Black Suffrage in Early Wisconsin | Wisconsin Public Television

Black Suffrage in Early Wisconsin

Black Suffrage in Early Wisconsin

Record date: Feb 20, 2018

Christy Clark-Pujara, Associate Professor in the Department of History at UW-Madison, explores the history of black male disenfranchisement during the first years of Wisconsin’s statehood. This exclusion at the ballot box ultimately resulted in Wisconsin becoming the first state where black men could vote.

University Place Campus: 

University Place Lecture Series: 

University Place Subjects: 

Episode Transcript

- Today, we are pleased to

introduce Christy Clark-Pujara

as part of the Wisconsin

Historical Museum's

History Sandwiched In

lecture series.

The opinions expressed today

are those of the presenter,

and are not necessarily those

of the Wisconsin

Historical Society

or the museum's employees.

Christy Clark-Pujara is an

associate professor of history

in the department of

Afro-American studies

at the University of


Her research focuses

on the experiences

of black people in British

and French North America

in the 17th, 18th, and

early 19th centuries.

She is particularly

interested in retrieving

the hidden and unexplored

histories of African Americans

in the areas that historians

have not sufficiently examined,

small towns and cities

in the North and Midwest.

Her first book,

"Dark Work: The Business of

Slavery in Rhode Island,"

was printed by

NYU Press in 2016.

In addition to her

scholarly research,

she serves as a

public historian,

writing editorials and

participating in interviews

for podcasts for a variety

of media including NPR, Time,

History News Network,

Ben Franklin's World,

The Way of Improvement,

and Teaching Tolerance.

Here today to discuss the

history of black suffrage

in Wisconsin, please join me

in welcoming Christy


[audience applauds]

- Good afternoon,

and thank you all

for coming and braving the rain.

I'd like to thank

Katie for reaching out

for me to speak today.

And the Wisconsin

Historical Museum

for hosting these events,

so thank you, I appreciate it.

I thought today was

particularly fitting,

as an election day,

to be talking

about suffrage in the

state of Wisconsin.

First, I'm gonna begin with

a little bit of background.

I'm not just gonna

jump into suffrage,

the suffrage debates that

really began in earnest in 1846.

I wanna tell a little

bit of backstory

about the experiences

of black people

in what we now refer

to as Wisconsin,

and how they came

to be in this place.

The story of black

people and black suffrage

in Wisconsin is recent history

and plays out amidst

European invasion,

colonization, and the removal

of indigenous populations

that have inhabited this region

for hundreds and

thousands of years.

One of the things I

have appreciated most

about my new project on

black people in Wisconsin

is the opportunity to

study indigenous history.

To learn about the

Ho-Chunk, the Dakota,

the Meskwaki, and the Ojibwa,

and other indigenous people

that have called this place home

and continue to call

this place home.

Native people and their

experiences are central

to understanding the history

of African Americans

in this place

and the state as a whole.

Black people have been in what

we refer to as the Midwest.

I'm sorry, I meant to have

this up ahead of time,

but I just wanna

recenter us for a minute.

We're used to

thinking that we know

what North America looks like,

but this is what North

America looked like

before European

colonization and invasion.

And I think it's

important for us

to recognize that the

places that we think we know

looked very different, and

that history doesn't begin

with European

colonization and invasion.

That there was a

history to those places

before white people

were ever there.

Black people have been in what

we refer to as the Midwest

since the French

colonial period.

The first black people

came into the region

in the 1720s with

French fur traders.

Some were free, but

most lived in bondage.

Free and enslaved people

of African descent

and Native descent

were instrumental in the

Midwestern transformation

from mission centers

and fur trading posts

to grain production.

By 1732, enslaved people

made up a quarter

of the population.

And by 1752, 446 enslaved black

people lived in the region,

and 41% of white heads of

households owned a person.

Like in the North, slave ownership in the Midwest

was more widespread than

it ever was in the South.

Let me take a minute to explain.

In the North, you

would often get 40-42%

of white heads of

households owning people.

They usually owned one or two.

In the South, you had about 24%

of the population

holding slaves,

and they usually held five

or more, planters 20 or more.

So the patterns of slave

ownership were different,

but slave ownership was

more widespread in the North

than it was in the South,

even though you have

higher concentrations

of enslaved people in the South.

The Northwest

Ordinance is probably

one of the most misunderstood

articles of the Constitution.

Most people think of

the Northwest Ordinance,

and they think of

the ban on slavery.

I wanna give some general detail

of the Northwest Ordinance

and then go into some stories of

how people actually

lived their life

in the Northwest Territories,

because there is law, and

then there is law in practice.

In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance

forbade slaveholding

in the territories,

but the ban was not enforced.

Race-based slavery was

practiced in the Upper Midwest

until the late 1840s,

neither territorial

officials nor Congress

moved to emancipate

those held in bondage,

and pro-slavery residents

soon stopped petitioning

for explicit legal

protection when they realized

that Article IV of the

Northwest Ordinance

would not be enforced.

And so we have these petitions

that say things like,

"I held people in bondage

before this place was claimed

"by the US as a territory."

And the government

would respond,

"Yes, you can continue to hold

those people in bondage."

They were, kind of a

grandfather clause.

It's like now, when you

have an old building,

it might not have

to have the same

handicap accessibility

as a new building.

But when they realized that

there was no

enforcement mechanism,

people stopped even doing that.

Statehood forced the issue

of slavery in most places.

In 1803, Ohio entered the

Union as a free state.

When Illinois became

a state in 1818,

those held in slavery and

servitude were held to contract,

but no new slaves could

come to the region,

no new indentured contracts

could come to the region.

And so those held before 1818

had to live out their contract.

And some of these

indentures, most historians

of slavery in the Midwest

just talk about them

as being a form of slavery.

Because some were 30

years, some were 60 years,

and there were

99-year indentures.

If you are indentured for

99 years in the 1830s,

that is slavery, right?

And the rules and regulations

that applied to people,

things like, you couldn't

go more than a mile

from where you were

bound without a pass.

It very mimicked slavery.

Michigan entered the Union

as a free state in 1837,

followed by Iowa in 1846.

In 1848, the Illinois state

constitution banned slavery

and extended

indentureships, and in 1848,

Wisconsin entered the

union as a free state.

Now I'm gonna roll

it back a little bit

and tell you about

some experiences.

When significant numbers

of white Americans

from the Northeast

and the Upper South

begin to move to the Midwest after the American Revolution,

the numbers of enslaved

Native Americans dwindled

as the US Army forcefully

removed them from the land,

and some American Indians

tribes entered into treaties

with the US government.

African Americans who

were enslaved remained.

More enslaved black people

came with white settlers

who also brought their

racist attitudes.

Enslaved people were present

in every facet of the economy.

They labored on farms,

in the skilled trades,

as domestics, and miners.

It was a fluid

institution, excuse me.

In the Midwest, slavery

was openly practiced,

but it was rarely acknowledged.

It was a fluid institution,

taking on a variety of forms

including open and legally

sanctioned slavery,

long-term indentured servitude,

adoptions that were intended

to mask child slavery,

and outright illegal


And so you have this

composite of bound labor

existing in the

Northwest territories.

In the 1820s, Southern

military officers

brought more enslaved African

Americans into the region.

These officers included

those who took advantage

of the army's special allowance

to lease or hire servants

and enslaved people.

Throughout the 1840s,

black Americans

performed a wide range

of labor at Fort Snelling

in St. Paul, Minnesota, Fort

Crawford in Prairie du Chien,

Fort Armstrong in Rock Island.

Bound black American

men, women, and children

were also held by

officers posted

at Fort Winnebago

in Columbia County,

and Fort Des Moines in Montrose.

But it was the lead

boom that brought

more enslaved African Americans

to the Wisconsin Territory.

In 1827, Henry Dodge

moved to the territory

from the slaveholding

state of Missouri

and set up a lead mine.

He held Toby, Tom, Lear,

Jim, and Joe in bondage.

They labored as smelters

at Henry's furnace.

Henry had promised to free

Toby, Tom, Lear, Jim,

and Joe after six months,

but he held them in

captivity for 12 years,

despite the prohibition

against slaveholding

in the Northwest Territories.

Toby, Tom, Lear, Jim, and Joe

were finally freed

on April 11, 1838,

two years after Dodge became

the first territorial

governor of Wisconsin.

If you noticed, I said

their names a lot.

Toby, Tom, Lear, Jim, and Joe.

And I referred to Henry

Dodge as just Henry.

This is intentional.

We know who Henry Dodge is.

We don't know about

the bound laborers

that created his wealth,

that built that mine,

that worked that mine.

And we don't have

surnames for them.

And so when I can't

speak their surname,

I will not speak his surname.

In 1846, Paul Jones,

an enslaved lead worker

in Sinsinawa,

sued his enslaver George

W. Jones for $1,133

for "trespassing on a promise,"

a promise to pay him wages.

Paul Jones lost his case

and continued to labor

for George Jones's

benefit until 1842

when he was emancipated.

Slavery was openly practiced

in the Northwest Territories,

but rarely has it

been acknowledged.

And someone like Paul Jones

is forgotten to history

because a man by the

name of Dred Scott

is going to sue for his freedom,

and his family's freedom,

a few years later,

and so we forget about Paul

Jones, who sued in 1842,

and the courts basically

said, "You're right,

"but it doesn't matter,

because you're black."

This is gonna get reiterated

by the US Supreme Court

in the Dred Scott case.

Many emancipated

black Wisconsinites

found their way

to Pleasant Ridge,

a free black community

outside of Lancaster.

Founded in 1848,

it was populated by

free black migrants,

fugitive slaves,

and emancipated Wisconsinites

like Paul Jones.

Overall, Wisconsinites

held very few slaves.

By 1840, only 11 of

the 196 black people

in the Wisconsin Territory

were enslaved.

Nevertheless, the

existence and the practice

of race-based

slavery in Wisconsin

shaped white attitudes

about African Americans,

because they, like the

rest of white Americans,

associated slavery

with blackness,

the antithesis of citizenship.

Race informed

evolving definitions

of citizenship and

worthy settlement.

Who belonged in this place?

Who had a right to this place?

Who should homestead

in this place?

And many white

Wisconsinites wanted

a region free of all black

people, free or enslaved.

And although most

white Wisconsinites

were free labor advocates,

they were not abolitionists,

those who actively worked to

dismantle the

institution of slavery.

These are two of those terms

that preciseness is necessary.

So Wisconsin was populated by

whites that were anti-slavery,

they opposed slavery,

they don't want it

existing where they live.

But they were not abolitionist.

An abolitionist is

somebody who was actively

working to destroy the

institution of slavery.

There were many people

who were anti-slavery.

There were some people

who were abolitionist.

Fears of black migrants

led white Wisconsinites

to dispute abolition and the

rights of black residents.

So while the state

served as a safe haven

for fugitive slaves

like Joshua Glover,

black men were barred

from voting until 1866,

a few years before the

14th and 15th Amendment

declared birthright citizenship

and universal male suffrage.

And so many times, the history

of black people in Wisconsin

has been a history that

has focused on abolition,

the Underground Railroad,

the rescue of Joshua Glover,

and all of those

things happened,

and all of those things matter

and tell us a lot about the past and the people who live here,

but at the same time,

Wisconsin was a place

that denied black men suffrage.

And so it's understanding

the complexities

of racism in a place like this.

It wasn't black or white.

It is not surprising

that black male suffrage

was contested in the

free Northern states,

of course it was.

Because the nation

as a whole sanctioned

and protected

race-based slavery.

We're very used to

thinking about slavery

as being a Southern institution.

It was not, it was a

national institution

sanctioned and protected

by the entire country.

Moreover, white Americans,

North and South,

were deeply invested in

the business of slavery.

The buying and selling

of people and goods

that sustained the

plantation economy.

For example, the Lowell mills

and the shipyards of

Philadelphia and New York

profited from black bondage.

The Industrial Revolution,

the textile revolution

is dependent on

slave-grown cotton.

We built the railroads to

get cotton out of the South.

Before it was the New

York Stock Exchange,

it was the New York

Cotton Exchange.

Why is there a shipbuilding

industry in the Northeast?

They're transporting that

cotton throughout the world.

By the middle of

the 19th century,

cotton accounted for

58% of all US exports.

That's everything

combined, and then some.

Slavery was a national

institution, not a regional one.

And because slavery

was race-based,

free black people

were an anomaly,

because you justify

race-based slavery

because that's where

those people belong.

But if there's free black

people, where do they belong?

Are they citizens?

Where do they fit in?

They are a living,

breathing reminder

of the hypocrisy of the nation.

The status of free black people

in the antebellum years

was ambiguous at best.

In 1830, Northeastern states

with small black populations

did not bar black

men from voting,

while Northeastern states

with larger black populations

restricted or

disenfranchised black men.

All Midwestern states

initially barred

or restricted black

men from voting,

although some

restrictions were lifted

in the years before

the American Civil War.

Now we're gonna get to

suffrage in Wisconsin.

But for me, the story

doesn't make sense

if you don't know how people

got here in the first place.

In Wisconsin, black

suffrage was affirmed

and denied by early

settlers and citizens.

The 1846 constitution

would have put

black male suffrage on

the state's first ballot,

but the constitution

was not approved,

so it became a moot point.

So the 1846 constitution

is never approved.

And historians have

laid out a few reasons

why the 1846

constitution doesn't fly.

There was a clause in there

about married women

retaining their property.

And that seemed insane, right? [audience laughs]

How do you control

them after marriage

if they retain their

property, right?

This is debated.

Remember, we're in the middle

of the 19th century here.

Women are property.

So how does your property

retain their property?

There's also some pushback

against this referendum

that's tacked onto the end

of the 1846 constitution

that just puts black male

suffrage up for vote.

So it doesn't say there

will be black male suffrage,

it just says there's

gonna be a vote on it.

Whether or not is should exist.

That was controversial,

and also there's

this fight over paper money.

Is it gonna be paper money,

is it gonna be metal money?

Money always matters, right?

And so these three

things really torpedo

the 1846 constitution,

so Wisconsin doesn't

become a state in 1846.

It's gonna become a state

two years later in 1848.

But what really got me

interested in this project

was when I began to read

the debates about suffrage.

The 1846 suffrage debates.

The debate over black suffrage

during the 1846

constitutional convention

revealed overt racism

among some leaders

in the territorial government.

They claimed that God

sanctioned the separation

of races and describe

black men as "thieves"

and black women as "far

worse" than thieves.

These are direct quotes.

They also argued that

the people of Wisconsin

would not accept black

male suffrage, and I quote,

"The people would deem

it an infringement

"upon their natural rights

thus to place them

"on an equality with

the colored race."

First, who are you

determining to be people?

People and whiteness

are being equated.

This is not a reference

to Native people.

This is not a reference

to black people.

But people and whiteness

is being equated.

And the idea that it

is an infringement

on the natural rights

of white people

to set them with equality.

That is very telling of

how white Wisconsinites

are thinking about citizenship

and who belongs, and

who does not belong.

They also argued

that, excuse me.

Other delegates

highlighted the hypocrisy

and the prejudice

of these assertions.

So these did not

go un-critiqued.

These did not go unchallenged.

They noted that black

men voted in New York

without incident, and that

the denial of the vote

was paramount to social

and political alienation,

an affront to all people.

The state's second

constitution agreed with those

who found black

equality an affront

to white natural rights.

The state's second constitution

explicitly excluded black

men from the electorate.

Approved in 1848, Wisconsin's

founding document stated

that adult white men, even

non-citizens, could vote,

as well as Native

men who were citizens

and denounced all

tribal affiliation.

So Native men who

ceased to be Native.

They can vote.

But if you read 2d

on Article III on Suffrage,

"White persons of foreign birth,

"who shall have

declared their intention

"to become citizens

conformably to the laws

"of the United States on the

subject of naturalization."

Whiteness supersedes


Because whiteness

and citizenship

were seen as the same thing.

To be a citizen

meant to be white.

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.

Suffrage in a new state meant

more than political power.

It provided an

opportunity to shape

state institutions

and society at large.

Including the

University of Wisconsin

that is founded

in the same year.

In 1849, the first

state legislature

held a referendum on

black male suffrage.

It was approved by a

vote of 5,265 to 4,075;

however, 31,759

voters did not vote

on the referendum at all, and

the State Board of Canvassers

treated those

abstentions as no votes,

banning black men

from the ballot box.

The apathy of tens of

thousands of voters

had serious consequences

for free black people

in the state of Wisconsin.

This is also gonna

have consequences

for free Asian people in

the state of Wisconsin.

And free Mexicans in

the state of Wisconsin.

Because whiteness is the bar,

and Natives who

cease to be Natives.

In 1855, the Wisconsin

Republican Party

adopted universal male suffrage

as part of its party platform.

African Americans

quickly responded

to the party's

progressive position

and circulated a

petition in support.

They held a meeting in

Milwaukee on November 6, 1855.

They adopted a

resolution in support

of the Republican Party and

universal male suffrage.

They had their

proceedings published

in the Milwaukee Daily

Free Democrat and Sentinel.

So the first time I saw this,

and it was referred

to in an article

that was written

by Mike McManus,

and I went and I wanted

to see it in its print,

I felt like they left it for me.

They wanted a record that

we cared about our suffrage.

They took up a collection

in order to get

their proceedings

printed in the paper.

They wanted record that they

were concerned

about their rights.

That they understood that they

were being denied citizenship.

That they understood that they

were being pushed to

the margins of society.

The response of African

Americans was not passive.

They were seeking their rights,

and they left us record

of seeking those rights.

Two years later, in 1857,

unable to build a consensus

and widespread support,

Wisconsin Republicans drop

universal male suffrage

from their party platform.

The Democrats adopted

a resolution stating

that they were,

and I quote, "unalterably

opposed to the extension

"of the right of

suffrage to Negro race,

"and will never consent

that the odious doctrine

"of Negro equality

shall find a place

"upon the statute

books of Wisconsin."

A referendum later

that year confirmed

that most white

Wisconsin voters agreed

with the Democratic Party.

Black male suffrage was defeated

by a vote of 45,157 to 31,964.

Black Wisconsinites petitioned

the state for the right to vote,

and some even presented

themselves on election day.

On October 1865, they held

a mass meeting for suffrage

that drew black people

from around the state.

Ezekiel Gillespie

was one of them.

Later that month, Gillespie

attempted to vote,

and he was turned away.

After he was turned away from

the polls, Gillespie sued.

His case made its way to

the state supreme court.

African Americans were

searching for their rights.

They were in pursuit of

their rights as citizens.

An 1865 referendum on

black male suffrage

again reaffirmed

white Wisconsinites

opposition to black men voting.

They voted the

referendum down again

by a vote of 55,591 to 46,588.

That would have

been the end of it,

not for Gillespie's suit,

which was scheduled for review by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The court agreed that Gillespie

had indeed had

the right to vote,

as the 1849 referendum had

been wrongly interpreted

by the State Board

of Canvassers.

The court's decision

invalidated the ban

on black voting and

confirmed that suffrage

had been legally

extended to black men

in the state of

Wisconsin in 1849.

For 17 years, black men

in Wisconsin

were barred from the ballot box,

and their disenfranchisement

excluded them from

shaping the state's

public institutions,

including the campus I work on.

But black Wisconsinites refused

to accept their

political marginality,

and their efforts, alongside

those of white advocates,

made Wisconsin the first

state in the Midwest

to enfranchise black

men without restriction.

That didn't mean anything for

black women, who can't vote,

right along with white

women, who can't vote. Right?

So a little bit about

women's suffrage.

Women don't get the right

to vote in Wisconsin

until the passage of

the 19th amendment.

There was a suffrage movement

that was active

throughout the state.

They are often

tied to temperance

and property rights

movements as well.

The acknowledgement of humanity.

One thing I found

kind of interesting

while I was thinking

through this

is that women in 1884

convinced the state

to let them vote in any vote

that had to do with schools.

So they used this

proper spear argument.

"We are the caretakers

of the children,

"so if it's a vote

about schools,

"we should be allowed

to vote on that."

And the state bought it, but then the supreme court's like,

"No, because this is just gonna

snowball into other things.

"Then you're gonna start saying

"that you care about

society at large,

"and you should be able

to vote on everything."

So it gets rescinded.

So for a little bit,

you have women voting

on school matters,

but then that gets rescinded.

There's a referendum on

women's suffrage in 1911,

and that's voted

down 63% to 37%.

And so women do not vote

in the state of Wisconsin

until the 19th

Amendment is passed.

Black Americans

were a tiny minority

in the Wisconsin territory

and later the state;

nevertheless, the practice

of race-based slavery

and anxieties about

black migrants

led white Wisconsinites

to dispute abolition

and the rights of

black residents.

In the mid-19th century,

fugitive slaves passing

through Wisconsin

were often met with assistance,

while black permanent

residents were marginalized.

Much of the historiography

concerning the experiences

of black Americans has

focused on the South

and on large Northern

and Midwestern cities,

yet the full dimensions of the

African American experience

cannot be appreciated

without reference

to how black people

managed their lives

in places where they were few.

An absence of a

large black populace

did not meant that ideas

of blackness and whiteness

were not central to

the social, political,

and economic development

of these places.

This is especially relevant

in the territories,

when many white Northerners

and Midwesterners claimed

that their given locales

were bastions of freedom

because there were few

or no black people.

Enslaved and freed African

Americans lived, labored,

and raised families on

the Wisconsin frontier.

They called Prairie du Chien,

Racine, Green Bay, Lancaster,

Milwaukee, Madison,

and Menominee home.

Yet their stories

remain largely untold.

The history of the state and

the region remains incomplete

without a full accounting

of the African American

experience and influence.

History is the means whereby

we assert the continuity

of human life.

It is a fundamental part

of what makes us human.

It is a social necessity

that meets basic human needs.

It gives us personal identity,

a collective mortality.

History legitimizes our culture, explains our world,

how and why things

are the way they are.

I give a lecture in

every class that I teach,

and the first lecture I

give is why history matters.

Because unless you're willing

to say, "I am a mass of cells,"

history matters to you.

It matters to our

personal identities.

I often describe myself

as a Midwesterner.

That doesn't mean anything

if you don't know anything

about the construction

of the Midwest.

If you call yourself a

Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu,

that doesn't mean anything

out of historical context.

If you call yourself

a German or Irish,

that doesn't mean anything

outside of historical context.

History is personal, and

it's with us every day.

It is one of the things

that makes us human.

We are the only species

that care about,

argue about, write about,

debate our history.

So to deny a people

their history

is to do a great violence.

The history of

suffrage in Wisconsin

is a history fraught

with racism and sexism.

Access to the ballot box

has been a contentious issue

in this state from its founding.

We need understand

the regulations

of voting within

historical context.

Which begs the questions.

Why did we implement

a voter ID law,

and who is affected

by these laws?

Our history must inform and

illuminate our presence.

Thank you for your attention.

[audience applauds]

Share this page