’Settlin″ tells a revealing Madison story
William Miller had a law degree, but the only job he could find in Milwaukee in 1901 was as a waiter.
One day he waited on Wisconsin Gov. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, who was so impressed with the young man that he asked him to move to Madison to work for him as an assistant. Miller and his family went on to become social and educational leaders in the community. Years later, when a nighttime fire struck the Capitol, Miller raced to La Follette’s office in his nightshirt to rescue his boss’s papers.
So goes an oral history by Billy McDonald documented in “Settlin’: Stories of Madison’s Early African American Families,” a revealing look at life in 19th- and early 20th-century Madison compiled by Muriel Simms, and published this fall by Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
“Settlin’” contains a 25-page history of Madison’s earliest African American citizens, followed by two dozen compelling interviews with their children, grandchildren and others recalling those times.
Their stories paint a picture rarely seen in history books — about a small, tight African American community that encountered kindness but also profound discrimination — a community with deep convictions about the importance of pursuing an education, working hard and upholding one’s dignity.
Inspired by mother
Simms set out to write the book after the death of her mother in 1999.
“That might have been the trigger — knowing that many of the early ancestors had died (and) their stories had not been recorded,” she said. “And I was getting older. My generation’s stories were not being recorded.”
“I’m glad that I did this project when I did, because several people have passed on” since they told their stories, she said.
Simms started out with two friends to compile a list of people who might share their family’s history, and began her research in 2003, the year after receiving her Ph.D in educational administration at UW-Madison. A lifelong Madisonian and educator, Simms has received many civic honors, and in 1992 was named Wisconsin Elementary Principal of the Year.
Simms, who now serves as adjunct faculty at Edgewood College, recorded the interviews for “Settlin’” on a cassette tape recorder and painstakingly transcribed them herself using an old-style dictation machine. An editor friend and others encouraged her to take her manuscript to a publisher.
While researching Madison’s earliest African American families, “I was fascinated by the fact that (they) felt Madison was appealing,” she said. “They didn’t seem to have any misgivings about coming here and planting their roots here. And I can only assume that they felt safer here than they did where they came from.”
And once people were raising families, “I think it didn’t make sense to them to uproot them for another place. They could handle whatever struggles, whatever discrimination (they encountered) here in Madison.”
Beauty and barriers
Many early residents relished the city’s physical beauty and its cultural opportunities. They endured barriers to jobs, housing, restaurants and more.
The old Greenbush neighborhood, or “the Bush,” where Italian, Jewish and African American families lived side by side, is the backdrop for many memories. Centered on Park and Regent streets, the neighborhood was razed in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal.
“When we lived in the Bush, we were all like family,” McDonald recalled. “In my mother’s era, they may have had a few problems, but the problems were gone just like that; they didn’t linger. We practically lived at each other’s houses, whether White or Black. It didn’t make any difference. We were always grouped together. We were taught that if any parent said it’s time to go home, we never argued; we never talked back. We went home. If invited to stay for dinner, we stayed and ate.”
“Settlin’” also has its share of nostalgia for childhood joys such as boating, skating and sledding. It tells of entrepreneurs like John and Amanda Hill, who ran a grocery store on Dayton Street for decades, and of John and Luberta Mosley, who ran a pool hall and barber shop on West Washington Avenue.
It notes how Myra Allison integrated an unofficially whites-only, dime store diner on Capitol Square, and how Simms’ mother, Mary, quietly convinced the owner of a Madison department store to let non-whites try on clothing there before they bought it.
Simms includes a lengthy oral history from her older sister, Dolores Simms Greene, who would go on to a distinguished local career in education, civil rights and affirmative action.
Their father came to Madison in 1927 from Missouri, which barred African Americans from enrolling in its public universities — yet would send them to other states to study, tuition paid. David Simms entered the pharmacy school at UW-Madison, and his family eventually followed.
They moved into a fraternity house, where David Simms did janitorial work and his wife worked as a cook, allowing them to save money for their own home.
The house they bought at 201 N. Lake St. “was ideal, with enough space to rent to Black female UW students who were refused private housing on or near the campus due to racism and discrimination,” Greene recalls in the book.
“Since the neighbors gave them problems trying to buy the house by circulating a petition, Mom and Dad filed a lawsuit under the city’s fair housing laws, which were just developing in Madison,” she said. “They won the case and bought the house, which they kept until 1955.”
Greene recounted how she was chosen as Central High School’s track queen in 1947 for her academic achievement, community activism and personality. The queen was traditionally celebrated at an annual track meet and a parade around Capitol Square that headed to Breese Stevens Field.
But “when city officials learned that I had been picked as track queen, they canceled the parade, the dinner, the photo shoots, and name recognition — all of those aspects that historically had been associated with the event,” she said.
“The women’s track coach was livid about the cancellations and the city’s obvious attempt to obliterate any Black presence at the event,” Greene said. “The irony is that Central High School took all the track awards in the city meet that year.”
Though many of Madison’s early African American residents had to settle for jobs as housekeepers, cooks and elevator operators, they also became active members of the city’s civic and social scene. They hosted black entertainment stars like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in their homes because the touring performers could not get rooms at a decent hotel.
They also welcomed Madison newcomers. Families frequently opened their homes, helping “new Blacks in town to find places to live, (sharing) knowledge of job openings, (cautioning) about social behavior,” Greene said.
“Newcomers might have come here with some attitudes, but they soon learned that the blacks that were here would not tolerate certain behaviors,” Simms said.
“We all became working people. It was those folks who paved the way ... (The early Madisonians) were the ones who wrote letters to the officials … and were the real activists.
“They had no problem writing people and telling them what they thought about how things should be changed,” she said. “It was those early Madisonians who were the first to sit on committees and commissions, and to try to help make change, to interject their voices into how Madison could be a better community.”