Milwaukee County Historical Society continues its celebration of Black History Month by sharing another story of triumph in the fight for civil rights. Please join us at our location to learn more about the African-American community in Milwaukee County.
On the morning of October 31st, two unlikely companions strolled into “the flats” of Milwaukee’s Seventh Ward. One of them was a white man with an over-sized, patriarchal beard. The other was a man of both European and African descent, who sported a chin-strap beard and moon-shaped eye-glasses. If these two men had ventured into the same location today, their presence would go largely unnoticed, if not for their mid-19th century sense of fashion. But the year was 1865 – the Civil War had not ended but six month earlier, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were only a glint in Radical Republicans’ eyes. These man were not welcome at the voter registration office that fateful morning. They were there to stir up trouble.
The white man with the large beard was hardly a stranger to controversy. He was none other than Sherman M. Booth, renowned abolitionist and editor of the Wisconsin Freemen. Booth’s rise to fame began with his role in the formation of the Liberty Party and later the Free Soil Party. But he truly became a household name when, in 1854, he led 5000 men in protest over the imprisonment of an escaped slave by the name of Joshua Glover. The crowd stormed the prison in which Glover was held and set him free.
The bespectacled man was Ezekiel Gillespie. Born in 1818 in Georgia, Gillespie was a former slave who had purchased his own freedom from his father, a slave owner, for several hundred dollars. In 1854, Gillespie made his way to Milwaukee, by way of Indiana, where he initially sold groceries on the corner of Mason Street and Main (now North Broadway). He later became a railway messenger for the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company.
This position allowed him to prosper. He dedicated his life to improving the conditions of African-Americans in Milwaukee and all across the state and he soon became a well-respected leader in the African-American community. Gillespie rose to a leadership position within the Milwaukee Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves secure safe passage into Canada. When he realized there was not a single African-American church in the entire state of Wisconsin, he and his peers pushed Bishop Richard Allen to start the African Methodist Church in Milwaukee. Despite quite a lot of push back against the idea, the church was finally approved and constructed on Fourth and Kilbourn in 1869. Gillespie even became involved in the Joshua Glover controversy.
It is unknown if Ezekiel Gillespie and Sherman Booth met for the first time during the raid of the Racine prison that held Glover. But meet they eventually did, and the two colluded together in order to push the boundaries of equal rights in Wisconsin. So, they convened on the morning of October 31st, 1865 at the Seventh Ward voter-registration station. They intended to register Ezekiel to vote in the upcoming election. But Gillespie was turned away that day. When he showed up at the polls on Election day, seven days later, with several affidavits in hand, the board of registry again refused to present him with a ballot. With Booth supporting him financially, Gillespie was determined to see his day in court over the issue.
The question of “Negro suffrage” in Wisconsin had come up several times before Gillespie attempted to cast his vote. Voters had rejected the 1846 draft of the Wisconsin Constitution, which had included the right to vote for African-Americans. During a subsequent debate over the Wisconsin State Constitution in 1848, legislators decided to let the people decide. A year later, citizens of Wisconsin voted in favor of universal male suffrage 5265 to 4075. However, the state’s board of election canvassers ruled that a majority of all votes cast in the election – not just those who decided to weigh in on that particular referendum – was needed for the for its passage. According to the board, the proposal would have needed a majority of the 31,759 votes cast in that particular election if it had any hope of approval. The question was on the ballot again in both the 1857 and 1865 elections, but failed to gain a majority both times.
But a glimmer of hope came to advocates of African-American suffrage when Byron Paine, one of the state’s most preeminent attorneys, agreed to take Ezekiel Gillespie’s case. The board of elections inspectors, Henry L. Palmer, William H. Williams, and Andrew H. McCormick, served as the defendants. The board’s counsel and future mayor of Milwaukee, David G. Hooker, argued that the facts of the case as stated did not constitute sufficient cause for the lawsuit. When the Circuit Court upheld this view, Byron Paine immediately appealed to the Wisconsin State Supreme Court.
In March 1866, the highest court in the state issued its unanimous decision in the case of Gillespie v. Palmer. The justices ruled that only a majority of opinions cast on a specific referendum – and not a majority of total votes cast – were needed for approval. In effect, the justices ruled that African-Americans had gained the right to vote when voters had cast their ballots in favor of the referendum, by a margin of over 1000, during the 1849 elections. With much jubilation over the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision, 25 to 30 freedmen practiced their right to vote in the municipal election the week following the final ruling.
Ezekiel Gillespie is well-known among many civil rights and Wisconsin historians. His story became legend almost over night. Rumors spread of his dedication to the freedmen’s cause. One such unconfirmed rumor stated he had jealously guarded the documents which proved him a freed man until he learned of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, whereupon he immediately proceeded to tear them into pieces. When he died on March 31, 1892, Gillespie was a regional hero. He had moved to Chicago several years earlier, but Milwaukee Road officials insisted that his remains be brought back to Milwaukee for burial in Forest Home Cemetery, resting ground of many of Milwaukee’s most famous citizens. Gillespie’s death and funeral made news in The Milwaukee Journal for four consecutive issues.
Almost no man was as respected or had done more for the betterment of Wisconsin’s African-American community than Ezekiel Gillespie. His tireless efforts to afford Black Wisconsinites the same rights as their white counterparts stand as testament that no matter what conditions one is born under, greatness can be achieved. Gillespie’s story, the story of a slave-owner’s son, born into slavery, who went on to guarantee the right to vote for all freedmen, should serve as inspiration to anyone who has ever had to overcome insurmountable odds.
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