Lee McNeil’s great-grandmother was brought to the United States as a child aboard a slave ship that traveled from Africa to Virginia.
Later, Easter Noble Hampton walked across several states to Texas, where she worked as a cook at a plantation.
McNeil, who was born in Texas, said that’s pretty much what she knows about her great-grandmother; her family didn’t like to talk about its painful heritage.
But as a descendant of a slave, recent events in Colorado, where McNeil grew up, have stirred old wounds.
Colorado voters last week voted to keep archaic language in the state Constitution that allows forced, unpaid labor for people convicted of a crime — a move that, for McNeil, sent a message that slavery is still acceptable.
Proponents of the statewide ballot measure, including McNeil, believe it failed not because a majority of Colorado voters approve of slavery, but because of a poorly written and confusing question that voters were asked to decide through a “yes” or “no” vote.
“This has made my heart heavy,” McNeil told The Washington Post. “I just think it’s an ugly thing. It should not be there in 2016.”
As it stands, the Colorado Constitution states that slavery is prohibited, except as a punishment for a crime.
That means convicted criminals can be forced to work in prison without pay. The language, adopted before President Ulysses S. Grant proclaimed Colorado a state in 1876, mirrors the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed slavery in 1865.
The Colorado ballot measure, called Amendment T, sought to change the language in the state Constitution by asking voters if that exception should be removed.
Out of about 2.5 million Colorado residents who voted on Amendment T, 1.28 million, or 50.4 percent, chose to keep the language. That was about 19,000 more than those who voted to change the law.
Will Dickerson, lead organizer for a group that pushed for the measure, believes that the majority of those who voted “no” were simply confused by the question on the ballot. And whenever people don’t understand a ballot measure, they tend to vote “no,” constitutional law scholar Richard B. Collins told the Associated Press.
“Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution concerning the removal of the exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude when used as a punishment for persons duly convicted of a crime?” Amendment T read.
The state voter guide included arguments against the measure, even though there was no organized opposition, according to the AP.
Dickerson said those who voted “no” likely thought the measure would affect prison labor and complicate community services.
But Collins, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Colorado Law School, told the AP that wouldn’t have been the case, since courts have consistently ruled that amendments to state constitutions have no effect on prison practices.
Dickerson, of Together Colorado, also believes that some voters — albeit probably a small number of them — understood the question on the ballot measure and knowingly voted in favor of slavery.
“It makes me very sad that it was even a question for some people on whether or not this would be something they’d want to support,” Dickerson said. “This is talking about our nation, particularly our state’s ideology and what we believe is okay. That informs everything we do.”
The 13th Amendment declared that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The exception in the 13th Amendment, known as the punishment clause, still stands nationwide; Dickerson said to his knowledge, Colorado is one of the first states — if not the first — to try to remove it from its constitution.
Jim Liske, former president of Prison Fellowship, wrote in 2014 that there needs to be a national dialogue about the punishment clause, particularly in a country that’s home to nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners, and where black men are incarcerated at six times the rate of white men.
“As long as it remains in the Constitution, the punishment clause is an offensive vestige of the legacy of dehumanizing and often racist practices in the American criminal justice system,” Liske wrote.
After Amendment T failed in Colorado, reports of a possible recount surfaced this week.
Dickerson said Wednesday that he and others were still waiting for the final word.
“We’re still holding out for hope,” he said.
Whether the rhetoric of the divisive presidential election affected the minds of some Colorado voters is unclear, but Dickerson said he wouldn’t be surprised if it did.
“What we’re seeing in our country right now is a rise in racial hate,” he said. “There’s a lot of hate going on and a lot of violence being inflicted on people based around that hate.”
McNeil, a member of Denver’s Shorter Community AME Church, said she can’t say whether the racial tension in the country contributed to Amendment T’s failure.
All she knows, she said, is that the country is “not in a good place.”
“The climate should be changing,” the 72-year-old retired government employee said. “The change is important because I have grandchildren. What happens today affects them tomorrow.”
This article misidentified Jim Liske as current president of Prison Fellowship.