To understand barriers facing people of color at the polls in Wisconsin today, Christy Clark-Pujara says it’s important to look to the “recent history” of black suffrage in the state.
“Why did we implement a voter ID law, and who was affected by these laws?” said Clark-Pujara, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Our history illuminates and informs our present.”
Clark-Pujara illuminated that history in a lecture on Thursday at the Wisconsin Historical Society on the history of black suffrage in Wisconsin. As Clark-Pujara outlined, the story of how black people gained the right to vote is one profoundly shaped by slavery, racial definitions of citizenship, and by the pervasive belief that black equality amounts to “an affront to white freedom.”
That history, she asserted, sheds light on current policies like voter ID laws, which critics say disproportionately prevent people of color from being able to vote.
The lecture was the keynote address for Thursday night’s Black History Month Open House at the historical society, an event that society leaders said reflected the society’s mission to share stories that don’t always get the attention they deserve.
“When I think about Black History Month, I think about sharing stories,” said Christian Overland, the new director of the state historical society. “What’s special about tonight’s opening event is we’re producing some of these sharing opportunities for you.”
The evening mixed music and art with stories and artifacts from Wisconsin black history. The Mt. Zion Baptist Church Choir sang gospel, while dancers from Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority performed a step routine. Rob Dz, Madison’s celebrated hip-hop emcee and spoken word guru, recited original poetry. Influential figures spanning Wisconsin history were in attendance, from members of the NAACP youth coalition that marched on Milwaukee for fair housing in the 1960s, to Barbara McKinney, one of the first black women to serve on Madison’s city council.
Clark-Pujara’s address kicked off the evening’s programming. Her talk contextualized black suffrage in the history of how many black and Native American people were held in bondage in the Midwest, “a place where a lot of us think there was no slaveholding.”
By 1752, she said, 446 enslaved black people lived in the Midwestern region, and about 41 percent of heads of household owned a slave. Those people were integral to converting the regional economy from one based in fur trading to one grounded in mining and agriculture.
Henry Dodge, one of the monumental figures in Wisconsin history, was himself a slaveholder. Clark-Pujara made a point of repeating the names of his slaves, who helped grow Dodge’s wealth in the lead mining industry: Tobey, Tom, Lear, Jeb and Joe.
“The name Henry Dodge has been said a lot, and written a lot, and been put on buildings,” she said. “The names of Tobey, Tom, Lear, Jeb and Joe have not. But their stories are just as pertinent to Wisconsin as Henry Dodge.”
That history of slavery informed white attitudes toward race, including when it came to suffrage and citizenship. There was a string of attempts made to grant that population suffrage after Wisconsin attained statehood. There was even an early draft of the state constitution would have allowed black men to vote. However, that draft, and subsequent referenda on black suffrage, were voted down.
The state’s founding constitution, approved in 1848, explicitly barred black men from voting. It did, however, give the right to vote to white people from foreign countries who hadn’t become citizens yet, but who asserted that they intended to.
“Citizenship and whiteness are so combined that it supersedes citizenship,” explained Clark-Pujara.
The breakthrough for black male suffrage came in 1866, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court weighed in on a lawsuit filed by Ezekiel Gillespie, a black man who was turned away from the polls the year before because of his race. The court found that black men, in fact, had the right to vote: Votes in a referendum in 1849 had been incorrectly tallied, since state canvassers decided to count ballots where voters didn’t weigh in on the referendum as “no” votes.
Clark-Pujara noted that those 17 years in which black men were barred from the polls meant that a significant chunk of Wisconsin’s population was barred from helping shape the state’s primary institutions, from government bodies to the University of Wisconsin.
While suffrage for black men constituted the core of Clark-Pujara’s research, she noted that female black suffrage was its own struggle as well, that resolved with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920.
Clark-Pujara stressed that the story of black suffrage in Wisconsin, and of black people in the state in general, as one that often goes untold. Often, she said, stories of the black experience focus on the south, or on big cities – not in places like Wisconsin where black populations were small.
“Their stories remain largely untold,” she said. “The history of the state and the region remains incomplete without the full accounting of African-Americans – their experiences and their influence.”