Wisconsin Historical Society
Black History Month Open House
The Struggle for Black Male
Suffrage In Wisconsin
|Above: NFL and Packer Hall of Fame member Reggie White’s Green
Bay Packer jersey, one of many Wisconsin Black History artifacts that
will be on display
Below left: Dr. Christy Clark Pujara, the keynote speaker for the WHS
By Jonathan Gramling
It is important to understand history for sometimes looking at an issue with only the
recent past to put it into perspective can sometimes appear much different with the
correcting lens of history.
For instance, the recent moves to suppress the Black vote in Wisconsin might seem
irreversible and totally stifling. Or if it is looked through the long lens of Wisconsin
history, it might be seen as just another obstacle to overcome in the struggle for true
On February 15th, from 4-7 p.m., the Wisconsin Historical Society will explore this and
other aspects of Wisconsin’s Black History as a part of their Open House at their
headquarters at 816 State Street.
“We are going to be featuring the Mt. Zion Baptist Church Choir,” said Tanika Apaloo,
coordinator of adult education for the historical society. “They will be performing a
couple of selections. We’ll have Rob Dz back to perform a spoken word piece. And this
year, in addition to having the fraternity Phi Beta Sigma perform, their sister organization,
Zeta Phi Beta will also be performing with them. They will be performing a stepping
exhibition as well as giving a little history about their organizations. We’ll have Melly Mel’s back catering some soul food samples. The traveling exhibit ‘Crossing
the Line’ will be on display again. In addition we’ll have some actual historical artifacts related to African American history on display on the first floor.”
The keynote speaker at this year’s event is Dr. Christy Clark Pujara, a UW-Madison professor who will talk about the struggle for Black male suffrage in Wisconsin.
“I think the Midwest, in general, is misunderstood in the history of race in this country and we tend to think of the fight for the vote being something that happened in
the South during the Civil Rights Movement and not really having much knowledge about an earlier fight for the vote among free Blacks in the Antebellum North,”
Clark-Pujara said. “These campaigns for suffrage for Black men — Black women aren’t voting at the time — are happening along the East Coast from Rhode Island
to New York to New Jersey. But they are also happening in the Midwest in places like Ohio and Wisconsin.”
The first attempt to pass a state constitution in Wisconsin was 1846. There were some “controversial” portions of the constitution that contributed to it not passing.
“There was a referendum that allowed Black male suffrage to be left up to popular sovereignty,” Clark-Pujara said about the 1846 constitution. “So the possibility of
Black voting existed. That too was controversial at the time because white men’s citizenship at the time is conflated. The 1846 constitution failed and Wisconsin
doesn’t become a state until 1848. Where I became interested in this topic was when I began to read the suffrage debates of 1846. Those debates would be a lot
about race in Wisconsin at that time, race concerning Blacks and Whites in the face of Indian removal. You have a contest over who belongs in his place amidst the
removal of Native Americans and then whites assuming that they have dominion politically and The discussions about Black male suffrage reveal at some point the
attitude that allowing Black men to vote is an affront to white liberty. That’s how conflated white men and citizenship were in Wisconsin during the Antebellum period.
And so in the 1848 constitution that is ratified, that makes Wisconsin a state, the vote is restricted and it’s racially
restricted. And so, white supremacy is part of the founding of the state of Wisconsin.”
The 1848 state constitution that passed and allowed Wisconsin to become state did not have the Black voting
referendum language in it.
“Black men and Black people are pushed to the margins politically, socially and economically,” Clark-Pujara
observed. “When they are pushed out of the electorate, they don’t have a say in the founding institutions of the state. It’
s not just about your ability to vote for a particular thing. The more fundamental issue is what the state is going to look
like. What kind of institutions are going to be a part of the state like our land-grant university? It’s about shaping that
period in time. And so, that’s what the talk is about. Why the vote was racially restricted when we tend to think of the
Midwest as raceless-based. And what was the campaign and how do Blacks successfully get the right to vote. It’s
because of a suit brought by a Black man in Milwaukee.”
For the rest of the story, you’ll have to attend Clark-Pujara’s talk at the Wisconsin Historical Society. It will be a
meaningful way to celebrate Black History Month.