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Odd Wisconsin Archive

White, Black, and Green


Back in 1950, the irate owner of a Wisconsin summer resort "accosted the executive secretary of the Governor's Commission on Human Rights, shook his finger in her face, and demanded to know the names of the legislators who were responsible for the state's civil rights act."

He was angry that he couldn't decide for himself who to serve or not to serve in his own place of business. He demanded to know who had passed this law that limited his freedom as an American. "I wouldn't know," the secretary told him. "It was passed in 1895 and that was before my time." (Milwaukee Journal, May 21, 1950)

American Apartheid

Strange as it may seem today, his angry reaction was not unusual for the time. Throughout the country, even in northern states like Wisconsin, white leaders had kept African-Americans out of white schools, neighborhoods, jobs, and even cemeteries. Black citizens faced discrimination in most places that were supposedly open to the public, such as theaters, hotels, restaurants, buses, swimming pools, and skating rinks.

Between 1910 and 1940, 90% of subdivisions platted in Milwaukee contained covenants prohibiting the sale of homes to African-Americans. In older neighborhoods, "gentlemen 's agreements" among realtors and bankers successfully confined black families to a few square blocks just north of downtown.

Most of us think that the struggle to overturn these injustices started in the 1950s with Martin Luther King Jr. But in Wisconsin, the legal precedents for equal rights actually date back to the 19th century and the state's first black attorney, William Green.

William Green, 1860-1911

In Sept. 1889, Owen Howell, a black citizen of Milwaukee, was denied a seat he had purchased on the main floor of the Bijou Opera House. The black community organized a meeting in November at which 75 residents formed the Union League of Wisconsin, demanded the legislature pass specific civil rights legislation, and agreed to support a lawsuit by Howell against the theater owner.

One of meeting organizers was 29-year-old William T. Green, who had recently moved to Milwaukee from Canada. Green followed the lawsuit closely, and was pleased when the court awarded Howell $100 in damages plus his court costs and upheld the principle of equal rights under the law.

Not long afterwards, Green enrolled in the Univ. of Wisconsin Law School in Madison. He graduated in 1892, the first black law graduate from the University. During his student years he is believed to have drafted the text of the first Wisconsin civil rights law, which was introduced by his state representative in 1891. It was initially voted down, but in 1895, after Republicans took control of the legislature, it passed. Racial segregation in public accommodations became illegal in Wisconsin.

For two decades, in the words of an obituary, William Green "represented practically all of his race in their trials and tribulations both in the criminal and civil courts and was a worker for the betterment of conditions among his people." When he died at the end of 1911, he was the only black lawyer who'd ever been a member of the Wisconsin Bar Association.

Legality vs. Reality

Although the Wisconsin legislature had re-affirmed the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the 1895 law was never effectively enforced. And laws don't change public opinion. The hostile attitudes of white business and civic leaders ensured that de facto segregation persisted for several decades.

As late as 1950, Milwaukee's black merchants felt the need to issue this Negro Business Directory. On page 104 begins its listing of lodgings where black people could "vacation without humiliation." There were none listed in Wisconsin.


:: Posted in Curiosities on March 20, 2013
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