A complicated truth: Milwaukee History

Founder's Day Saturday Feb. 25, 2017 for America's Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) event program-Help Heal The Racial Divide In Our City- held at the Milwaukee Public Library Centennial Hall downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Pat A. Robinson photo

America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) organized the “Help Heal The Racial Divide In Our City” event engaging Milwaukee community leaders in facilitated small-group conversations. Photo by Pat Robinson, courtesy of the Dr. James Cameron Legacy Foundation.

On this day in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that segregation of public schools “solely on the basis of race” denies black children “equal educational opportunity.” Thurgood Marshall argued the Brown v. Board of Education case before the Court. He went on to become the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court.

In Wisconsin, just two years later, Vel Phillips became the first African American and first woman elected to Milwaukee’s Common Council. She was thirty-two years old. She served on the Council until her 1978 appointment to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, where she acted as Wisconsin’s first African American judge.

Milwaukee’s history is intertwined with civil rights history in this country. While the city has been home to leaders such as Phillips, it also continues to frequently appear in the national spotlight when it comes to inequality and segregation.

In August of last year, violent events in the Sherman Park neighborhood made national headlines and drew attention to the extreme racial disparities in the city. Reggie Jackson, a member of the WHC board and the lead scholar for America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM), has written extensively about Milwaukee history for the Milwaukee Independent and for our own publications.

Each February ABHM invites the greater Milwaukee community to its Founder’s Day Gathering for Racial Repair and Reconciliation. The WHC has been proud to be involved with the museum for the past ten years, including in recent years with the annual Founder’s Day event. This year, two UW-Madison college students have been interning with the WHC, working on communications for our grant program. We wanted them to see our grant funds at work, so they attended Founder’s Day in February. Here are their reflections.

Reflections on Founder’s Day 2017

Founder's Day Saturday Feb. 25, 2017 for America's Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) event program-Help Heal The Racial Divide In Our City- held at the Milwaukee Public Library Centennial Hall downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Pat A. Robinson photo

by Rachel Weller

When I think of Milwaukee, I think of spending time in the Third Ward on warm summer days and ice-skating at Red Arrow Park in the wintertime. Until recently, Milwaukee’s history and the racial injustices that have been, and continue to be, part of the city’s identity have not been part of my experience.

Since attending Founder’s Day, an event funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, I find I am thinking differently about those pleasant memories and the many citizens of Milwaukee who have not been afforded the same experience.

The racial separation that is so widely prevalent in Milwaukee is rooted in its history. To begin healing the racial separation in Milwaukee, it is essential to understand the history and our part in it.

The Founder’s Day event, hosted by America’s Black Holocaust Museum, gave me the chance to listen to perspectives different from my own. It created a conversation between Milwaukee citizens about how to move forward in healing racial separation.

America’s Black Holocaust Museum’s mission is to build public awareness of the harmful legacies of slavery in America, and to promote racial repair, reconciliation and healing. It is working hard to make up for the gaps in my, and many people’s education and understanding. Through Founder’s Day I believe ABHM achieved this goal. I walked away with a deeper understanding of the city that I grew up to love.

I can’t help but wonder, “Why had I never learned any of this before?”  “How could I have been so ignorant about Milwaukee’s past for so long?” And “Why are Wisconsin students not taught this in high school classes?”

We’ve all heard that Milwaukee is the most segregated city in America. Because my experiences did not align with this reality, these statistics didn’t resonate with me. Because I was not being affected by the horrible injustices that African Americans face every day in Milwaukee and around the United States, I was blind to them. Founder’s Day replaced my ignorance with anger and regret. I no longer want to be complacent.

I urge everyone to get out and understand your city’s history. Make an effort to understand those around you who have different experiences from yourself.

I am currently a student at UW-Madison studying journalism and a communications intern at the Wisconsin Humanities Council. The Wisconsin Humanities Council works towards creating opportunities where culture and history are recognized as necessary topics of dialogue. Without funding from the WHC, Founder’s Day would not have been possible, and I never would have made these connections with my city’s history.

by Phoebe Kiekhofer

It often becomes necessary to ask ourselves: Are we truly doing enough? Are we fully dedicating ourselves? How do we benefit from the comforts of privilege?

These questions, and many more, were raised for me at this year’s Founder’s Day event, funded in part with a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council where I work as a communications intern.

Founder’s Day, hosted by America’s Black Holocaust Museum, was a day-long program that educated participants like myself about America’s upsetting history regarding racial equality, with an emphasis on the history of lynching and other forms of violence.

The timing seemed to line up perfectly for me. In one of my classes at UW-Madison, we were discussing the marginalization of black communities in America during the Jim Crow Era through a largely pedagogical, academic lens.

Founder’s Day, however, went beyond historical facts. It amplified the voices of African-American families affected by lynching and put faces and perspectives to the thousands of historical accounts we read of but do not see or hear.

History came to life through the panel, which was comprised of local and national black history experts, several of whose families were affected by lynching and racial violence generations back.

The panel also brought together people with complicated family histories. One, the great-granddaughter of lynching victim; another, the white woman who, later in life, learned of her grandfather’s involvement in the KKK. Both are now full-time activists and educators in black history.

This initiated a dialogue on how we can collectively move forward and heal from such a dark, violent era in our country’s history and combat the racial trauma and violence that communities still face in the present day.

Small roundtable discussions led by panelists encouraged us to reflect on what we had heard and to share our thoughts with our groups. Different perspectives proved to be indispensable to the exchange of ideas in my group discussion.

I participated in a discussion led by panelist Karen Branan, the woman whose discovery of her grandfather’s KKK involvement compelled her to publicly confront her family history and dedicate herself to racial justice for blacks in America.

Branan’s story sparked a conversation on how our knowledge of (and complicity in) past injustices can move us to dedicate ourselves to present-day social justice. My group, predominately white, discussed ways in which we could immerse ourselves in social justice, including advocacy and volunteering.

The only African American individual in my group, however, offered a perspective that the rest of us may have otherwise overlooked. She lauded our group’s altruism, but explained that white people may choose to be involved with social justice while she herself, as an African American woman, finds that facets of her everyday life involve social justice whether she chooses so or not.

I had previously considered myself knowledgeable on social justice issues, but at the event found myself interacting with history and its present-day intersections in ways in which I never had before. I am grateful for the experience and I have never felt more compelled to join the fight for justice.

PHOTOS by Pat Robinson, courtesy of the Dr. James Cameron Legacy Foundation.

All about Race


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