The Wisconsin of today remains inseparable from its darker past

by Robin Robinson

My first encounter with race was at the age of 6 years old while attending elementary school in the Milwaukee Public School system. 

Sitting in my kindergarten classroom I watched a group of girls rush towards a pile of dolls during playtime. After all the dolls were taken and the only Black doll was left in the corner, I walked over to grab the doll and asked one of the girls if I could play. 

She said no; that the Black doll was on timeout because she was being bad just like me. 

The only thing was, I had never been on timeout before, and I was not bad. 

The pulse of Wisconsin is traced with the controversial history of race relations that have been skewed by the lack of documentation and misinformation across the state. Black Wisconsinites have been at the forefront of racial injustice, segregation and voting discrimination since the mid 1800s and continue to address these matters through resistance. 

To really understand this past and how it will affect our future, I set out to find where the pulse of history in Wisconsin truly comes from by learning about stories of generations of marginalized Black Wisconsinites. My journey began at the Wisconsin Historical Society in an interview with Lee Grady, the senior reference archivist. Grady’s work in the archives includes providing access to legislative papers, photographs, business documents, and personal, government and public records from people with local to elite status that dates back to when the state was established in 1848. 

“We’ve tended to do a better job of documenting underrepresented communities and people of color, and it’s been better and better as time goes on, but we were not very good at it for the first 120 years of our history as an organization,” Grady says. 

Over its nearly 175 years, Wisconsin history has been told from a narrow white male perspective.

“Most of our documentation of interactions with Indigenous people in Wisconsin are told from the records that we collected over the first 120 years of our history. Most of the records are the perspectives of missionaries of government officials, French fur traders and not from Indigenous peoples themselves. We don’t have a lot, we didn’t record a lot of their voices,” Grady says. “Starting in the 1960s — I think the late ’60s especially — as an institution we did a little better. We started recording oral history interviews with some of the Indigenous people in the current American Indian nations and African American communities.”

Grady shared the story of Ezekiel Gillespie, an African American man who attempted to register to vote in Milwaukee in 1865. Gillespie was denied the right to vote by county officials, but challenged the courts under the provisions of the constitution and won a state Supreme Court case allowing Black men in Wisconsin to vote in 1866. 

“The first governor of Wisconsin, Gov. Henry Dodge, was a slave owner and he brought slaves with him to … Wisconsin,” Grady says.

“It’s important stories to share when talking about the history of the state because you can’t understand where we are now without understanding how we got here.” 

UW–Madison’s Public History Project opened its exhibit “Sifting & Reckoning: UW–Madison’s History of Exclusion and Resistance” on Sept. 12, 2022, at the Chazen Museum of Art.  

The exhibition recognizes generations of students at UW–Madison who have been involved in a variety of movements on campus to address universities’ history of racism and exclusion of their minority students. The Public History Project was created by former

Chancellor Rebecca Blank after more people became aware of the Ku Klux Klan’s presence on campus in the 1920s. 

Kacie Lucchini Butcher, the director of the Public History Project, explains how engaging with the university’s history impacts her and everyone residing in Wisconsin. 

“Whether it’s in the state of Wisconsin or in the country, as a whole, many of the things that we talk about in the exhibit happened elsewhere in the state of Wisconsin, in the country,” Lucchini Butcher says. “It’s gonna be really important for us as a university and a campus community to think not only about the role that these histories play in Wisconsin, but really in our community, where we live, how we’re going to make sure that we don’t repeat these histories in the future.”

The exhibition spans over 175 years of history in Wisconsin and highlights hundreds of stories of struggle and resistance at the university and in the Madison community. Through archival material, photos and oral histories, the exhibit sheds a light on what students of color have been going through at the university from the past to the present. 

Standing in the exhibition surrounded by the university’s dark past of discrimination and outright racism, I felt displaced in my identity of what it truly meant to be a Badger. As my peers gathered around the exhibit, the exposure of generations of injustice in UW Housing, athletics, Greek life and student engagement reflected years of students at odds with the university and its policies. 

Grace Ruo, a native of St. Louis and First Wave Scholar at UW–Madison, shared her opinion of Wisconsin’s controversial history. 

“Madison believes itself to be the mecca of Wisconsin, in that the folk in Madison think they’re so woke and so educated and they know everything there is to know about racism, but I think this will show them that they have a lot more learning to do,” Ruo says.

The exhibition reminded me of the moment I had in my kindergarten classroom. I was left with the question of how to go on as a Black woman included in the legacy of generations of Badgers fighting and resisting against the system of racism embedded within the foundation of our community.

The next stop on my discovery tour was Milwaukee — one of the most segregated metro areas in the United States in 2022 and my hometown. As a result of redlining and housing discrimination people residing in Milwaukee live in separate sides of the city divided by race, class and violence hazard. According to a recent study from the UW–Milwaukee, 16 out of 18 of the city’s suburbs originally had racially restrictive covenants. 

My grandmother Geraldine Nevels, a Milwaukee native since 1967, moved to the city during the Great Migration. She was the first person I spoke with about her entrance into what many know as “old Milwaukee.” 

“My first encounter coming to Milwaukee was the riots in 1967. So I was terrified. I got on the Greyhound bus,” Nevels says. “So I got as far as Chicago, and they wouldn’t let me go any further because they were under martial law at that time, one cause of the riots.” 

On July 30, 1967, violence erupted around the country, including the Milwaukee riots in response to restrictive housing laws and unequal treatment. There were four deaths in Milwaukee that night that were attributed to the riots: including a police officer, an African American teenager and an elderly woman. 

“There’s a small change, some change, but we still got a long way to go,” Nevels says. “I mean, you’ve heard them say ‘I’m so tired of hearing about, you know, Black Lives Matter and this and that,’ you know they’re tired of hearing it, but we’re tired of living it. So that’s where we stand right now.” 

Milwaukee’s history of voting prevention, segregation tactics and control management have caused the resistance of Black Wisconsinites throughout the city over time. An example of resistance can be seen through investments made by members of the community for the development of fair and equal housing. 

Clayborn Benson, a historian and the executive director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society, explained how Bernice Lindsay, Ardie Clark Halyard and Vel Phillips led initiatives to challenge the housing discrimination faced by Black Milwaukee residents. 

“There are a lot of other people who have tried over the course of the years to get a representative spot and were not successful, not because they weren’t qualified, because they systematically prevented us from gaining those positions,” Benson says. 

Benson recalls the story of the miscalculation of the referendum vote that wrongly denied African Americans the right to vote in Wisconsin. 

“They cheated on the calculation of the 1849 vote,” Benson says. “We had the right to vote from 1849 to when the Supreme Court said you can vote in 1866.”

After over a decade of being denied suffrage as a result of what historians argue was an intentional miscalculation of votes from state legislative officials, African Americans living in Wisconsin officially received the right to vote in 1866.

Today, not much has changed in Milwaukee. According to members of the community, residents of the city are still facing housing discrimination, voting prevention, redlining tactics and segregation from the neighboring suburban areas. 

“I don’t need to tell you that we’re still living in this segregation bubble right now,” Benson says. “Go outside and look at the neighborhoods. Look at the buildings, look at housing, and you can go to the white community like Shorewood … Look at those communities and look at development and growth. You can see the difference.”

The disenfranchisement of African Americans across the state of Wisconsin has led to the unfair treatment of residents. Benson shared the story of the first African American business established by Ardie Clark Halyard and her husband in 1925, called Columbia Savings and Loan. The business is still in operation today to support Black entrepreneurs and homeowners who were previously denied loans from local banks. 

“I see women and men who go against the grain, who are not acceptors of racism and fight to make a difference,” Benson says. “People who don’t just accept ‘no,’ who rise above that curtain of racism and make a difference in our community.”

By the end of this journey I found that without the men and women who are dedicated to making a difference in their communities, Black voices and history in Wisconsin would be silenced forever. The pulse of this state has been deeply aligned with the fight and resistance of Wisconsin’s dark past of exclusion by the marginalized groups of people of color across the state. 

A Journey through Old Wisconsin: How much has changed?

Wisconsin is known for many things, from the good things like our cheese and beer to the troubling side of mass incarceration of Black men and a controversial history in race relations. The pulse of this state derives from its dark past of denying its African American residents equal housing and voting rights. Growing up in Milwaukee, my experience has led me to understand this controversial history as the underlying reason for the state of Wisconsin today. For three years in a row, Milwaukee has been ranked as the worst city to live in the country for African American families. Throughout my historic journey through Old Wisconsin, I discovered a shadowed sense of identity shared amongst African Americans in the state who have fought in their provinces to be heard for generations. Here’s the playlist I brought with me as I explored this history.

Featured graphic by Anica Graney