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African American Suffrage in Minnesota, 1868

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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.

From their state's admission to the Union until the mid-1860s, a majority of Minnesotans advocated the abolition of slavery in the South. African American suffrage, however, did not enjoy the same support. Minnesota's African American 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. The amendment did not apply to African American women, however, who continued to be disenfranchised in Minnesota and the rest of the United States.

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.

African American 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.

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 African American 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 African American 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 African Americans. 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 African American 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 African American 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 African American voting rights.

A little more than a year after the passage of African American 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.

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Green, William D. A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Equality in Early Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.

——— . "Minnesota's Long Road to Black Suffrage, 1849–1868." Minnesota History 56, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 68–84.

Libman, Gary. "Minnesota and the Struggle for Black Suffrage, 1849–1870: A Study in Party Motivation." PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 1972.

Minnesota House of Representatives. Black Suffrage.

Proceedings of the Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of Minnesota: In Celebration of the Anniversary of Emancipation, and the Reception of the Electoral Franchise of the First of January, 1869. St. Paul: Press Printing Company, 1869.

Spangler, Earl. The Negro in Minnesota. Minneapolis: T.S. Denison, 1961.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Hanford L. Gordon, c.1867.
Black and white photograph of Hanford L. Gordon, c.1867.
Black and white photo print of Governor William Marshall and the House of Representatives, 1868.
Black and white photo print of Governor William Marshall and the House of Representatives, 1868.
Black and white photo print on paper of Governor William Marshall and the Minnesota State Senate, 1868.
Black and white photo print on paper of Governor William Marshall and the Minnesota State Senate, 1868.
Color image of an oil on canvas painting of William Rainey Marshall, 1881.
Color image of an oil on canvas painting of William Rainey Marshall, 1881.

Turning Point

In 1868, heeding a call to action issued by Governor William Marshall, State Senator Hanford L. Gordon introduces a referendum to give African Americans and other non-whites the right to vote in Minnesota.



The U.S. Legislature passes the Organic Act on March 3, allowing for the creation of a Territorial Legislature in Minnesota.

February 26, 1857

The Enabling Act allows Minnesota Territory to begin a push for statehood.

July 13–August 29, 1857

Republican and Democratic legislators meet to create a state constitution. Republicans agree to table the black suffrage issue until a later date in order to ensure ratification of the Constitution.

January 10, 1865

The Minnesota House receives a one-page memorial signed by a literary organization for black men called the Golden Key Club. This is the first coordinated effort by Minnesota's black population to secure voting rights.


Republicans propose amending the constitution to remove the word "white" from the clause granting voting rights. Their amendment fails to pass.


Republicans propose a second amendment to remove the word "white" from the constitution. It fails as well.

January 10, 1868

Governor William Marshall implores legislators to place a referendum enabling black suffrage on an upcoming ballot.

March 6, 1868

Hanford L. Gordon's bill passes the House and Senate and is added to the general party ballot to be distributed in November.

November 3, 1868

The word "white" is stricken from a key clause of the Minnesota constitution, giving all male citizens over the age of twenty-one in the state the right to vote.


On January 1, passage of the amendment is celebrated in St. Paul with a statewide convention of black citizens. The Sons of Freedom, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of African Americans in the state, is formed at this convention.

February 23, 1869

John Richardson, thought to be the state's first African American voter, casts his vote on a bond referendum in Lake City.


The Minnesota House and Senate ratify the proposed Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on January 13.