Remembering Ezekiel Gillespie, Pioneer for African American Voting Rights

Posted on behalf of Jeff Pitman on June 19, 2020 in Firm News
Updated on February 24, 2022

dropping ballot into ballot boxJuneteenth is a day to celebrate the end of slavery and freedom for African Americans. It is also an opportunity to look back at civil rights pioneers like Ezekiel Gillespie, who secured voting rights for African Americans in Wisconsin and helped found the first African American church in the state.

Gillespie sued the state of Wisconsin after he was turned away from the polls when he tried to register to vote in 1865. The state supreme court granted African American men over the age of 21 the right to vote – this right was not conferred nationally until a few years later.

While Wisconsin voters approved a referendum granting persons of African descent the right to vote in 1849, this right was not granted. At the time, legislators thought a majority of voters in an election should approve the measure, not just a majority of voters who made a decision on the referendum.

The referendum was put back on the ballot in 1857 and 1865, but a majority of voters did not approve it.

Gillespie’s Background

Ezekiel Gillespie was born a slave in the south in 1818. He was the son of a slave owner, who Gillespie eventually paid several hundred dollars to obtain his freedom.

After securing his freedom, Gillespie sold small goods in Indiana before coming to Milwaukee. In 1854 he began selling groceries on the corner of Mason and Main. Later in his life he was a messenger for the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Co., and he became a well-respected member of the African American community in Milwaukee. Gillespie got married two times and had children as well.

Gillespie was also a leader of Milwaukee’s Underground Railroad and was involved in the Joshua Glover controversy, involving a runaway slave who was seeking asylum in Racine.

Gillespie also helped found the first African American church in Wisconsin. Gillespie and his friends sent a petition to Bishop Richard Allen asking to start the first African American Methodist Church. Their request was approved and in 1869, the church, St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church, was founded on Kilbourn Avenue and Fourth Street. There is a marker on the site explaining the church’s history, as the church is now on W. Atkinson Avenue.

Even though Gillespie died in Chicago, his body was brought back to Milwaukee and he was buried in Forest Home Cemetery, with other prominent Milwaukeeans.

In 2014, Ezekiel Gillespie Park opened on the corner of 14th Street and Wright Street. The park has multiple sustainable designs, including rainwater storage, fruit trees, porous pavers and native plants.

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