By Senator Lena C. Taylor
Anyone that knows me has heard me utter the name Ezekiel Gillespie. You can’t talk about the history of voting rights in Wisconsin and not discuss this African American legend. Gillespie was born into slavery in 1818, in Canton, Mississippi. At some point, he purchased his freedom from his owner. In 1851, he made the decision to move to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to take advantage of his new found freedom. After all, Wisconsin had never been a slave holding state. Right? Like most things, the devil is in the details. According to the website Wisconsin 101, slavery did exist in the region that is today known as Wisconsin during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
The cite reports the following:
Over this period, thousands of enslaved African Americans or enslaved American Indians lived and worked in this region. Although their lives and histories have been obscured, enslaved men and women helped build some of the most important industries in the state.
French fur traders were the first to introduce chattel slavery to the region. They brought hundreds of enslaved African Americans and Kaskaskias, Meskwaki, Pawnee, and others into the region from the 1670s to 1763. When the British took control after the French and Indian War (1754-63), over 400 enslaved African Americans entered what would become the state of Wisconsin against their will. These men and women were brought to this region as laborers supporting the British fur trade.
After the Revolutionary War, the newly formed United States drafted the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to govern the territories on the frontier of the new country, including the lands that would become Wisconsin. The Northwest Ordinance forbade the owning of slaves, but lax enforcement permitted slavery to continue in the region.
Somehow in history class, I missed this story. I’d always been told that Wisconsin never had allowed the institution of slavery, except for incarcerated people. Constitutionally, that is true. Reality is another thing. In much the same vein, I reveled in the legacy of Gillespie. I was overwhelmed when I learned that Gillespie sued the State of Wisconsin, in 1865. The state’s 1848 constitution allowed him the right to vote, yet he was denied the right to register by county officials. Gillespie took them and the Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously ruled that African Americans could vote in 1866. He went on to become the first African American to vote in the state. This knowledge pushed me find out who was the first Black man to vote in the United States. The answer wasn’t hard to find.
According to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, that honor belongs to Thomas Peterson. He voted on March 31, 1870, one day after the ratification of the 15th Amendment. He lived in Perth Amboy, NJ and the residents commissioned a gold medal to commemorate the occasion. With all the efforts to stop the teaching of uncomfortable history, how many children will never learn about Gillespie or Peterson? Happy Black History Month, for now.