My life in Madison, as a transplanted Wisconsinite, has been immeasurably enriched by the African Americans who were the first families to settle here.
These early families, who rooted their generations in Wisconsin, paved the way for all of the rest of us who would come later to live, work and survive the particular kind of Midwestern racism that exists here. The difficulties that I faced as a graduate student in Madison in the 1980s paled (no pun intended) in comparison to the prejudices these pioneering African Americans faced in the 1800s and early 1900s when they first arrived. I deeply love our first families and respect their tremendous contributions, including those who settled in the two black settlements, Cheyenne Valley in Vernon County and Pleasant Ridge in Grant County.
A brief overview of the history of this state testifies to the difficulties of being dark-skinned. In 1840, according to the state Historical Society, there were fewer than 200 African Americans living throughout Wisconsin, but by 1860, the number increased to 1,200. Most African Americans lived in Madison, and the increase in population was due to the Civil War and families escaping the slave-holding states.
Wisconsin was never a slave-holding state, and had a successful “underground railroad” to help enslaved people find physical freedom, but it also had its own peculiar type of racism. For example, in 1849, Black men were legally allowed to vote but, in reality, could not vote. It wasn’t until 1866, when Ezekiel Gillespie, a leader in Milwaukee’s African American community, sued for the right to vote and carried his case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court that he was able to cast his ballot. The court found that African American men had been able to cast ballots in the Badger State since the 1849 referendum, but had never been apprised of their rights.
In 1863, there were petitions to outlaw further black immigration into Wisconsin, and segregation was not only the law, but was supported by white public opinion. Despite unfair, restrictive laws, difficulty with well-paying employment, unfair housing and racist public opinion, African Americans thrived as farmers, business people, professionals, homeowners, pastors, blue- and white-collar workers, and by being regular folks looking for better economic, social and political lives.
These pioneering families founded towns such as Freedom and Chilton, and the history of their contributions to Madison and to the state have yet to be widely acknowledged or historically documented. This month, there was a small step in the right direction to celebrate African American history in Madison through the combined efforts of the African American and Jewish Friendship Group. Through their partnership, two photographs of Madison’s prominent African Americans, Reverend James C. Wright and Mrs. Willie Lou Harris, were installed near the entrance to the governor’s office. The Wright and Harris families were present at the dedication. Both Deanna Wright and Dr. Richard Harris gave touching testimonies about the lives their parents lived, the struggles they overcame and their fight for equal rights. They also shared that prayer and love were the foundations of all Mrs. Harris and Rev. Wright accomplished.
It is time for other African American pioneers, settlers, business people, heroes and heroines to become highly visible in the public parts of the Capitol. All of the visitors to the Capitol need to visually be introduced to the contributions of all of the people in Wisconsin, including African Americans. While we thank Gov. Tony Evers for these two installations, it is time for more of these early African American families to be remembered, honored and celebrated.
Fabu, Madison’s former poet laureate, is a consultant in African-American culture and arts. She writes a monthly column for The Capital Times. Contact her at email@example.com.
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Fabu, Madison’s former poet laureate, is a consultant in African-American culture and arts. She writes a monthly column for The Capital Times. email@example.com
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