Lyceum Lecture explored African Americans gained voting rights after challenges

By Dave Ralph, Friends of the Mining and Rollo Jamison Museums Board Secretary

Modern Wisconsin often views the state's residents in the mid to early 1800s and early 1900s as having progressive political preferences on numerous issues. However, African Americans experienced many roadblocks in their efforts to gain the right to vote before the Wisconsin Supreme Court extended suffrage to all African Americans in 1866.

University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara's presentation in the Municipal Auditorium on Sunday, February 25, 2018, about "Early Black Suffrage in Wisconsin" outlined the history of how African Americans - having gained their freedom at the end of the Civil War in April 1865 - became eligible to vote. It was the first program in the 2018 Winter Lyceum Speaker Series sponsored by the Mining and Rollo Jamison Museums.

The key legal case began when Ezekiel Gillespie of Milwaukee attempted to register to vote on October 31, 1865, but the city's Seventh Ward denied his voter registration. He was turned away at the polls the next day when he attempted to vote.

Gillespie filed a lawsuit claiming that the Board of Canvassers misinterpreted the definition of abstaining voters on a statewide black suffrage referendum in 1849 when the board counted a large number of abstention ballots as "no" votes. In 1866 the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in Gillespie's favor; thus, the court's decision meant African Americans had the right to vote. The ruling came on a legal technicality, but it made Wisconsin the first state in the Midwest to approve black suffrage, Dr. Clark-Pujara said.

The professor, who teaches in the Department of Afro-American Studies, explained that statewide referendums to allow African Americans to vote also failed in 1857 and 1865. The Republican Party, which dominated Wisconsin politics during the Civil War and the post-Civil War eras, had a reputation for being progressive, she said, but there was a split among Wisconsin voters on the issue of giving voting rights to free African Americans.

"Racism is complex," she said. "It isn't black or white; it's many shades of gray."

She cited the example of how many Wisconsin residents assisted escaped slaves reach freedom in Canada before and during the Civil War. However, the same Wisconsin residents who assisted escaped slaves did not unanimously approve of allowing African Americans the freedom to vote.

Dr. Clark-Pujara noted that the progressive and racist attitudes occurred simultaneously across Wisconsin in the mid-1800s. She advised historians and students doing research into African American rights in Wisconsin to go beyond preconceived notions and stereotypes. African Americans represent a small segment of the state's population, but their impact upon culture, the economy and government has extended from the 1720s to the remaining disparities in the 21st century, she said. Anyone interested in learning more about African American history in a local area or county probably should begin the quest for information with nearby historical societies. There often isn't a clear category about racism or segregation in history records, she said, but trying to determine who or how labor was exploited can lead to answers. State records and the Wisconsin Historical Society also offer resources.

In terms of improving voting rights for all Wisconsin citizens, Dr. Clark-Pujara said that polling places should extend hours, elections should be held for more than one day and free transportation should be available to voting sites. "We have to make voting as easy and as accessible as possible," she concluded.

Museums Education Coordinator Mary Huck said that Dr. Clark-Pujara's presentation - like several lyceum programs - adds a broader scope to the context of the region's history to enhance and enrich the public's knowledge. Such presentations also allow the audience to interact with historians actively engaged in pursuing in-depth studies.

Dave Ralph of Platteville, secretary-treasurer for Friends of the Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums, said he would like to make presentations like "Mining Memories" an annual event for the Museums. He also is attempting to have the event captured on video for educational purposes.

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