When Wisconsin was preparing to become a state in 1846, leading citizens drafted a constitution that put the voting rights of African Americans up to a popular vote. A year later, the state's voters (all of them white, by definition) rejected the idea.
But in a second referendum in 1849, suffrage for African-American men was approved by the majority of voters. This election result was misconstrued by local election officials until 1866, when Ezekiel Gillespie, a leader in Milwaukee's black community, sued for the right to vote and carried his case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The Court found that African American men had actually been able to cast ballots in the Badger State since the 1849 referendum. In 1882 the word "white" was removed from the text of the constitution's article on suffrage.
African Americans have been living and working in Wisconsin since the 18th century. The state's black population continued to grow slowly throughout the 19th century. Job opportunities in the 20th century led to significant African American settlement in Wisconsin, primarily in the southeastern part of the state, especially after World War II.