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The Reconstruction Era (1865-1877)

After the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) brought enormous change to America’s political life.

“Reconstructed” southern state governments, new laws, and constitutional amendments all expanded voting rights for African American men. But by the 1880s as federal intervention diminished, most southern states prevented African American men from voting by using a combination of laws, economic pressure, and intimidation; most African Americans in the South only regained real access to the polls in the 1960s.

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Setting the Stage

After the Civil War, the country worked to reconstruct the economy, the destroyed lands and transportation routes, and its war-torn communities. Politics shifted with the abolition of slavery and with the federal government having control over the laws in the South.

During Reconstruction Black political power expanded dramatically. More than 1,500 African American men held public office in the South. Sixteen African Americans served in Congress during Reconstruction, and at least 600 served in state legislatures, with hundreds more in local offices.

However, race and gender relations were still incredibly divided. By 1877 the federal government withdrew their troops from the South, and legal mechanisms such as Jim Crow Laws a practice or policy of segregating or discriminating against African Americans, as in public places, public vehicles or employment were quickly created to reverse the political and civil gains of African Americans in the south. This period of especially poor race relations in the U.S. is called the nadir, The "nadir of American race relations" was the period in the history of the Southern United States from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 through the early 20th century, when racism in the country was worse than in any other period after the American Civil War and it continued into the first two decades of the 20th century.

Reconstruction Era: African Americans in Minnesota

In Minnesota, Black men won the right to vote in 1868 during Reconstruction. Many slaves had escaped the South via the Mississippi River to Minnesota earlier in the 1800s. But it wasn’t until after the Civil War — in which Black Minnesotans had served — that African American men achieved suffrage.

The effort to win voting rights for Black men started before Minnesota even became a state.  In 1857, when Minnesota was still a territory, one contentious issue was whether a new Minnesota constitution would guarantee voting rights to Black males. Delegates from the Republican and Democratic parties were selected to attend a constitutional convention and draft Minnesota’s new constitution.

Generally speaking, the Republican delegates to the constitutional convention approved of Black male suffrage and Democratic party delegates were opposed. To insure that the constitution would be ratified,  the Republicans eventually compromised with the Democrats on this issue. So when Minnesota became a state in 1858, the new constitution did not guarantee voting rights to Black men.  

As a result, Minnesota's Black citizens still paid taxes, worked in their communities and served in the armed forces, but they were barred from voting, being elected or serving on a jury.

In the Civil War years (1861-1865) the focus was on winning the war. During those years abolition of slavery was a very contentious issue, and Black suffrage took a back seat.  But after the war, voting rights advocates sought a change in the Minnesota constitution to guarantee Black suffrage.  The procedure for amending the constitution had two steps: the legislature had to vote to submit an amendment to the people, and the people had to vote to pass the amendment. The Golden Key Club, a St. Paul literary group for Black men, was one organization that lobbied the state legislature for Black voting rights.

In 1865, 1867 and 1868 the legislature voted to submit a referendum on Black suffrage to the voters. Then-Governor William Marshall, a Republican, supported the 1867 and 1868 referendums. The first two times, in 1865 and 1867, the suffrage referendum was defeated. In 1865 the referendum lost by 2,513 votes out of 26,789 cast. But in 1867 it lost by a far smaller margin, 1,298 votes out of 56, 220 votes cast. One reason for the 1867 defeat might have been that the referendum question was written on a separate ballot that several thousand voters apparently overlooked.

In other parts of the country, Black voting rights made big gains in 1867.  Black residents of the District of Columbia and of all federal territories gained the right to vote. Also, Congress required that, as a condition to being readmitted to the Union, all former Confederate states had to guarantee Black males the right to vote. Nebraska was also required to guarantee Black men voting rights in order to be admitted as a new state.

In 1868, on the third try, Minnesota voters passed a referendum guaranteeing Black suffrage. Then the Minnesota constitution was amended and Black males won the right to vote. In 1868 about 700 African Americans people lived in Minnesota.

Minnesota changed its constitution two years before ratification of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in 1870. The 15th Amendment says that the right to vote may not be denied based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude. “