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Milwaukee’s First – Post Racial – Black History Month?

Photo and story by Zachary Sell  Fe b r u a r y , Black History M o n t h , arrives as the first days of an Obama presidency unfold.  For a country whose past has been defined by racial oppression, November’s election has caused some to believe that the United States, ever progressing, has entered a post-racial era. Yet, as the New Year’s Day shooting of Oscar Grant by Oakland, California police officers painfully reminds us, race continues to define the contours of American society.  Milwaukee need not look west to see racism’s impact, either. In Wisconsin, African Americans are more than ten times as likely to be incarcerated as whites.  In Milwaukee, the racial discrepancy between Black and white joblessness is greater than in any other city in the United States.  In Riverwest and neighboring communities sub-prime mortgages aimed at people of color have caused Black Milwaukeeans to shoulder a disproportionate part of the burden of the ongoing financial crisis.  Most strikingly, in our city, Black newborns are more than twice as likely to die from preventable ailments as white infants.  Historically rooted, the continuing significance of race is vividly captured at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society. There, Director Clayborn Benson (Photo above) has given form to the admixture of communalism, oppression, resistance, and cultural expression that has defined Wisconsin’s Black history.  As Mr. Benson emphasized in a recent conversation, the history of Black Milwaukee is the history of Africa, the American South, the Civil Rights Movement, and Wisconsin intertwined. Africa’s influence can be seen in the unique housing styles that crossed the Atlantic, landed in the South, and eventually made their way north to Milwaukee.  The South’s impact can be found in slavery and Black resistance to enslavement. While rare, according to Benson, slavery existed in the lead mines of Western Wisconsin. Additionally, before he became President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis was stationed in the Wisconsin territory as a lieutenant. As was common practice for Southern officers stationed in the North, along with Davis came an enslaved assistant – James Pemberton.  If slavery in Wisconsin was rare, resistance was common. Enticed by freedom, Joshua Glover, Caroline Quarrls and countless others found respite from slavery by way of Wisconsin. A century later, during the Civil Rights era, Lloyd Barbee, Vel Philips, Prentice McKinney and others defiantly worked to end school segregation and procure open housing legislation.  Milwaukee’s Black community, according to Benson, “believed in the doctrine of freedom,” “the forty hour work week,” “the right to own a home,” “the opportunity to educate children,” and “[the right] to be left alone.” When these rights were interfered with, Milwaukee’s Black community often resisted any way that it could.  Black History Month gives all an opportunity to pay homage to those traditions. As Benson reflected, “it would be a sin for any community to have to recapture its history.” As for contemporary racism, Benson still believes that “one day people will wake up and see that it is by design and by purpose.” Black History Month, it seems, provides the perfect opportunity for awakening.  The Wisconsin Black Historical Society/Museum is located at 2620 W. Center Street. It can be found on the web at wbhsm.homestead.com