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Wisconsin Historical Society

Share Your Voice: Beloit

African American community celebrates Juneteenth by discussing plans for a new state history museum

Share Your Voice: Beloit | Wisconsin Historical Society
A guest enjoys a laugh during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session in Beloit.

A guest enjoys a laugh during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 in Beloit. It was one of eight multicultural sessions and more than 40 community sessions the Society is holding across the state as it plans to build a new state history museum. 

  

Story by Dean Witter, Wisconsin Historical Foundation
Photos by Amadou Kromah 

BELOIT — It was Juneteenth, which was cause for celebration. So before any weighty issues were to be discussed June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society, it was time to rejoice in the significance of an enormously important day in our nation's history.

First, there was a meal and Juneteeth cake. Then a beautiful rendition of the "Negro National Anthem" (Lift Every Voice and Sing) by Beloit native and Memorial High School teacher Sha-Nita Rhea. Finally, a rousing Beloit-themed performance by city native and accomplished spoken word artist Rob Franklin (aka Rob Dz). 

EnlargeBeloit native Rob Franklin (aka Rob Dz) helps celebrate the Juneteenth holiday by performing a spoken word piece at the Wisconsin Historical Society's new museum multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society.

Beloit native Rob Franklin (aka Rob Dz)
helps celebrate the Juneteenth holiday
by performing a spoken word piece
at the Wisconsin Historical Society's
"Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session
June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society.

Indeed, the 154th anniversary of the holiday commemorating the June 19, 1865 emancipation of the last American slaves, in Texas more than two years after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, was a fitting backdrop for a gathering of members of Beloit's African American community for a frank discussion about their history in the city and how it can and should be shared in a new Wisconsin history museum to be built by the Wisconsin Historical Society. 

Adding to the historical significance of the evening was the fact that several rare artifacts from the Wisconsin Historical Society's world renowned collections were brought out of storage to be displayed at the event, including a set of coveralls worn in 1943 by a real-life "Rosie the Riveter" who worked in Beloit's Fairbanks Morse factory; a rock thrown through Daisy Bates' window, with a warning note from the KKK, during the 1957 Little Rock Nine school integration crisis in Arkansas; and photos and videos of the 1960s fair housing and civil rights marches in Milwaukee.

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 state-of-the-art $120 million museum that will replace the aging, outdated and technologically inferior Wisconsin Historical Museum, which since the 1980s has been housed in a former hardware store across the street from the Capitol in Madison.

The beginning of Dz's piece — Beloit - Home of So Many Heroes — foreshadowed topics to come in subsequent conversations (see full text of the piece at the bottom of the photos below this recap): 

"Juneteenth. Otherwise known as the day we became free;
So let me explain what that truly means to me-
See, it began with an emancipation proclamation;
That has developed over generations to our current situation-

Now ask yourself, what does it mean to be free?

Before the street games with the cries of a people and instances of agitation;
We had freedom on our minds and fighting for that was our realization-
Our ancestors pledged their dedication-
Beloit, Wisconsin one of the stops of the Great Migration-
We are here now, blood, sweat and tears in this fight;
With a belief that just a little talk with Jesus makes it right-
Through all of the pain our ancestors stayed the course;
Industrializing within places like Fairbanks Morse-
This place, the place that I am proud to call home;
Where a hard days work provided a chance for some to come into their own-
We are talking about generations of providers;
From Ironworks, Regal Beloit, Taylor Freeze, General Motors and Chrysler-
See, my Pops was at GM for 30+ years;
Worked himself to the grave just so I can be here….

Just to understand, what it means to be free. ..." 

EnlargeBeloit Historical Society Director of Programming Kelly Washburn welcomes guests to the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" session June 19, 2019 at her organization's facility in Beloit.

Beloit Historical Society Director
of Programming Kelly Washburn
welcomes guests to the Wisconsin
Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" session June 19, 2019 at her
organization's facility in Beloit.

When the applause subsided, Beloit Historical Society Director of Programming Kelly Washburn jokingly thanked Tanika Apaloo, the Wisconsin Historical Society's Multicultural Outreach Coordinator, for scheduling her to follow Rob Dz on the agenda, a daunting feeling no doubt experienced by many others who have received the microphone following a Dz performance.

"That's not nice making me follow that!" she said with a laugh. 

Washburn welcomed guests to her facility and talked about its upcoming programs and membership opportunities before introducing Christian Øverland, the Ruth & Hartley Barker Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, who facilitated the listening session.

Øverland noted that 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 Milwaukee; 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. More than 5,000 people will have participated in the events by the time they're complete, Øverland said.

"Tonight is not about me talking to you," he said. "We want to hear from you. This is your session. We want to hear your stories ... and what you want to see in a new state museum."

Øverland said a thought came to him while watching Rhea and Dz perform. "I was thinking, 'These are the types of things that we want to give life to [in a new museum], beyond this performance ... how do we bring it forward for many generations to come. This is the type of thing that we do."

Øverland turned attention to the new museum project by introducing a Society video about the museum's central storytelling theme — “What Makes Wisconsin, Wisconsin?” — and encouraging guests to think about what they might want to share during the first activity following the film.

"Every idea is a good idea," Øverland said. "You're not going to be judged. Nobody's going to say yay or nay. I want YOU to say yay or nay to me [about early museum plans]."

Following the film, 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 Beloit.

A woman mentioned the support of local black churches, including New Zion Baptist Church, founded in 1917, and Bethel AME Church, which dates to 1882.

"Our black churches for me were a big staple of my childhood," she said. "... Anytime you needed help with something, the black churches were going to back you up."

A lengthy discussion centered around the city's proud manufacturing history, specifically the Fairbanks Morse manufacturing plant and the housing development (Fairbanks Flats) that resulted from the company's recruitment of workers from Mississippi and other parts of the South during the Great Mirgration. 

"They had to build units for the African American workers to live in because housing segregation was so bad you could not live on one side of town," a woman said.

"Fairbanks Morse had to do a bit of an end run around the city, to my understanding," added a man, "because the city didn't want that [development] to happen." 

The Flats, built in 1917, were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. But following their use as factory workers' housing during the Great Migration, they didn't achieve their publicly stated purpose, a man said. 

"Ultiimately it was converted into a project that was supposed to be a pathway to [African American] home ownership," he said, "but that has not panned out. The corporation that took it over did nothing to provide that pathway. ... That's part of the whole [racial] mix that goes into [the story of] Beloit and Wisconsin."

Indeed, housing has always been a challenge in Beloit. Some guests pointed to a clear difference between the City of Beloit and Town of Beloit.

"I've been a teacher here for 36 years and that's something that I always wondered about," a man said. "To me, it was a form of segregation that's more modern. People don't want to say it out loud, but ... it's still there."

"The town had written covenants that you couldn't sell to someone of color," a woman said, recounting subdivisions and housing discrimination lawsuits of the past. 

Guests said that housing and job discrimination were also challenges for workers who came from the South and took jobs at the General Motors plant in Janesville, 14 miles to the north. 

"When they did hire blacks, they all were hired to work on the line," a woman said. "They did not have equal opportunities to ... get into the skilled trades."

Making matters worse was the fact that housing was limited for African Americans in Janesville, which was also a "Sundown City," meaning blacks weren't allowed on the streets after dark. 

"They made sure they got out of Janesville by sundown," a woman said, though a man noted that sundown laws were also "understood in Beloit."

Lawsuits and legislation eventually helped alleviate some of the housing and job discrimination problems, a woman said. 

"That really made a big difference in the economic impact for those who worked and lived in Beloit," she said. "They became homeowners and pretty much two-parent [and two-income] families."

However, it didn't alleviate all discrimination.

Another guest recalled how "Turtle Creek was a swimming pool that all blacks would go to because we could not go to the white pool or the municipal city pool," she said. "So we went to Turtle Creek."

"Which they then paved over," another woman recalled. 

On a happier note, Øverland asked if sports were important to the city and guests talked about their lasting city pride in "the shot heard 'round the state." That came in 1969, when LaMont Weaver's 55-foot buzzer-beating bank shot basket shocked the UW Field House and a statewide audience, forcing overtime in Beloit Memorial's WIAA state championship boys basketball game against Neenah, which it eventually won in two overtimes, 80-79.

"If you're from Beloit, you know about LaMont Weaver's shot," a woman said.

High school basketball dominance is ingrained in the city's early history, in fact. Beloit captured four state boys titles in the 1930s, including three in a row from 1932-34, and the Weaver-led 1969 crown was the sixth of its seven championships, the last of which came in 1973 (Beloit's last appearance at State was in 2009). 

Guests talked about the fact that Beloit College is the oldest college in the state, but that "there's really no connection to the community," a woman said, because it's a liberal arts school that brings in students from across the country. Only recently has it begun to make deeper connections to local high schools, another guest added.

Another topic that generated a lot of discussion had deep racial implications: The fact that Beloit used to have its own Rock County Courthouse until 1999, when the county centralized its judicial services to Janesville. 

"Of the 72 counties, this was the only one that had two courthouses," a woman said.

That has been problematic ever since, multiple guests said. 

"People from Beloit who don't have the means to get to Janesville if they have to attend court for whatever reason, it's made it more difficult," a woman said. 

"The idea was that they were going to expand the bus service and connect the two cities," another woman said. "They had this whole grand scheme and it never [happened]."

A man who said he moved from Chicago to Janesville 19 years ago said he has noticed the issue affecting African American men, especially.

"We're trying to get that satellite back in Beloit," he said, "because it's causing undue stress and incarceration because we have young men and women trying to get to court and they can't make it and they get [their probation] revoked. And the one drug court is in Janesville. ... If you don't get there, you get fined [or jailed]."

The city was also dealt a heavy blow when GM closed its Janesville plant in 2009. At 90 years, it was the oldest operating GM plant at the time.

"A lot of those people were transferred to other states and we lost a lot," the woman said. "Beloit lost a lot of two-parent incomes and two-parent families. And in lieu of that, I'm not trying to be negative, but a lot of the families that came in were not vested in Beloit. They were from other areas where the kids were permanently kicked out of school — and we got them.

"That's kind of the state Beloit is in now," she continued. "It's been a slow leak of economic opportunity here."

A man pointed to "the renovation and cultivation of the Downtown area" as a positive sign, but "some would say [that has come] at the expense of some of the neighborhoods."  

Øverland then turned the conversation from Beloit to the new museum for the next activity, during which he showed them early concept exhibit design renderings for the new museum and asked for feedback.

"This is an opportunity to improve things," he said. "This is your time to get your voice into the process."

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

"What's not to like?" a woman said. 

"I like the idea that you can change the [images] for the group that's coming in," a man added. "It allows for a lot of flexibility, which I would like to see in a new museum, rather than a stagnant display that stays the same."

Guests liked a rendering called "Agricultural Ingenuity" that showed wild ricing and cranberry harvesting, but a woman encouraged the Society to "have some mention of climate change affecting our natural resources" and a man felt it was important "to address the problems that are coming up that we see," such as fertilizer runoff causing algae blooms in lakes.

Another woman liked the possibility of children hearing Ojibwe speakers talking about wild ricing.

A rendering called "Industrial Innovation" showed a recreation of a large turbine that local West Allis company Allis-Chalmers manufactured for Niagara Falls within a larger machine shop exhibit. Guests would be able to walk through the giant turbine, where they would experience video and written material about the industrialization of Wisconsin.

"I like this because Beloit was big in the papermaking business [at one time]," a man said. 

A woman said she'd like to see the "chain of events" that occurs in the papermaking business, for example, such as the forest where trees originated, how they were transported to the mills and ultimately turned into paper.

A rendering of a whimsical art installation of a giant cow comprised of objects coming from all 72 counties of Wisconsin was fairly resoundingly rejected.

"That's not visually appealing," a woman said. Others: "It's too busy." "It's so passive; there's no interaction with it"; "It's an eyesore"; "Cheese Whiz."

"Don't worry, you're not alone," Øverland laughed, noting the mixed reactions over the cow at other listening sessions.

A man suggested instead allowing people to write messages on the cow, or having a map of the 72 counties and allowing people to write their messages on it.

A rendering called "Natural Resources" showed an outdoor scene with a cabin, maple syrup being tapped from a tree, and a Packers ice fishing shanty, among other items.

One guest said she felt like she had seen something similar before at the Milwaukee Public Museum, while another recommended instead focusing on the history of the ice age and geology of Wisconsin. "It's unique and you can actually see it in [the landscape of] Wisconsin."

An exhibit of a "Supper Club Experience" drew mixed reaction.

A man liked it "but it's a North Woods thing. It's not going to be most peoples' supper clubs because ... most people live down here and this [exhibit] is more like a northern resort."

A woman suggested digitally reproducing different supper club experiences depending on where you are in Wisconsin.

A "Laboratory of Democracy" rendering, which features a large window looking across the street to the Capitol and digitally projected historic newspapers on screens high on the walls, was positively received. 

Øverland pointed out that the Society has the second-largest historic newspaper collection only to the Library of Congress and imagined guests interacting with the exhibit by calling up historic newspapers of their choice.

"I like that," a woman said. "You could search anything and link something from the past to maybe something that's going on now. You can kind of see where things are headed because of something that happened years ago."

Finally, Øverland asked guests to share their favorite museum experiences because "the job of a museum ultimately is to create memories that will last a lifetime."

A man mentioned a pre-IMAX theater visit to the Planetarium in Chicago, which "hit all the senses."

Another guest mentioned the Oklahoma City National Museum & Memorial. "The sound and the noise and the tape recording that they play when you go in of the bomb going off and people screaming ... you just can't forget it."

A woman mentioned the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and "how you were able to put yourself there. You'd be walking along and all of the sudden you start to smell the shoes" [from an exhibit of victims' shoes]."

She also mentioned a Science and Industry Museum exhibit that took guests from their current location into space and then reduced them "back down to where you were just an atom." "It freaked me out!" she said. "It wasn't necessarily a pleasant expeirence. I'll never forget it."

Another woman mentioned the jarring reality of racist taunts at the Muhammad Ali Museum in Louisville, the Negro Baseball Hall of Fame and Jazz Museum in Kansas City ("I didn't even want to leave") and a visit to the Slave Castles in Ghana. "We went to The Door of No Return, where slaves were going onto the boat that was going to take them away from their home forever. That will always stick with me."

 

Suggestions made on Post-It notes during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session in Beloit were turned into this word cloud, with the most suggested words in the biggest type.

 

Word cloud from Beloit listening session

Suggestions made on Post-It notes during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 in Beloit were turned into this word cloud, with the most suggested words in the biggest type.

Beloit native and teacher Sha-Nita Rhea helps guests celebrate the Juneteenth holiday by singing the "Negro National Anthem" ("Lift Every Voice and Sing") at the start of the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" session in Beloit.

Beloit native and Memorial High School teacher Sha-Nita Rhea helps guests celebrate the
Juneteenth holiday by singing the "Negro National Anthem" ("Lift Every Voice and Sing")
at the start of the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" session in Beloit.

Guests enjoy a laugh during a discussion at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society.

Guests enjoy a laugh during a discussion at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society.

A guest comments on Beloit's history during a discussion at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society.

Steve Howland comments on Beloit's history during a discussion at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society.

Guests chat with each other following the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society.

Guests chat with each other following the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society.

Christian Øverland, the Ruth and Hartley Barker Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, asks a guest a question during the "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society.

Christian Øverland, the Ruth and Hartley Barker Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, asks a guest a question during the "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society.

Guests introduce themselves to each other following the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society.

Guests introduce themselves to each other following an evening of robust conversations during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society.

Tanika Apaloo, Coordinator of Multicultural Outreach for the Wisconsin Historical Society, welcomes guests to the Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society.

Tanika Apaloo, Coordinator of Multicultural Outreach for the Wisconsin Historical Society, welcomes guests to the Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society.

Wisconsin Historical Society Outreach Curator Tamara Funk poses with the set of coveralls worn in 1943 by a real-life "Rosie the Riveter" who worked in Beloit's Fairbanks Morse factory.

Wisconsin Historical Society Outreach Curator Tamara Funk poses with the set of coveralls worn in 1943 by a real-life "Rosie the Riveter" who worked in Beloit's Fairbanks Morse factory. The coveralls were among historic artifacts from the Society's collections on display at the new museum multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society.

A guest smiles as she thinks about what new museum suggestions to write down during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session June 19, 2019 at the Beloit Historical Society.

A guest smiles as she thinks about what new museum suggestions to write down during the
Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" multicultural listening session June 19, 2019
at the Beloit Historical Society.

 

Share Your Voice statewide map

"SHARE YOUR VOICE" STATEWIDE SESSION LOCATIONS

 

Beloit—Home of So Many Heroes

By Rob Dz

Juneteenth. Otherwise known as the day we became free;
So let me explain what that truly means to me-
See, it began with an emancipation proclamation;
That has developed over generations to our current situation- 

Now ask yourself, what does it mean to be free?

Before the street games with the cries of a people and instances of agitation;
We had freedom on our minds and fighting for that was our realization-
Our ancestors pledged their dedication-
Beloit, Wisconsin one of the stops of the Great Migration-
We are here now, blood, sweat and tears in this fight;
With a belief that just a little talk with Jesus makes it right-
Through all of the pain our ancestors stayed the course;
Industrializing within places like Fairbanks Morse-
This place, the place that I am proud to call home;
Where a hard days work provided a chance for some to come into their own-
We are talking about generations of providers;
From Ironworks, Regal Beloit, Taylor Freeze, General Motors and Chrysler-
See, my Pops was at GM for 30+ years;
Worked himself to the grave just so I can be here…. 

Just to understand, what it means to be free.

This is my history, these are my facts;
To understand the roots that come from The Flats-
Families together, united under one heartbeat;
I remember hearing about the love on Pleasant Street-
For me, that is the lineage of Johnsons and Howards;
People of faith and through the years it never soured-
These words are rhythmic and for freedom I’m testifying;
The heart of a Lion like Reverend U.S. Pride at New Zion-
Encouraging our fight for freedom in order to change the mood;
These steps that I walk are in part of lessons from Dr. Floyd Prude-
See, freedom is understanding the power of unity;
It gives that blessed assurance like Reverend Hereford at Community-
I’ve been so inspired with certain sermons especially;
Like hearing my Uncle Roy over at Wesley-
All of those folks through the word helped me see;
What it really means to be free

These words are my artwork, this life is my canvas;
I am thankful for those that pushed me like Brenda Atlas-
I was shown if you learn you can improve your memory;
So fortunate to have been taught by Hugo Henry-
These examples of people showed me how to make something from nothing;
People that cared like Richard Gupton;
I was taught to strive for more and not be afraid to be unique;
Principals installed in me through Booker Street-
So many people helped me find freedom both men and women;
The strongest of folks like Barbara Hickman-
Kept me going no matter what others would tell me;
Tough love like that of JB Elzy-
And through it all in learning I found joy;
Thanks to people like Ida Foy-
Every one of them all taught me;
To get lost in them books and grow free 

I am grateful for the people that came before me;
That were the example of what it means to live free-
People that encouraged that spark;
Like when Jesse Harrell would mentor us in the park-
People that cared and shared and answered the call;
Like not just baseball but life lessons with Lefty Hall-
Those that supported me to raise the bar;
People like Charlie Tubbs and Mardie Farr-
Community Builders with love to share;
Like Leon Davidson aka Mr. D building Davidson Square-
Teaching me how to go with the flow;
Like the words of Sweet Russ on the radio-
As I dove deep into music, finding freedom in my sound;
Being a descendant of the 7 Shades Of Brown-
Sharing testimonies worthy of the kingdom;
Tickling the ivories like Babe Ingram-
Learning about the opportunities in this plight;
Tied to OIC like Walter Knight-
So many showed me that anything is possible;
That I can now share stories like Eugene Releford at the Black Chronicle-
The examples of my people helped me to understand;
From Frank Humphrey to Clarence Givhan-
The strongest of people helped shape my world;
Going from Willie Earls to Clippers and Curls-
All played a part in making me a believer;
Like a shot heard around the world by LaMont Weaver-
To hear about Tarzan Honor, Franke Clarke, Jerry Kenney and Jim Caldwell;
Gave me hope to share the stories that I know tell-
Those that stood in the gap in a world that is so heavy;
With Black Eloquence like Charles and Evelyn O’Kelly-
Brothers and Sisters that help me become equipped;
And taught me our history like Mardella Shipp;
Simply put, you ask what Juneteenth means to me;
It means honoring all of these heroes that taught me how to live free