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Black History Month 2021


February is Black History Month, and in many ways, that history is still being written today. MCTS hopes this list will give Milwaukeeans across the city a chance to learn about – and to honor – some of the city’s notable and unsung heroes.

Jack Patterson

Jack S. Patterson, originally from Hunting, Arkansas, moved north to look for work. He planned to move to Detroit, and had come to Milwaukee to visit, but instead remained and found work. In 1945, Patterson became the first African-American hired by the Wisconsin Electric Railway and Transport Company (now known as MCTS). He and several other African-American bus operators were pioneers for this time. After working as a bus operator for 30 years, Patterson went on to train new bus operators for the next three years. He retired in 1978 at the age of 65. He is said to have never met a stranger and had a smile for everyone.

 

Vel Phillips

Velvalea Hortense Rogers "Vel" Phillips was the first of her magnitude. She began her legacy as a well-known civil rights figure in Milwaukee during the 1960's. She began to play a larger role in the 1967 demonstrations, when Father Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council led Milwaukee's South Side Open Housing Marches. In 1978, Phillips made national history as the first African-American candidate to win statewide office in Wisconsin. Equipped with unwavering determination and a passion for equality, she became an iconic champion for the movement.

 

Underground Railroad Stop: Samuel Brown Farm

The Samuel Brown Farm, located at the intersection of what is now N. 16th St. and W. Fond du Lac Ave., was part of the local Underground Railroad, a network of hiding places for escaping slaves. In July 1842, 16-year-old Caroline Quarlls, a runaway slave from St. Louis, was hidden on the Brown farm to avoid pursuing slave catchers. Milwaukee abolitionists then took her to Prairieville (now Waukesha) and from there she went to freedom in Ontario, Canada. The Underground Railroad marker is located on MCTS Administration Building property, across the street from the former Samuel Brown Farm. 

 

Lloyd Barbee

Lloyd Barbee is known for his monumental work in Wisconsin civil rights law. A Tennessee native born in 1925, Barbee became a leader in the NAACP-Milwaukee Branch, helping the NAACP launch a challenge against segregation in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).  The NAACP and ally organizations sponsored model alternative schools while also heading up demonstrations and a school boycott. When MPS remained unmoved, Barbee prepared the desegregation suit Amos vs. Board of School Directors in 1965. More than 10 years later, in 1976, Judge John Reynolds finally accepted Barbee’s arguments and ruled in favor of Amos, calling for the desegregation of MPS. Barbee also actively participated in a 1984 spinoff lawsuit between MPS and suburban school districts. 

 

Ardie Clark Halyard       

Upon arrival to Milwaukee in 1923, Wilbur & Ardie Halyard dreamed of improving the living conditions of African-Americans in the city. Subsequently in January 1925, the Halyards founded Milwaukee’s first black financial institution, Columbia Savings & Loan, to serve the long-term housing needs of the black community. Ardie Halyard, civic leader and active supporter of the NAACP, served as president of the NAACP-Milwaukee Branch in 1951 and as treasurer for several years. Mrs. Halyard has been honored with numerous awards and recognitions including: Radcliff College’s Black Women’s Oral History Project, “Women of Courage” Exhibition (1983), Public Service Recognition Award from the United Negro College Fund (1983) and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Business School’s Minority Entrepreneurship Program instituted an annual award in her memory.

 

Bronzeville

Milwaukee’s Bronzeville was a predominantly-African American business and entertainment district along Walnut Street between North 3rd and North 12th Streets. The area was one that spurred the formation of black business organizations, mostly started by those having no other alternatives for survival due to discrimination, the Depression, and other prevailing social and economic barriers. In the 1930's, while world-renown musicians such as Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington and Cab Calloway played to appreciative Milwaukee audiences of all races, the number of black businesses exceeded those owned by whites in Bronzeville. Host to the Regal Theatre, nightclubs and taverns, the growth of Bronzeville paralleled the growth of black businesses in Milwaukee.

 

Mabel Watson Raimey

Mabel Watson Raimey’s family was among the first African Americans to settle in Milwaukee, arriving in the 1840s. In 1918 she became the first African American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin. In 1922 she enrolled in evening law classes at Marquette University and five years later became the first African American woman to pass the state bar and practice law in Wisconsin. She was active in both the community and her church from a young age. She began volunteering for the Milwaukee Urban League in 1919 and later served on its board for 25 years. She chartered the local chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in Milwaukee in 1949. She was instrumental in the opening of the YWCA branch on the city’s North Side – renamed in 1974 for fellow trailblazing Milwaukeean Vel Phillips.

 

Felmers Chaney

Felmers Chaney, born in Spooner, WI in 1918, was a 36-year Milwaukee Police Officer and became the city’s first African-American police sergeant. A staple of Walnut Street, his patrol became legendary for keeping order. Known for his dedication to Milwaukee’s inner-city, Chaney served as president of the Central City Development Corporation and CEO of North Milwaukee State Bank. During his long reign as president of Milwaukee’s NAACP Executive Committee, Felmers Chaney continued a tireless fight for civil rights. 

 

Ezekiel Gillespie

In 1866, Gillespie won a landmark case when the WI Supreme Court unanimously ruled that African-American men had the right to vote, making Wisconsin one of the first states to grant suffrage to men of African descent. In fact, the legislature had passed a law to that effect in 1849, subject to referendum. The results of the referendum were disputed and black voters were disenfranchised until the Supreme Court's ruling over a decade later. 

 

Rosa Parks

By refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama City bus on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks helped initiate the civil rights movement in the U.S. Her small act of civil disobedience led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation on public transportation. Every bus in the MCTS fleet has a seat reserved in honor of Rosa Parks on December 1st each year. The effort has gained widespread attention on social media and inspired transit agencies across the country to implement similar initiatives