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Odd Wisconsin: Gillespie, Payne paved way to black suffrage

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In 1848, when enough settlers had arrived for Wisconsin to become a state, politicians drafted a constitution. It deferred the question of whether African-Americans could vote to a future referendum.

That was held on Nov. 6, 1849, when voters approved black suffrage 5,625 to 4,075. But there were several other questions on the ballot that day, and 5,625 was not a majority of all the votes cast on all the questions. Local officials, in a move worthy of later Jim Crow laws, used this excuse to deny African-Americans who tried to register to vote.

Enter 33-year-old Ezekiel Gillespie.

Born a Tennessee slave in 1818, by 1851 Gillespie had somehow made his way to Milwaukee and opened his own grocery store. After it failed during the Panic of 1857, he worked as a clerk for railroad magnate Alexander Mitchell.

Gillespie tried to register in every election held in Milwaukee, but was always turned away. In 1865, he sued the city for violating his civil rights.

Gillespie's court costs were paid by Sherman Booth, the abolitionist editor who had sprung fugitive slave Joshua Glover from jail in 1854. His attorney was Byron Paine, who had defended Booth when the latter was arrested.

Paine, who had served on the Wisconsin Supreme Court before commanding a Civil War regiment, convinced his colleagues on the bench that the 1849 referendum had given African-Americans the right to vote years before.

In the spring 1866 election, black Milwaukee residents braved curses from onlookers and voted for the first time.

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