By LaKeshia Myers
Celebrating Black History Month has always been special for me. It allows me the opportunity to be both reflective and optimistic about the history of black people across the diaspora, but especially those in the United States. It gives everyone the opportunity to delve deeper into the history and numerous contributions that have been made to society by people of African descent.
As vice-chair of the Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus, it was important to me to pay special attention to Wisconsin’s role in the black American experience. In this year’s Black History Month resolution, we highlighted five Wisconsinites that you might not have heard of, but were true pioneers for African Americans in this state.
Paul Jones, was an enslaved lead worker in Sinsinawa, Grant County, Wisconsin. He sued his owner (who was also his employer) George W. Jones, for $1,133 for trespassing on a promise to pay him wages. Paul Jones lost his case because enslaved people were not considered citizens, and therefore could not claim lost wages. Jones continued to work for George Jones until his emancipation in 1842. Jones then settled with other free blacks in the Pleasant Ridge community, near present-day Beetown, in Iowa County.
Jay Mayo “Ink” Williams, was a pioneering producer of recorded blues music. Williams lead the “race records” division at Paramount Records, which was a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company, located in Grafton, WI. Williams was responsible for traveling the south scouting talent for the record label. He was responsible for Paramount recordings featuring blues singers Blind Lemon Jefferson, Alberta Hunter, and Ma Rainey. During his time at Paramount, Williams broke all previous records for sales in the blues genre.
The story of Mabel Watson Raimey, is one that is tremendously important to Wisconsin. Raimey was Wisconsin’s first black female attorney and first African American female graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Prior to attending law school, Raimey was hired as a teacher by Milwaukee Public Schools, however, she was fired three days later when it was discovered that she was an African American. As the first black woman admitted to practice by the Wisconsin State Bar in 1927, Raimey paved the way for others like Vel Philips, who was the second black woman to gain bar admission in 1951.
While Mable Raimey was the first teacher of color hired by Milwaukee Public Schools, Susie Bazzelle Ellis and Millie White French were the first teachers of color purposefully hired by the district.
According to historian Jack Dougherty, prior to 1930, there were no black employees in Milwaukee Public Schools. At this time Milwaukee’s black population had reached 7,500, which was 1% of the city’s population (Dougherty, 1998). For blacks who had studied to become educators they were relegated to factory work or forced to leave the city to find teaching jobs. At the request of Bernice Lindsay and newspaper editor J. Anthony Josey, Ald. Samuel Soref arranged to have Ellis and French hired by MPS.
While Ellis had been trained as a secondary teacher, both she and French were assigned as day-to-day substitute teachers at Fourth Street School (presently Golda Meir School). This was done quietly, and without fanfare, as Soref’s brother was a member of the Milwaukee Public Schools Board. As Dougherty states, “Ellis and French were hired so quietly that in 1932, many members of the school board were surprised to learn that they had hired two black teachers” (Dougherty, 1998). This discovery led to public outcry by white members of the school board and former Superintendent Milton Potter who said Soref sought to, “prostitute the colored race for the sole purpose of garnering votes”. Amidst all of the racial and political polarization Ellis was dismissed after her first year on the grounds that she was an inadequate disciplinarian and French’s position was reverted to part-time.
In highlighting the contributions of these five individuals it allows us to truly reflect on the history that we don’t know. It is also a demonstration of understanding the past so we aren’t doomed to repeat it. I found it striking that there were virtually no teachers of color in Milwaukee in the 1930s; if we compare that to today, only 21% of the teaching workforce in MPS are people of color. We have to know the history, ponder it, and reflect on it in order to give us guidance for the future. That is my hope for this state during this black history month. Embrace, reflect, dialogue, and discern black history and culture.
Then and only then will we move closer to the goal of an equitable society.