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Three years after the Civil War, Minnesota voters approved black suffrage

From their state’s admission to the Union until the mid-1860s, Minnesota’s black citizens paid taxes, fought in wars, and fostered their communities. But they could not vote, hold political office, or serve on juries. 

"Proceedings of the Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of Minnesota" program, 1869. This program was presented at the first political convention black Minnesotans held after gaining the right to vote. The celebration held on January 1, 1869 in St. Paul also marked the creation of the Sons of Freedom, the first African American civil rights group in Minnesota.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

From their state’s admission to the Union until the mid-1860s, a majority of Minnesotans advocated the abolition of slavery in the South. Black suffrage, however, did not enjoy the same support. Minnesota’s black citizens paid taxes, fought in wars, and fostered their communities. But they could not vote, hold political office, or serve on juries. This continued until 1868 when an amendment to the state’s constitution approved suffrage for all non-white men.

In 1849 Congress passed the Organic Act that created Minnesota Territory. The new territory’s legislature followed the federal practice of denying African Americans and other non-whites the right to vote and run for election. These rights were restricted to free white males over twenty-one years old.

Black suffrage was a divisive issue during the Constitutional Convention of 1857. In the end, pro-suffrage Republicans compromised with their Democratic opponents to ensure the ratification of the state constitution.

From 1861 to 1864 Minnesota politicians, like their counterparts in many northern states, kept quiet about the suffrage issue. In 1864 the legislature passed a resolution supporting Lincoln’s emancipation policy but declined to go further.

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The war’s end and the need to redefine the status of Southern freedmen brought the issue to the forefront of state politics. Campaigning for black suffrage in the South without granting similar rights in the North was seen as hypocritical.

In both 1865 and 1867 Republicans offered amendments to remove the word “white” from the voting requirements of the state constitution. They had received petitions to do so from groups across the state, including one from the Golden Key Club, a black literary group in St. Paul. However, they failed to pass in both years. Republican voter indifference was blamed for the amendment’s failure in 1865. Although pro-suffrage votes were gained in 1867, that year’s amendment still failed to pass by 1298 votes.

By the end of 1867 public resistance seemed to have waned. This led many to believe the measure would soon succeed. On January 10, 1868, Governor William Marshall appealed to principle in his annual message to the House and Senate. He implored lawmakers to once again put the suffrage issue to a vote.

Three weeks later Republican State Senator Hanford L. Gordon introduced a bill related to non-white suffrage. He called for a vaguely worded change to a specific section of the state’s constitution instead of a vote on a separate ballot.

Democrats opposed Gordon’s bill. They believed it was deceptively written and that a suffrage vote belonged on a separate ballot. In spite of that opposition, on March 6, 1868, Gordon’s bill passed along strict party lines in both the House and the Senate.

In the face of potential harmful effects to their political careers, other leading Republicans backed the amendment. They felt that its passage would aid federal efforts to enfranchise southern blacks. Democrats continued to voice strong opposition.

Gordon hoped to benefit from an anticipated high Republican turnout in the upcoming presidential election. He called for a vote on the amendment to be put on the general party ballot. This proved to be important. Ninety-seven percent of voters in the presidential election voted on the black suffrage issue. Two other referenda submitted on a separate ballot drew less than 70 percent of the vote.

As Gordon predicted, Republican turnout played a large part in the amendment’s passage. Nine thousand more Republicans voted in 1868 than in the 1867 governor’s race. Of the almost forty-four thousand who voted for Ulysses S. Grant, nearly forty thousand voted for the amendment. It carried with nearly 57 percent of the vote.

Minnesota joined Iowa as one of two Northern states to call for a black suffrage referendum on the 1868 ballot. When the referendum passed on November 3, 1868, they became the first two post-Civil War states in the North whose electorate approved black voting rights.

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A little more than a year after the passage of black suffrage outgoing Governor Marshall called for the quick ratification of the proposed Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. On January 13, 1870, it was ratified by both the Minnesota House and Senate. Votes again fell along party lines. The amendment was approved by three-quarters of the states and certified by the U.S. Secretary of State on March 30, 1870.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.