Goodman Community Center | The Beginnings of Black Suffrage in WI

The Beginnings of Black Suffrage in WI

Learn about the decades long struggle for Black men's right to vote in WI.

February 28, 2023 |

Did you know the first drafted WI state constitution included Black men in the right to vote?

Written in 1846, the draft of our state's constitution included suffrage for Black men; however, this version was shot down by the all-white voting population as an "infringement upon their natural (white) rights." The vote concluded that " white men, even non-citizens could vote as well as native men who were citizens and denounced all tribal affiliation."

“To be white meant to be a citizen. So you could be two months in the nation from Germany or Norway or Sweden and your whiteness immediately bought you privilege and power, because you didn’t need citizenship, you just needed whiteness.”

In 1849, a year after WI was granted official statehood, a referendum was proposed to add Black suffrage to the state constitution. It technically passed with a vote of 5,265 to 4,075; however, 31,759 people did not vote and these no-shows were incorrectly counted as 'no' votes. The referendum was consequently discarded, and Black men were, once again, stripped of the right to vote in WI.

Six years later, in 1855, the WI Republican Party included Black male suffrage in their party platform, but ultimately abandoned it two years later. WI Democrats at the time vehemently opposed Black equality and vowed to never allow it to enter state laws.

In 1857, WI voted to "validate the white position" on Black suffrage, keeping it out of WI lawbooks for another 9 years. One last referendum was attempted in 1865, but this also failed to pass.

During this time, Black men in WI continued to fight for their right to vote. They petitioned the state and even presented themselves at the polls on election days. In the end, the man who changed the course of Black suffrage in WI was one Ezekiel Gillespie.

Ezekiel Gillespie, Milwaukee Memoirs

Gillespie tried registering to vote in the 1865 general election using the initial 1849 revision of the state constitution as evidence for his right to vote. He was blocked by officials in Milwaukee County, but Gillespie refused to give up and sued the Elections Board. The case eventually reached the WI Supreme Court in 1865. The court decided that because of the unconstitutional denial of the original 1849 referendum, Black men did have the right to vote in WI.

Sources: Madison 365, WI State Historical Society & UW Madison Professor of Afro-American Studies Christy Clark-Pujara w/ PBS.

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