Ezekiel Gillespie was an African-American civil rights leader who won a landmark case securing voting rights for African-American men in Wisconsin. Gillespie was born a slave in Mississippi (or Tennessee), probably the son of an African-American slave and her white slave owner. As a young man he purchased his own freedom for $800. He traveled to Indiana, and soon moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he found success selling groceries at the corner of Mason and Main, and then worked as a railroad porter. He quickly became a leader in the African-American community, an activist fighting for equal rights. He operated a local branch of the Underground Railroad and facilitated the founding of Wisconsin’s first African-American church. In 1865, Gillespie attempted to vote. He was denied a ballot, so he sued the Board of Elections. Gillespie v. Palmer went all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The justices of the court sided with Gillespie, in his argument that Wisconsin voters had voted in favor of male African American suffrage in an 1849 referendum. He was the first African-American voter in Wisconsin.
About this piece
I chose to include Mr Gillespie in the 11 piece installation, "Portrait of Milwaukee Progress," as his life was particularly extraordinary. Though born to slavery, he fought his whole life for what he knew was right for himself and for his community, taking the fight for Black Suffrage all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. I was only able to find a couple existing images of Mr Gillespie – the one I chose to inspire this portrait showed particular strength in his posture, and I changed the direction of his gaze to peer directly and unflinchingly at the viewer. Directly behind the portrait I inserted a grouping of African-American soldiers of the Civil War, looking worn but powerful. These men fought for the America of Abraham Lincoln’s vision, which included the right for African-American men to vote. (The Women’s Suffrage movement was to come later). Behind the soldiers is depicted a voting day scene – men of color standing in line, casting votes for the first time. This was a momentous day, and Ezekiel Gillespie fought to make sure that happened for his fellow countrymen.
PORTRAIT OF MILWAUKEE PROGRESS
The following 11 pieces comprise the installation, "Portrait of Milwaukee Progress", commissioned by Milwaukee Area Technical College.