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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Slavery rears its ugly head in Colorado

In this Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016, photo, sister Lee McNeil talks about her efforts to eliminate an archaic and offensive reference to slavery, as a punishment for a crime in the state constitution through an amendment on the general election ballot during an interview outside Shorter Community A.M.E. Church, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Lee McNeil talks about her efforts to eliminate an archaic and offensive reference to slavery, as a punishment for a crime in Colorado. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

It seemed like a no-brainer: Colorado’s voters were asked to eliminate an archaic and offensive reference to slavery as a punishment for a crime in the state Constitution. But a week after the vote, the poorly-written amendment is on the cusp of failing, and a lack of clarity from lawmakers may be to blame.

Adopted before President Ulysses S. Grant proclaimed Colorado a state in 1876, the constitution declares: “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime.”

That language mirrors the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that outlawed slavery in 1865.

Both chambers of Colorado’s Legislature voted unanimously to refer Amendment T to voters. But it appeared on a state-issued voter’s guide under the title, “No Exception to Involuntary Servitude Prohibition.” The actual ballot question wasn’t much clearer.

Not only that: The voter guide included arguments against the measure, even though there was no organized opposition.

“One of the real problems I had is the way it was written. It became a hurtful language issue for those of us who are personally connected to it,” said Lee McNeil of Denver’s Shorter Community A.M.E. Church, whose great-grandmother, Easter Noble Hampton, was brought as a baby to Virginia on a slave ship.

Hampton worked as a cook on a Texas plantation; her husband, Tobe Hampton, was a sharecropper.

“This is hurtful,” McNeil said. “It’s 2016. Slavery was supposed to have been done with in 1865.”

The phantom argument — state law requires that some counterpoint be included — was that a change could trigger lawsuits from prison inmates who may face delayed probation or loss of privileges for refusing work assignments or for earning low wages.

But the courts consistently have ruled that the presence or lack thereof of similar state constitutional amendments have no effect on prison practices, said Richard B. Collins, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Colorado Law School.

“The 13th Amendment is still there, and there’s no move to change it,” Collins said. “But whenever people don’t understand something, they vote ‘no.’ That’s a given.”

Out of nearly 2.3 million ballots cast in Colorado, “No” led “Yes” by more than 19,000 votes Monday. It’s possible the eventual margin will be so close that the state could conduct a recount.

A host of clergy and civil rights activists supported changing the language in the state Constitution. Proponents have said they will get the Legislature to draft another amendment to be sent to voters if this one fails.

McNeil, 72, refuses to tie the uncertainty over the proposed amendment to persistent racism.

As a child, her family moved from Texas to Woodland Park, outside of Colorado Springs. Hers was the town’s only black family at the time, and its embrace inspired her to a life of activism, including service on Native American reservations in Montana, Utah and Wyoming. She’s now working to improve northeast Denver’s public schools.

With or without ballot language issues, McNeil is baffled and disheartened by the vote.

“Colorado values are better than that,” she said. “My Colorado people have hurt me. They let me down. And I do love them.”

But she does want people to understand that she won’t give up, should that be necessary, and that slavery’s presence in the state Constitution is an open wound.

“I’m like my great-grandmother. I don’t give up too easily,” McNeil said. “I would just like to say to Colorado voters: Words really do matter.”


James Anderson can be reached on Twitter at

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