1867–1919) PAPERS, 1910–1980.”

2. Maita, Author Joe. “A'Lelia Bundles, Author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam

C.J. Walker.” Jerry Jazz Musician, 20 Apr. 2020, jerryjazzmusician.com/2004/03/alelia-bundles-author-of-on-her-own-ground-the-life-and-times-of-madam-c-j-walker/.

3. Trent, N. (2015, January 04). "...they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.& quote;

Retrieved July 18, 2020, from https://www.aaihs.org/they-had-no-rights-which-the-white-man-was-bound-to-respect/

4. Bureau of Consular Affairs, History of U.S. Passports, Washington Passport Agency

5. Hammerstrom, K. (2018, February 02). Faith & Freedom Friday: Thomas Howland. Retrieved July 18, 2020, from https://rihs.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/faith-freedom-friday-thomas-howland/

6. African Americans - Slavery and abolition. (n.d.). Retrieved July 18, 2020, from

https://www.americanforeignrelations.com/A-D/African-Americans-Slavery-and-abolition.html

7. Alex-Assensoh, Y. (2016). African military history and politics: Ideological coups and incursions 1900-present. Place of publication not identified: Palgrave Macmillan.

8. Smith, A. (2020). Why Martin Luther King had the US Constitution on his side [Video]. Retrieved July 18, 2020, from https://www.knowitwall.com/episodes/why-martin-luther-king-had-the-us-constitution-on-his-side/

9. Trends in U.S. Study Abroad. (n.d.). Retrieved July 18, 2020, from https://www.nafsa.org/policy-and-advocacy/policy-resources/trends-us-study-abroad

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