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The Caroline Webb family in Madison, ca. 1910 (WHI Image ID 86936)
A portrait of the Caroline Webb family in Madison, ca. 1910 WHI 86936

Glimpses of African-American Life, 1865-1934

The photographs in the Caroline Webb Papers document an African-American family living in the Midwest from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. Webb (1883-1975) was the daughter of Missouri slaves who moved their family north after the Civil War. Their photograph albums reveal three generations engaged, as Caroline Webb's son put it, in "a new struggle, as free people, for an independent existence" in Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. This gallery features 39 images (out of approximately 210 originals, including some album pages with multiple images).

The Webb Family Photographs

An image from the Caroline Webb family album showing two African-American men standing on a porch

The earliest images, perhaps of friends or relatives, include tintypes dating from 1865 to 1869, some of the relatively few tintypes at the Wisconsin Historical Society that feature African Americans. Funeral memorial cards and studio portraits offer more intimate perspectives on the family in the late 19th to the early 20th century. A studio portrait of a fashionably dressed woman with a dog at her feet suggests the desire to be portrayed with the markers of middle class affluence, while two images of a shoeshine shop, probably taken in Chicago, depict a once-common occupation for black Americans.

Although Caroline's parents, Henry Sanford Turner and Mary Turner, had been born as slaves in the South, some of their children and grandchildren entered the professional middle class in the Upper Midwest. Caroline Webb's son Andrew, for example, studied medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1927. Her close friend, Henry Hugh Proctor Jr., became an attorney. Although many of the other people in the collection are not identified, their demeanor and attire speak to their economic success and social aspirations.

The Life of a Black Family in 1920s Madison

About 1895 Henry and Mary Turner moved to Keokuk, Iowa, where their daughter Caroline Webb was married in 1903. In about 1910 the Turners, Caroline and her only son, Andrew, relocated to Madison, Wisconsin. The city was home to fewer than 200 African Americans at the time, and many of the images in the family albums show residents of the tiny black community in the state capital.

During these years Henry Turner worked at various types of day labor, while Mary Turner sometimes worked as a laundress while raising her children. Henry Turner had joined the Union Army during the Civil War and proudly participated in Memorial Day parades in Madison until his death on July 1, 1937, at the age of 97.

Caroline helped Andrew through Madison public schools and into the University of Wisconsin. He took many of the family photos during the 1920s and early 1930s. One album he created includes snapshots of his mother, family friends, Tenney and Vilas parks, neighborhood landmarks, and other locations and events in Madison. The captions he wrote for the photographs convey his sense of humor and occasionally wry attitude.

Andrew contracted tuberculosis as a young man. A second album is a scrapbook of photographs, autographs and newspaper clippings compiled while he was a patient at the Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium in the early 1930s. In it, he chronicles daily life at the sanitarium, annotates many of the photographs of staff, friends and fellow patients, and creates visually appealing arrangements on its pages, using cut-out photographs and light-hearted captions. The newspaper clippings he compiled in the album attest to his pride in his family and his heritage, and the journey begun by his grandparents toward a better life.

Later Years

By 1930 Andrew Webb and his mother were living in Chicago, where he was working as a post office clerk. But he was admitted the same year as a patient at the Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium. In 1932 he married Roberta Chambers, but he died of tuberculosis in 1934 when he was just 29 years old.

During her time in Chicago, Caroline Webb worked for the state of Illinois in various capacities as well as serving as a probation officer and a city clerk. She returned to Madison in 1961 and died on June 13, 1975, at the age of 91. Caroline, her parents and her son are all buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison.

To Learn More

The papers of Caroline Webb and her family fill four boxes at the Wisconsin Historical Society archives and contain letters, clippings and miscellaneous records as well as photographs. An inventory of the papers is online.

To learn about other African Americans in Madison in the early 20th century, see this article about the family of Sam Pierce and this biographical sketch of Benjamin Butts.

This short history of African Americans in Wisconsin includes links to the most important original documents. For more information on the experiences of African Americans in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota during this period, see "Emancipation's Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest" (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009) by Leslie A. Schwalm.

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