BOISE, Idaho — Just months after congress ratified the 15th amendment, which gave all citizens, regardless of race, the right to vote, John West, a Black man from Boise, made the difference in the Ada County Sheriff's race in 1870.
It was William Bryon up against Lute Lindsey.
Bryon had the lead, 419-418.
But there was one ballot that hadn't been counted.
"It was the ballot of John West," Idaho historian Rick Just said.
The reason his vote hadn't been counted? Just says the poll workers didn't know what to do with it.
West was a black man in Boise, but despite the 15th amendment being ratified a few months before, poll workers said he couldn't vote.
"So they thought, 'well he's never voted before now he's voting,'" Just said.
But there was another issue.
"At that point, they were writing the names in, and we're not all perfect spellers and a lot of those people got those names wrong," he said.
"So this was kind of like basically a literacy test to vote?" Brian Holmes asked.
"Well in a sense it was," Just said.
"So it sounds like 'well, he's a Black man so we don't have to count his vote, oh wait, yes you have to, oh well it looks like he didn't spell the name right, oh wait, yes he did.'"
They eventually did count West's vote, which, as it turns out, was the vote that assured the election for William Bryon.
A few months after the election, Sheriff Bryon arrested West on a battery charge, for a fight he was in.
West was found guilty, and charged $107. In 2022 dollars, that's about $2,277.
West refused to pay it and took the case all the way to the Idaho Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor.
They said Sheriff Bryon never told him why he was being arested.
Years later, after Idaho became a state, West worked as a porter in the statehouse, earning the title of Master of the legislative cloakroom.
But he wasn't paid for it.
According to the Idaho Statesman, at the end of the 1901 session, house members had to pass a resolution to pay West 'in the same manner of the clerks of this house.'
He was eventually paid $60.
West died in October 1903. He is buried in Morris Hill Cemetery in Boise, but his headstone is currently unmarked.
Now, the Rick Just and fellow historian Bob Hartman are raising money to change that.
"We want to give a little clue to why he's important and I think something to put on the headstone would be what the Idaho Statesman called him was 'the dean of colored pioneers in Idaho'," Just said.
The money raised will go towards the purchase of the headstone. Any money raised after that will be donated to the Idaho Black History Museum.
For anyone who wants to donate, click here.
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