Editor’s note: Minnesota Lawyer is dipping into the Minnesota Historical Society’s archives and scooping out documents and artifacts exploring the state’s rich record of voting reforms, colorful personalities, constitutional crises, curious facial hair and more.
In the early months of 1867, Minnesota appeared ready to finally grant suffrage to black residents.
Republican congressmen in Washington, emboldened by a sweeping victory in the midterm elections, had enfranchised blacks in the District of Columbia and, in Minnesota, even the most unapologetically racist Democrats were conceding that giving black men the vote might be inevitable.
The state Democratic convention broke with tradition and declined to explicitly endorse white supremacy in its party platform. The St. Paul Pioneer, which had once grouped all black people together as a “degraded and useless class of persons,” could now envision giving the vote to men who “proved themselves worthy of the right.”
While a referendum to remove the word “white” from the state’s constitution had failed just two years prior, the political climate seemed to have shifted and Minnesota’s Republican Party decided to place the issue before voters for a second time.
Minnesota’s black population in the mid-1860s was tiny — fewer than 700 people in a population of about 400,000. Many came from eastern states, especially Virginia and Kentucky, drawn by decent jobs in the Twin Cities and plentiful farmland in the country. A number were escaped slaves, like Eliza Winston, who was emancipated with help from abolitionists while accompanying her Mississippi master on vacation.
When the Civil War broke out, 104 black Minnesotans were drafted. The Golden Key Club, an African-American literary group based in St. Paul, reminded legislators that “our black bosoms [were used] as a rampart to shield our country’s nationality from all harm.”
For some politicians, black suffrage took on a new political and moral imperative after the war. Gov. Stephen Miller said the votes of blacks were necessary to counteract those of Southern rebels and preserve the Union. Major Gen. Christopher C. Andrews, an antebellum Democrat from St. Cloud, changed parties after commanding black troops in battle and witnessing the degradations of slavery. As a candidate for Congress, Andrews told a crowd he “would rather be defeated a dozen times over than have the suffrage amendment lost.”
But racist invective was still widespread. The Chatfield Democrat compared suffrage to “the foeted breath of mongrelism” and insisted black soldiers “could never be relied upon to ‘bare their bosoms to the enemy’s shot and shell’ without being under the protection of gallant white men.” The Mankato Union wrote that “the blood of the Negro and whites do not agree, but produces scrofula and all its concomitant diseases.”
In 1867, during the first wave of Radical Reconstruction, Minnesota Republicans hoped their push to enfranchise black men had found its moment. For most of the year, the state’s Democrats were somewhat chastened by their apparent unpopularity with voters, but the party’s shameless racism came roaring back in September and October as Republican supporters of black suffrage lost elections in Maine, Ohio and California.
The Democratic State Central Committee of Minnesota issued a position paper implying the suffrage referendum would bring about “a black oligarchy more odious than any oligarchy that ever existed.” The Democratic candidate for governor, Charles E. Flandrau, said that “long-heeled, kinky-haired niggers were [no] more fit to vote than the mules which they drove during the War.”
In November, the voting-age white men of Minnesota defeated the suffrage referendum for the second time in as many years.
While the reasons for the failure were multiple, the Republican Party deserves a share of the blame. A Red Wing newspaper faulted its defeat on the “indifference and lukewarmness of a few [Republican] backsliders.” The party had maintained a nominative pro-suffrage stance dating back to its founding, but many of its members, while opposed to slavery, viewed blacks with a paternalistic superiority and hesitated to take political risks on behalf of people who looked different. Gov. William Marshall gave at least six public speeches in the run-up to the vote without once mentioning the referendum. His circumspection paid off politically in November. Marshall received 7,500 more votes than the referendum.
But the referendum fared significantly better than it had in 1865. Minnesotans were slowly becoming more tolerant of black suffrage. The referendum of 1867 was defeated by just 1,298 votes, and some attributed the loss to the fact that, in many counties, it had been relegated to a separate ballot. Pro-suffrage Republicans were emboldened.
During his annual speech to the state Legislature in January 1868, Marshall broke his silence and asked lawmakers to put yet another suffrage referendum to a vote.
In response, Democrats waged a final battle against black suffrage. Their 1868 party platform warned equal voting rights would “place the lives, liberties and fortunes of the people into the hands of a barbarous people.” U.S. Sen. Daniel Norton ranted about the need for another “war of races,” a sequel to the country’s genocidal treatment of Native Americans. “We have gradually crowded them back till they are disappearing,” he said. “So it will be with the blacks.”
But the tide of public opinion had turned against the Democratic Party. President Andrew Johnson had barely survived a March impeachment and the Republican candidate to replace him was the beloved Union war hero Ulysses S. Grant. Republicans capitalized on Grant’s popularity by placing the black suffrage referendum, for the first time, front and center on the general party ballot.
The referendum passed with 57 percent of the vote; more than 9 in 10 Grant voters gave their support. Black men would now be allowed to choose their representatives, serve on juries and hold political office. The celebrations were characterized by “great earnestness and enthusiasm” and by “harmony, sobriety and good order,” according to the St. Paul Daily Press. “All people if they see fit to avail themselves of it may here enjoy the fullest liberty and equality,” Rep. Morton Wilkinson said.
Yet true voting equality remained a long way off. The franchise was still restricted to Indians deemed to be “civilized” in district court, and it would be half a century before women would receive the right to vote. Wilkinson congratulated black men on their newfound rights by advising against ostentatious displays of political power, such as the founding of an independent third party. “Through labor, and through labor alone, you are to be honored and respected among men,” he told the Sons of Freedom, a newly formed black organization.
While Wilkinson’s musings on racial justice now sound patronizing and the scope of the 1868 referendum seems rather narrow, the amendment did make a meaningful impact on the lives of ordinary citizens.
John Richardson fled from a life of slavery in Tennessee during the tumult of the war, sheltered by Union troops who helped him make his way north. He eventually settled, a free man, in Lake City, Minnesota. On February 23, 1869, he cast a ballot on a Wabasha County bond referendum. Richardson was the first black voter in the state of Minnesota. He found no opposition at the polls, and the Lake City Leader printed no editorials or letters to the editor with words of protest.
- Minnesota and the Struggle for Black Suffrage: 1859-1870 by Gary Libman
- Minnesota’s Long Road to Black Suffrage: 1849-1868 by William D. Green
- Black Suffrage in Minnesota, 1868 by Matt Reicher
- History of the Constitution of Minnesota by William Anderson
- They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State’s Ethnic Groups by June Drenning Holmquist
- Trial of Democracy: Black Suffrage and Northern Republicans by Xi Wang