Black History | Wisconsin Historical Society

Black History | BIG History

Black History Month

African American history in Wisconsin

The Society is celebrating BIG moments in Wisconsin history, including the significant impact that African Americans have had on the history of the state. Learn about this impact through the articles, artifacts, and other important items below that help tell the story of African Americans in Wisconsin.

Photo ID #95738 

View from behind of a young woman wearing a t-shirt with the title Dungeon Mistress printed on the back while she plays an adventure game on a computer. In the background is a blackboard

African American History Maker: Vel Phillips 

Happy 100th birthday, Vel Phillips! The first Black woman in Wisconsin to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison law, serve on the Milwaukee City Council, become a Wisconsin judge and act as Wisconsin Secretary of State, Phillips dedicated her life to the relentless defense of civil rights, equitable housing and anti-discrimination legislation across the Badger State. Check out this video to learn more about the fascinating life of Vel Phillips, and explore items from the Society's historical collections related to her story below.

Vel Phillips Desk

Common Council Desk

Portrait of Mrs. Vel Rodgers Phillips which links to Vel Phillips Papers

Vel's Papers

Vel Phillips campaign sticker.

Campaign Brochure

Head and shoulders portrait of Vel Phillips holding a telephone.


Collecting History as it Happens

Graffiti'd wood panels from the Wisconsin Historical Museum, featuring BLM in artful bubble letters and the phrase 'always lies'.

Despite the gains made by the American Civil Rights movement, these past years we've witnessed our country’s systemic problems of racism and injustice. Protests across the country, including here in Wisconsin, were the catalyst for important conversations examining racism and social justice in America.

In the wake of the protests, the Society acquired a collection of wood panels from boarded up buildings. These panels also served as a canvas for those advocating for change to express their emotions through art. The panels will be preserved and shared through future exhibits as a reminder of the impact that the death of George Floyd had on Wisconsin’s citizens.

Explore the Video Gallery

The Society has also gathered resources to help guide the dialogue as we continue to have conversations with our past to build a better future. Read a Wisconsin Historical Society Statement and view Black History Resources.

Unvarnished: Restoring the Erased History of Exclusion

Many museums and organizations are working to share a complete, inclusive history. Often that means sharing histories that have been erased from the consciousness of all except those who were marginalized. This panel talks about their experience collaborating with six organizations.

Explore more African American history

Learn more about the African American experience in Wisconsin and beyond through the historical essays below.

Studio portrait in front of a painted backdrop of Martha and Notley Henderson with their three children. Their son Allen is standing. The Hendersons were early African American settlers in Madison.

Black History in Wisconsin

An integrated group of mostly young people sitting on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Many of them are holding signs showing support for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).

Freedom Summer

The Milton House was supposedly a part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. The house was built in 1845 by Joseph Goodrich and turned into an Inn. The frame house and log cabin behind the Inn were also built by Goodrich, along with the Milton House Tavern. The Milton House was later taken over and turned into a museum.

The Underground Railroad in Wisconsin

Lloyd Barbee in a somber crowd at a memorial gathering for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Lloyd Barbee

More Historical Essays

March On, Milwaukee | Civil Rights Movement in Wisconsin | Slavery in Wisconsin | Black Thursday | African American Civil War Unit | Benjamin Butts | African American Life in the Midwest | Desegregation and Civil Rights in Wisconsin | African American Migration

Fascinating Items from the Society's Historical Collections

The Society has over 2,000 items related to African American history available to explore in our online collection, and this collection is always growing. Explore some of these amazing items and the stories behind them below. 

Threatening note signed 'K.K.K.' (Ku Klux Klan) with rock and rag that was thrown through Daisy Bates' window in August 1957. The note reads: 'The next will be dynamite.'

Daisy Bates' Rock

Hand-drawn and colored maps of Wisconsin showing how each county voted in the gubernatorial race of 1865, and on a referendum regarding suffrage for African-Americans on the same ballot.

Black Suffrage Referendum Map

Image of a enslaved person running for their freedom with stick and satchel.

Freedom Seeker's Collar

Earlene Fuller's bowling shirt - back, c. 1995

African American Bowling Shirt

More Historical Items

Racine Branch NAACP Letter | Necktie Quilt by Allie Crumble | Interview with Julian Bond | Miss Annie Mae’s Church Hat

Compelling Images from the Society's Historical Collections

Flyer for a rally 'The Right To Vote' 'The Fight To Vote' sponsored by the Federation of Negro Civil Service Organizations, Inc. Speakers include Jackie Robinson, Daisy Bates, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Roy Wilkins.

The Right To Vote Rally Poster

Waist-up portrait of Hank Aaron in his Atlanta Braves uniform. The print is autographed at the top.

Autographed Hank Aaron Print

Poster for Black Roots Black Art event held at Chadbourne Hall. Image is a woodblock print of an African American face. Featured work from Henry Hawkins, Josiah Tlou, Orlando Bell, and Frieda High.

Black Roots Black Art Poster

Eugene (Gene) Parks with his wife and children relaxing outdoors. From left to right are Kendra Parks, Marilyn Park, Wendy Parks, Stacey Parks, Reggie Parks (the baby) and Eugene Parks. Parks had a long career in Madison politics, often as a champion of civil rights issues. He was president of the local NAACP chapter from 1975-1979.

Photograph of Eugene Parks and His Family

COVID-19 Poster Project Collection

See the Collection

A warm and bright background of repeating arcs or rainbows in purple, magenta, orange, and goldenrod, is covered by two hands clasped together. One is purple, the other orange are vertically across the poster. Around them words are placed: 'A helping hand can go a long way! Assit your elderly neighbors! Give a family member and a friend a hand!'

Helping Hands

Ciara Nash

I am currently a freelance graphic designer, acrylic painter, and paint party instructor and host under the business name Cee Nash’s Arts. During the summer of 2020, I helped create murals downtown during the George Floyd protest and riots. Outside of my art life, I have a position with Red Caboose Childcare Center of Madison, WI. I majored in art therapy and minored in graphic design through Edgewood college. I am currently in grad school for business management for art and design through the Maryland Institute of Art and Design. I also plan on obtaining my master's degree in art therapy later down the road.

As of lately, I have been inspired by posters created in the 60s and early 70s. I like the use of vibrant colors, different use of shapes, textures, and movement. I felt that this approach was appropriate for this climate that we are in today. I wanted to be able to represent everyone in a way. The message to me is promoting community togetherness and a step for growth!

Ciara Nash's Portfolio

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A black girl with cute dreaded pig tails sits cross legged, all in purple. She wears a tank top and pants with sneakers, the laces slightly undone a smile on her face. She asks, 'I'm vaccinated are you?'

I'm Vaccinated

Kierranna Rought

"To me this is a very personal project, there are still a lot of people who don't follow the safety precautions. Art can be a huge form of a call to action, illustration and cartoons if done right can really persuade a person into feeling/being able to put themselves into that character's shoes. COVID is a very real thing, but a lot of people tend to find themselves in a very harmful mindset of "well, if no one around me/no one close to me has COVID why should I have to worry? why should I have to wear a mask?" without even realizing that this could 100% harm them and the people around them as well. It's easy for us humans to think that way, and I as an artist use my art and my platform to not only entertain but as well as educate; and I want to step up and do my part to follow COVID precautions but also try my hand at educating others on doing the same to help end/slow down the spread of the virus."

Their Instagram

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Jerry Jordan's Learn At Home Poster featuring a young black girl at a table full of books and computer looking engaged in her studies

Learn At Home

By Jerry Jordan

Jerry Jordan created this poster as part of the Wisconsin Historical Society Covid-19 Poster Project. He is part of a growing movement of painters that are reinterpreting classical painting into what they call contemporary realism. He counts such painters as John S. Sargent, Anders Zorn, William M. Chase and Joaquin Sorolla as major influences in his artistic growth. However it was the artist of the Harlem Renaissance that fueled his desire to pursue painting.

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