10 things you might not know about Wisconsin's African American histor | Wisconsin Historical Society

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10 things you might not know about Wisconsin's African American history

Learn more about African American history in Wisconsin

10 things you might not know about Wisconsin's African American histor | Wisconsin Historical Society

10 things you might not know about Wisconsin's African American history

  1. Madison’s first black newspaper, the Wisconsin Weekly Blade, debuted in 1916 and was founded by Madison black leaders Chestena and J. Anthony Josey. They used the Blade to fight against prevalent racial stereotypes.

  2. Leo Vinton Butts, the son of one of Madison's earliest black residents Benjamin Butts, was the first known African American to represent the University of Wisconsin on the football field and the first known African-American graduate of the University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy.  A native of Madison, Butts was a substitute lineman on the 1918 varsity football squad.

  3. African Americans lived in Wisconsin long before Germans, Norwegians, and Yankees.  A family of free black fur traders settled upriver from Superior at the end of the 18th century.

  4. In December 1889, Milwaukee's black leaders called a state convention that demanded an end to legal segregation in public places and state employment.  One of its organizers, William Green, became the first black graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School and went on to become a prominent attorney for black Milwaukee residents.  Between graduating in 1892 and his death in 1911, he argued for civil rights in the press and in the courtroom.

  5. Freddie Mae Hill was the first African American to graduate from the University of Wisconsin, Madison Home Economics Department.  Ms. Hill received her Bachelor of Science degree in home economics in 1928 and spent her career teaching home economics to high school girls in Kansas City, Kansas.  Her parents were John and Amanda Hill, who owned Hill's Grocery at the intersection of Dayton and Blair in Madison, Wis. 

  6. A self-described "thorn in the side of management," Nellie Wilson achieved many "firsts" as an African American woman in the labor union and feminist movements in Wisconsin.  In the 1960s, she became the first African American woman elected to the executive board of Smith Steelworkers Local 19806.  She also served as a delegate to the Milwaukee County Labor Council and as a member of the Wisconsin Apprenticeship Advisory Council, she helped open the apprenticeship system to women.

  7. Ezekiel Gillespie was a leader in Milwaukee's African American community. Gillespie moved to Milwaukee from Indiana around 1851 and became active in its small Black community, focusing on voting rights issues. In 1865, he attempted to register to vote under the provisions of the 1848 constitution. He was denied the right to register by county officials and took them to court with the help of attorney Byron Paine. The Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously ruled that African Americans could vote in 1866 and had been entitled to since 1849.

  8. The African American tradition of wearing special head coverings to church goes back to the early days of slavery. One historian has argued that the practice was not an imitation of hats worn by white men and women slave owners, but a statement of dignity. Annie Mae McClain of Milwaukee believed in "looking her best for the Lord." Each Sunday before going to the Tabernacle Community Baptist Church, she carefully chose her outfit, but especially her hat. "Miss Annie Mae," as she was respectfully called, had a passion for hats. At the time of her death in 2003, she had over 70 hats in her closet, many of them one-of-a-kind. 

  9. Carson Gulley (1897–1962) was head chef at the University of Wisconsin–Madison from about 1927 to 1954. Gulley was also a local pioneer in television and radio cooking programming. From 1953–62 Gulley had his own weekly cooking show, called "What's Cooking", on local television station WMTV. Also, in 1953, he hosted a twice-weekly local radio cooking program, called "WIBA Cooking School Of The Air", and each month compiled the program's recipes in booklets that listeners could request by mail.

  10. Vel Phillips’ life was a series of firsts. She was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin–Madison law school, the first to win a seat on Milwaukee’s City Council, the first to become Secretary of State of Wisconsin, the first to become a judge in Wisconsin. More impressive, Vel did it all at a time when many African Americans were not allowed to exercise their civil rights.