COVID-19 Updates: The Wisconsin Historical Society hours have changed. See a full list of COVID-19 Closures and Events HERE.

Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Share Your Voice: Milwaukee (African American Community)

Residents talk about racial struggles, discuss ideas for a new Wisconsin history museum

Share Your Voice: Milwaukee (African American Community) | Wisconsin Historical Society

Rita Cox makes a comment during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session for the African American community of Milwaukee County May 14, 2019 at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society in Milwaukee.

Rita Cox makes a comment during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session for Milwaukee's African American community, held May 14, 2019 at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum in Milwaukee.

Story and photos by Dean Witter
Wisconsin Historical Foundation

MILWAUKEE — Members of the African American community of Milwaukee talked about both the good and the bad of living in what is considered to be America’s most segregated city May 14, 2019, when they came together at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum to participate in the Wisconsin Historical Society’s “Share Your Voice” new museum multicultural listening session.

The event was one of eight multicultural sessions the Society is holding around the state to make sure all communities have an opportunity to share their personal stories, offer ideas and provide feedback on early plans for a new $120 million Wisconsin history museum that the Society plans to build and open on the state’s Capitol Square in 2024 or 2025.

Guests were asked to share stories about their community and talk about what should be included in the new museum that would accurately represent the African American experience in Milwaukee.

They didn’t disappoint.

Attendees discussed entrenched problems of racism, poverty, and the displacement of their neighborhoods for sports arenas and other development in the city, which has contributed to Milwaukee being ranked as the most segregated city in a Brookings Institution study of U.S. Census statistics from 2013-2017. 

EnlargeA woman offers her thoughts during the "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session May 14, 2019 in Milwaukee. “I think Milwaukee is a best-kept secret,” said the woman, who moved to the city from New York to be near her son.

A woman offers her thoughts during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session May 14, 2019 at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum. “I think Milwaukee is a best-kept secret,” said the woman, who moved to the city from New York to be near her son.

But residents also expressed their enormous pride in Milwaukee and its beautiful parks, regular festivals, and small-town feel despite being ranked No. 31 among the largest cities in America.

“I think Milwaukee is a best-kept secret,” said a woman who moved to the city from New York to be near her son. “It’s only an hour and a half plane ride from New York. And the summer festivals are so nice! It’s big and small at the same time.”

“It’s interesting hearing that coming from her because she’s only been here five years,” said a woman sitting with her. “People like us were born and raised here so we take those things for granted. … So yeah, there are some good things. A lot of good things.”

But then, of course, there’s the other side to the complicated story of the city that was incorporated in 1846, coincidentally the same year the Wisconsin Historical Society was founded — and two years before Wisconsin became a state. 

EnlargeA guest talks about the troubles facing African Americans in Milwaukee, such as mass incarceration of males and the fact that studies show it is the most segregated city in America: “[Racism] is here. It’s not a visiting idea. It’s well entrenched.”

A guest talks about the troubles facing African Americans in Milwaukee, such as mass incarceration and the fact that studies show it is the most segregated city in America. “There are more black people being locked up here per capita than any other state in the nation. It’s the No. 1 zip code for incarceration on the entire planet. [Racism] is here. It’s not a visiting idea. It’s well entrenched.”

“There are things of historical significance specific to Milwaukee that some people may want to wash over and not talk about, such as the racism in institutions, for example the judiciary and the incarceration of African Americans,” a man said. “There are more black people being locked up here per capita than any other state in the nation. It’s the No. 1 zip code for incarceration on the entire planet.”

“[Racism] is here,” he added. “It’s not a visiting idea. It’s well entrenched.”

Those are just two of the many comments made during the revealing session. The Society is conducting more than 40 “Share Your Voice” community engagement events around the state, including at all 12 American Indian nations of Wisconsin. In addition, the Society is holding other multicultural focus groups with African Americans in Madison and Beloit, Latinx communities in Madison, Milwaukee and Wautoma, and the Hmong community in Eau Claire. The Society is also gathering feedback from PK-12 and teen students to incorporate their ideas and perspectives into museum planning.

Clayborn Benson, the founder and Executive Director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum for its entire 32-year existence, welcomed guests with enthusiastic support for the project.

“I’m honored that you all came out to celebrate [the project],” Benson said. “It’s going to be a grand opening and a grand time for us to celebrate a brand new museum. … We will do everything we can to make it a success and make sure that African American fingerprints exist in that institution. … We will help with stories and whatever it takes to make it a reality.” 

EnlargeClayborn Benson, the founder and Executive Director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum, welcomes guests to the "Share Your Voice" multicultural session at his organization's facility in Milwaukee.

Clayborn Benson, the founder and Executive Director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum, welcomes guests to the "Share Your Voice" multicultural session at his organization's facility in Milwaukee. “It’s going to be a grand opening and a grand time for us to celebrate a brand new museum," he said. "… We will do everything we can to make it a success and make sure that African American fingerprints exist in that institution."

Benson documented many of Milwaukee’s most historic moments of the past half-century during a 39-year career as a cameraman with WTMJ-TV before retiring in 2007 and devoting himself full-time to his passion as the founder of the state’s only historical society dedicated solely to African American history.

He talked about well-known episodes of Milwaukee’s black history, such as Lloyd Barbee’s devotion to education initiatives and Father James Groppi’s partnership with the NAACP Youth Council during the fair housing marches of the 1960s. But he also spoke of African Americans’ early roots in the state.

“When we think about Wisconsin, many people outside of the state ask the question, ‘Do black people really live in the state of Wisconsin?’” Benson said. “I say to you that, yes, there’s a whole bunch of us here.”

It has been that way since the beginning, back in the days when Milwaukee was becoming a city and Wisconsin a state.

“The state always addressed issues of African Americans in an interesting way,” Benson said. “From the very beginning of the state’s history and creating the state’s Constitution, African Americans were given the right to vote — in the 1846 version of the Constitution. But half of the state said ‘No, we don’t want to give African Americans a sense of belonging and strength and a sense of who they are. So we must take that out.’”

“So,” Benson continued, “in 1848 we actually became a state denying African Americans the right to vote, which is significantly important for everybody to know.”

Benson spoke about reading reports of how poorly African Americans in Wisconsin were treated in the 1940s. “When I read it, tears come to my eyes,” he said.

He noted how the 2010 census described Milwaukee as one of the most segregated cities in America and cited the troubling statistics of black unemployment (34 percent in 2011, compared to 7.6 percent for non-blacks, he noted). Black infants, Benson said, are three times more likely to die than non-blacks.

Those issues remain a problem to this day, which makes telling accurate stories of African Americans in Wisconsin in a new state history museum even more important, he said.

“The State Historical Society wants to do not just good stories but ALL stories,” Benson said.

“The commitment that we [have] as historians is telling the truth and making people aware of the pitfalls and the joys,” Benson said. “As [people in Wisconsin] celebrate the [NBA’s Milwaukee] Bucks’ accomplishments, poverty still exists just miles from their arena. Museums are about bringing people together to address real issues.” 

EnlargeChristian Øverland, the Ruth and Hartley Barker Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, listens to Clayborn Benson make a point during the "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session for the African American community of Milwaukee.

Christian Øverland, the
Ruth and Hartley Barker
Director of the Wisconsin
Historical Society, listens
to Clayborn Benson make
a point during the "Share
Your Voice" new museum
listening session for the
African American community
of Milwaukee.

With that, Benson welcomed Christian Øverland, the Ruth & Hartley Barker Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, who led the session.

“I appreciate Clayborn’s opening remarks,” Øverland said. “I came aboard [the Society] last year and Clayborn and I met and … I said we’ll always be committed to the [Wisconsin Black Historical Society].”

“But tonight, we’re here to talk about your stories,” Øverland said. “Museums are a place to bring people and share those stories. … It’s about truth. It’s about authenticity. It’s about the opportunity to connect with people in different ways.”

Øverland introduced a Society video about the new museum project and its central storytelling theme — “What Makes Wisconsin, Wisconsin?” — after which he began the first activity.

Guests used Post-It notes to write things that they feel should be included in the new museum or that they feel the rest of the state and world should know about Milwaukee, which led to the honest conversation noted earlier.

The woman from New York talked about the convenience of getting around the city on the bus and how “the drivers are nice. They even wait for you. That would never happen in New York!” She also noted how one could go to events “and the mayor will be there and he’ll come and sit at your table! I’m awestruck by that. [The city is] big but it’s intimate at the same time.”

Supreme Moore Omokunde, who since 2015 has represented the downtown district on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, was in attendance and talked about “our beautiful park system.”

“It was actually designed by a ‘Sewer Socialist,’” he said. “The idea was to make a livable community and the park system was a part of that.”

“I always like the fact that we have all four seasons,” added a woman. “It’s not just all cold or all hot. You can see the changing of the season on the regular. And I also like the lake!”

Later, Omokunde followed up on Benson’s reference to the Milwaukee Bucks by talking about how the construction of the Fiserv Forum — the team’s new arena, which opened for the 2018-19 season — came to fruition after a lot of financial controversy that led to hardship for some in his district.

“We want to make sure that as people come here to enjoy the amenities the city of Milwaukee offers, traditional residents and institutions can stick around,” he said.

“That’s the point I was making,” Benson added. “… It took African American support to ensure that [the arena] be built and yet poverty still exists in a big way here.”

The man who spoke of the problem of mass incarceration of African American men in Milwaukee also lamented the fact that the city doesn’t have any black suburbs, unlike metro areas like Chicago or Atlanta.

“The video talked about [Father Groppi’s] housing marches, but [segregated housing] has a lasting effect to this day,” he said. “… When people see that [there are no black suburbs], it’s a culture shock.”

Those realities will be part of the challenge the Society faces in planning the storytelling in a new museum. And it’s not just an African American issue in the state.

“Thank you for saying that,” Øverland told the man. “We hear that at different sessions. The Latinx community talked about racism" and neighborhood displacement due to construction projects like highways.

"And the American Indian nations talk about sovereignty issues," he added. "These are problems that we need to figure out and stories that need to be told.”

Øverland recalled the history of “sundown” communities of the past, where African Americans weren’t allowed on the streets after dark. Guests likened that to racial profiling today.

“These are things in history that you write books about,” Øverland said, “but with museums, we have to think about how we can tell these stories so people learn not to do that ever again … and inspire people to build a better future.”

Benson warned that being truthful in exhibits wouldn’t please all audiences.

“There’s going to be some negative throwback on this,” he said. “There are people who come in here angry at me.”

Øverland said he understood, recalling an exhibit for the 100th anniversary of the Civil War that toured the country. It showed slaves in chains and other realities of the war.

“People were saying, ‘You shouldn’t show that. It’s awful,’” Øverland said. “Well, war is awful. Enslaved people, that’s awful. If we don’t show that, people aren’t going to learn.”

“When you ask people if there was slavery in Wisconsin," Benson said, "they’ll say ‘No, this is a normal state. … But there was [slavery].” 

EnlargeCybelle Jones of museum exhibit design firm Gallagher & Associates talks about the importance of including voices from all communities in exhibits. "People want the truth," she said.

Cybelle Jones of museum exhibit design firm Gallagher & Associates talks about the importance of including voices from all communities in exhibits. "People want the truth," she said. "... Until we start showing those stories, [non-white communities are] not going to feel embraced or feel welcome. ... What we hope to do by listening to all of your stories is show that history is complex, it's messy, and there are different points of view.”

The conversation continued after Øverland introduced Cybelle Jones, the Principal and Executive Director of Gallagher & Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based, internationally known exhibit design firm that the Society hired for the new museum project.

“We often think of museums as static places, where things don’t really change,” Jones said. “But we’re really in a different generation now, where people want the truth. Sometimes they don’t know where to go for the truth because there is bad news and bad history at their fingertips. It’s the responsibility of centers like [the Wisconsin Black Historical Society] and the Wisconsin Historical Society to create an environment where people can explore and learn and know that what they are learning is authentic.”

“What we hope to do by listening to all of your stories,” Jones continued, “is to show that history is complex, it’s messy, and there are different points of view.”

She said the Society and her firm are committed to creating a museum experience that includes diverse perspectives so that all people of Wisconsin will want to visit.

“If you look at the demographics of museum-goers, they do not represent the [general] population,” she said. “That is wrong and we have to change that. … Until we start showing those stories, [non-white communities are] not going to feel embraced or feel welcome. That’s one reason why the Wisconsin Historical Society is doing this right.”

Jones then led guests through an activity in which she showed early concept exhibit design renderings produced by her firm and asked for feedback.

The designs were positively received, especially an Introduction and Orientation space that featured a large, 360-degree digital wall that could be transformed into a presentation area that could virtually connect with cities and classrooms across the state.

Guests questioned how the museum would be financed. Øverland explained that $70 million would be provided by the state and $30 million raised by the Society through the Wisconsin Historical Foundation, with an additional $20 million raised privately to fund an endowment for ongoing operations.

One woman was particularly troubled by the fact that the museum will be located in Madison.

“There’s so much history here [in Milwaukee],” she said. “We have the largest population here. It should have been here. … I’m just trying to figure that out. … Our history is here.”

Øverland thanked the woman for her comments and her passion before offering a few reasons why the decision had been made to locate the new museum in Madison.

He noted the benefits of it being located across the street from the Capitol, the fact that the state already owns the property on which the current museum sits, and the longtime connection the Society has had with school groups that visit Madison to tour both the Capitol and the museum. Øverland also referenced a blue-ribbon commission that had previously been appointed to consider potential museum sites and recommended the location where it is now being planned.

Tanika Apaloo, the Society’s Multicultural Outreach Coordinator, also clarified that this project is a state history museum, which is different than a potential African American history museum that has been the subject of other discussions unrelated to the “Share Your Voice” event.

The evening concluded with a brief conversation about favorite museum experiences.

A UW-Milwaukee student recalled visiting a museum in Chicago whose name she couldn’t remember, but she loved being able to watch films about black history.

“It was a very good memory for me,” she said. “… It was a very good environment to view films that people may have never seen before. It’s one of my favorite memories.”

“I like going to museums and touching things,” added another woman. “I went to a museum in Atlanta where there were a lot of interactive things and videos about things like the marches of the ’60s. That kind of thing stays with me. … You should include things like that … stuff you can remember.”

Suggestions made on Post-It notes during the May 14, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session in Milwaukee.

 

Word Cloud from the Milwaukee (African American Community) listening session

Suggestions made on Post-It notes during the May 14, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session for the African American community of Milwaukee were turned into this word cloud, with the most suggested words in the biggest type.

Supreme Moore Omokunde, who represents the city on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, offers a comment at the "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum.

Supreme Moore Omokunde, who represents the downtown district on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, offers a comment at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum.

A guest shares her disappointment over the planned new state history museum being located in Madison instead of Milwaukee. “There’s so much history here,” she said. “We have the largest population here. It should have been here."

A guest shares her disappointment over the planned new state history museum being located in Madison instead of Milwaukee. “There’s so much history here,” she said. “We have the largest population here. It should have been here."

A UW-Milwaukee student recalls visiting a Chicago museum and being able to watch films about black history. "It was a very good environment to view films that people may have never seen before. It’s one of my favorite memories.”

A UW-Milwaukee student recalls a favorite museum memory during the "Share Your Voice" listening session in Milwaukee, saying she enjoyed how she could watch films about black history at a Chicago museum. “It was a very good environment to view films that people may have never seen before. It’s one of my favorite memories.”

A woman listens to other guests comment during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session for the Milwaukee African American community on May 14, 2019 at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum.

A woman listens to other guests comment during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session for Milwaukee's African American community on May 14, 2019 at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum.

“The commitment that we [have] as historians is telling the truth and making people aware of the pitfalls and the joys,” said Clayborn Benson, founder and Executive Director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum.

“The commitment that we [have] as historians is telling the truth and making people aware of the pitfalls and the joys,” said Clayborn Benson, founder and Executive Director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum. “... Museums are about bringing people together to address real issues.”

A guest gives his Post-It notes with new museum idea suggestions to Kristen Leffelman of the Wisconsin Historical Society staff during the "Share Your Voice" listening session May 14, 2019 at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum.

A guest gives his Post-It notes with new museum idea suggestions to Kristen Leffelman of the Wisconsin Historical Society staff during the "Share Your Voice" listening session May 14, 2019 at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum.

A guest shares her thoughts about exhibits and storytelling in a planned new state history museum May 14, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" listening session for Milwaukee's African American community.

A guest shares her thoughts about exhibits and storytelling in a planned new state history museum May 14, 2019 at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" listening session for Milwaukee's African American community.

Rita Cox shares her comments on a packet of exhibit design renderings during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" listening session for the African American community of Milwaukee.

Rita Cox shares her comments on a packet of exhibit design renderings during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session for the African American community of Milwaukee on May 14, 2019 at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society in Milwaukee.

Supreme Moore Omokunde, who represents downtown Milwaukee on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, listens intently as a fellow guest talks about housing problems and the lack of black suburbs in Milwaukee.

Supreme Moore Omokunde, who represents downtown Milwaukee on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, listens intently as a fellow guest talks about housing problems and the lack of black suburbs in Milwaukee during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session on May 14, 2019 in Milwaukee.

Guests' Post-It notes reveal some of the ideas they offered that would help tell the story of African Americans in Milwaukee and Wisconsin during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session on May 14, 2019.

Guests' Post-It notes revealing some of the ideas they offered that would help tell the story of African Americans in Milwaukee and Wisconsin are seen on theme boards during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session for Milwaukee's African American community on May 14, 2019.

 

Guests' Post-It notes reveal some of the ideas they offered that would help tell the story of African Americans in Milwaukee and Wisconsin during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session.

Guests' Post-It notes revealing some of the ideas they offered that would help tell the story of African Americans in Milwaukee and Wisconsin are seen on theme boards during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session for Milwaukee's African American community on May 14, 2019.

revealing some of the ideas they offered that would help tell the story of African Americans in Milwaukee and Wisconsin are seen on theme boards during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session.

Guests' Post-It notes revealing some of the ideas they offered that would help tell the story of African Americans in Milwaukee and Wisconsin are seen on theme boards during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session for Milwaukee's African American community on May 14, 2019.

Guests' Post-It notes revealing some of the ideas they offered that would help tell the story of African Americans in Milwaukee and Wisconsin are seen on theme boards during the "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session.

Guests' Post-It notes revealing some of the ideas they offered that would help tell the story of African Americans in Milwaukee and Wisconsin are seen on theme boards during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session for Milwaukee's African American community on May 14, 2019.

Supreme Moore Omokunde (left), who represents downtown Milwaukee on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, chats with Wisconsin Historical Society Director Christian Øverland (middle) and Cybelle Jones of Gallagher & Associates.

Supreme Moore Omokunde (left), who represents downtown Milwaukee on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, chats with Wisconsin Historical Society Director Christian Øverland (middle) and Cybelle Jones of museum exhibit design firm Gallagher & Associates following the "Share Your Voice" session.

Share Your Voice statewide map

"SHARE YOUR VOICE" STATEWIDE SESSION LOCATIONS