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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Civil Rights in Wisconsin

This weekend we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day to commemorate his life-long struggle to secure "liberty and justice for all" in segregated America. Our own state was no exception to the rule of racial injustice, but the process by which civil rights were guaranted to all Wisconsin children is perhaps unique.

When the residents of Wisconsin decided they were ready to govern themselves, they chose delegates to write a set of laws. It was the fall of 1846 and the 124 elected delegates argued for ten weeks before finally agreeing on a draft constitution in December. It would have allowed some immigrants to vote, granted married women the right to own property, and made the question of black suffrage subject to popular referendum.

That special election was held in 1849 to determine whether black residents should be allowed to vote -- and on certain unrelated questions -- and the specific question of black suffrage passed 5,625 to 4,075.

But because 5,625 was not a majority of all the votes cast on all the questions that day, opponents of suffrage succeeded in denying voting rights to African Americans. Ezekiel Gillespie, a black Milwaukee resident, nevertheless attempted to register to vote in every election that followed and was rejected year after year. In 1865 he finally sued the city for violating his civil rights.

Gillespie's attorney was Byron Paine, who had been deeply involved in the Joshua Glover case over the Fugitive Slave Law a decade before. Paine succeeded in persuading the Wisconsin Supreme Court that the 1849 referendum had in fact given black residents the right to vote.

Local officials who disagreed, however, continued to intimidate black voters until the Wisconsin legislature ratified the 15th amendment to the U.S. constitution in 1869 and the voting rights of African American men were finally assured. Black women, like all women, were denied the right to vote until 1920. Wisconsin Indians were only guaranteed the right to vote in 1924 with passage of the federal Indian Citizenship Act.

Suffrage is not the only civil right, of course, and Wisconsin remained a deeply racist state in virtually all other aspects of social life. For example, the Negro Business Directory of the State of Wisconsin, 1950-1951 included a section on American hotels where African Americans could "enjoy your vacation without humiliation" -- there were none in Wisconsin.

Milwaukee, where most of Wisconsin's people of color have lived, grew into one of the nation's most racially segregated cities.

A 1946 survey found that 90% of subdivisions platted in the city since 1910 prohibited the sale of property to African Americans, and there were widespread 'gentlemen's agreements' not to sell or rent to black citizens "except within the area bounded by W. North, W. Juneau, N. 3rd, and N. 12th Streets." Segregated neighborhoods led to segregated schools: a 1960 survey found that schools in Milwaukee's central city were 90% black. On August 28, 1963, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Milwaukee organized the first civil rights demonstration in the city, and throughout the 1960s and 1970s activists such as Vel Phillips, Lloyd Barbee, and Father James Groppi led thousands of citizens in efforts to create equality of opportunity in housing, schools and jobs.

On Monday, as our kids enjoy a day off school, it's important to recall the people from Ezekiel Gillespie to Vel Phillips who risked their reputations, livelihoods, and often their personal safety in defense of our nation's pledge to guarantee "liberty and justice for all."

:: Posted in Curiosities on January 14, 2010

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