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1865: Should Black Citizens Be Allowed to Vote?

Introduction: The Wisconsin constitution allowed black citizens to vote, provided that the idea was ʺsubmitted to the vote of the people at a general election, and approved by a majority of all the votes cast at such election.” When in 1849 Wisconsin residents voted on that question, African American voting rights were approved 5,265 to 4,075. But there were several issues on the ballot that day and less than half of all people who went to the polls voted on the black suffrage question. Because ʺa majority of all the votes castʺ that day did not approve black suffrage (the majority had not voted on it at all), most observers believed that African Americans were not permitted to vote in Wisconsin. In subsequent referendums in 1857 and in 1865, voters rejected black suffrage outright.

When during the 1865 referendum, Ezekiel Gillespie, a leader of Milwaukeeʹs black community, was not allowed to register to vote, he sued the election officials. His suit immediately advanced to the Wisconsin supreme court, where his attorney claimed that the phrase in the 1848 constitution (quoted above) meant that only a majority of votes on the suffrage issue had to prevail, not a majority of all votes cast on all issues that day. The supreme court agreed with him and ruled that black citizens had been entitled to vote in Wisconsin since 1849. At the time, suffrage applied only to men; it would be more than half a century before women, black or white, would be allowed to vote (in 1920).

Background Reading: ʺBlack History in Wisconsinʺ http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/blackhistory/

Document to Analyze: “Negro Suffrage in Wisconsin.” Daily Milwaukee News, Nov. 12, 1865. http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=1384

Who, What, Where, When, Why: This short newspaper article appeared in Milwaukee immediately after the 1865 popular referendum on whether African Americans should be allowed to vote in Wisconsin. Its author is not identified, but its point of view is very clearly against permitting black suffrage. The “radical leaders” to whom it refers were abolitionist Republicans such as Byron Paine and Sherman Booth.

Related Documents: “First Colored Voter.” The Evening Wisconsin, June 12, 1897. http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=1385 and Huber, Henry A. ʺCitizenship of Wisconsin. Some History of its Progress.ʺ Racine TimesCall, June 18, 1929. http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=986

Vocabulary: Unfamiliar words are defined at www.wisconsinhistory.org/dictionary


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