Madison made civil rights history in 1963 by adopting the first fair housing ordinance in the state

Thanks to a conservative white mayor, two forceful Black leaders, two pioneering women, a helpful city attorney, strong support from both city newspapers and a vast citizens’ support network, Madison made civil rights history in 1963 by adopting the state’s first open housing ordinance.
Marshall Colston (second from right below with his family — wife Eva and children Marty, Laura and Jacqueline, pictured left to right)

Marshall Colston (second from right below with his family — wife Eva and children Marty, Laura and Jacqueline, pictured left to right) took up the fight. Not everyone agreed, including the Board of Realtors, which circulated an anti-fair housing ad. (Courtesy of Capital Newspapers)

Thanks to a conservative white mayor, two forceful Black leaders, two pioneering women, a helpful city attorney, strong support from both city newspapers and a vast citizens’ support network, Madison made civil rights history in 1963 by adopting the state’s first open housing ordinance.

With no laws in Wisconsin at any level prohibiting racial, religious or any other kind of discrimination, housing segregation was a real problem. Only about 27% of the city’s rental units and 12% of the houses for sale were available to nonwhites.

The city didn’t even have a meaningful board or commission working for civil rights. Instead, there was the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights, or MCHR, which Madison’s Common Council created in 1952 as a powerless consolation prize for activists after their proposed fair housing ordinance was soundly defeated.

In February 1962, attorney Lloyd Barbee, president of Wisconsin’s NAACP and chair of MCHR, released the draft of a tough human rights ordinance banning bias in housing, employment and public accommodations. It went nowhere, and Barbee soon moved to Milwaukee to start a successful 16-year fight against segregation in the public schools and get elected to the State Assembly.

Lloyd barbee in front of the capitol

Attorney Lloyd Barbee was the president of Wisconsin’s NAACP and chair of the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights. In 1962 he released a draft of a human rights ordinance banning bias in housing, employment and public accommodations. (WHS 26539)

In 1963, Marshall Colston, chair of the local NAACP and vice chair of MCHR, took up the fight, pressing Mayor Henry Reynolds to move the matter along.

Not everyone agreed. “Colston and others like him are making a big hullabaloo over a problem that doesn’t exist,” declared Darwin Scoon, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Realtors Association. Homeowners should be able to sell — or not sell — to anyone they choose, he said.

Even as Scoon championed private property rights, racial unrest simmered on the near east side over word that a second Black family might move into an area neighborhood. Several months of anonymous threats brought increased police surveillance.

Fair housing opponents suggested the city lacked legal authority for such an ordinance, until city attorney Edwin Conrad issued a legal opinion that “the meaning of the Civil War and the reason for the Union dead” was to foster equality, and therefore the city could regulate private property and enact a fair housing ordinance. He started drafting an ordinance, working closely with a young attorney serving on the Commission on Human Rights — future Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson.

Edwin Conrad

City attorney Edwin Conrad, working closely with Shirley S. Abrahamson, drafted an ordinance in 1963 that would enact fair housing. Photo by Arthur M. Vinje, WHS 137633)

Although the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights was largely toothless, it did have some very active members, especially chair John McGrath and secretary Betty MacDonald. They created a group they called the Tuesday Night Committee to coordinate public support. Several hundred individuals became actively involved.

Such citizen activism was key. Mayor Reynolds would become an important supporter, but he did not initiate the effort; neither did any alder. Without the NAACP’s Barbee and Colston, the MCHR and the Tuesday Night Committee, Madison wouldn’t have acted when it did — if at all.

That broad base was necessary because the real estate industry — which supported segregated housing so strongly that Realtors who sold houses in white neighborhoods to Black buyers had been disciplined — mobilized to fight the local fair housing code, just as it did the later federal effort.

Dec. 10, 1963, was United Nations’ Human Rights Day, but it was not a good night for human rights in Madison.

Back then the council met as the Committee of the Whole on Tuesdays for public hearings, debate and a preliminary vote, with final votes on Thursdays.

committee of the whole sitting during a meeting

The comprehensive Equal Opportunities Ordinance went before the Committee of the Whole for a packed public hearing on Dec. 10, 1963 that lasted six hours. While the preliminary vote on the housing section failed that Tuesday, amendments and a flipped vote two nights later resulted in a historic win for fair housing. (Photo by David Sandell, WHS 136614)

More than 400 people packed the council chambers that night for a six-hour Committee of the Whole meeting devoted entirely to the Equal Opportunities Ordinance. Supporters far outnumbered opponents — except when it came to the real estate industry.

The only Realtor there in support was future Gov. Patrick J. Lucey, owner of Madison’s largest real estate company. “Negroes here are the victims of a vicious and effective conspiracy, a disgrace for which we must all share the guilt,” he said.

South-side Alder Harold “Babe” Rohr wasn’t swayed. He called the NAACP “a malicious force,” even though his district contained more than 55% of Madison’s Black population, and declared, “Let’s face it, the world is built on prejudice and discrimination.”

Rohr, also the head of the powerful Painter’s Union, won. After almost two hours of debate, alders voted 12-10 to delete the entire fair housing provision, while keeping sections which mirrored the existing state ban on discrimination in employment and public accommodations. Fair housing advocates had 42 hours to get at least one vote changed so Mayor Reynolds could break an 11-11 tie.

It was the council’s first and only female member, 10th Ward Alder Ethel Brown, who crafted the critical compromise — to exempt rooms in private homes and owner-occupied apartment buildings with four or fewer units.

Shirley Abramson walking her dogs

Shirley S. Abrahamson was a young attorney serving on the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights when she helped draft the historic Equal Opportunities Ordinance in 1963. Abrahamson, who died in December 2020, went on to become the first woman to serve as a justice and chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She’s pictured above walking her Irish setters, Betsy-B and Briscoe. (Photo by Edwin Stein WHS 137633

West-side Alder William Bradford Smith later said Brown’s idea wasn’t just tactical but also intended to “reflect the attitudes of her constituents” in University Heights. Many of them rented rooms to University of Wisconsin–Madison students, Smith noted, but “wouldn’t want to open their homes to people of all races and colors where they would have to share the same bathroom.”

Brown’s amendment was quickly adopted. But then more amendments were adopted, exempting all absentee-landlord apartments and all single-family homes from coverage. There were so many exemptions that supporters considered pulling the matter entirely.

Then an unexpected savior appeared. Alder Bruce Davidson, a fair housing foe, moved to limit exemptions only to owner-occupied buildings — more than doubling the number of units covered and increasing the number of houses and apartments where nonwhites could live in Madison by more than 9,000. His amendment carried, without debate, 20-2. But he still voted against the ordinance.

Alder Robert Guerin, who voted no on Tuesday, now voted in favor, creating an 11–11 tie that Mayor Reynolds broke with an emphatic “aye.” Madison had made history with the adoption of the first fair housing ordinance in the state.

The ordinance made it illegal to refuse to sell, rent, lease or finance housing based on race, color, creed or ancestry, with three exemptions for certain owner-occupied properties — single-family residences, houses with no more than four roomers and apartment buildings with four units or fewer.

Because the new ordinance still exempted more than 23,000 housing units — about 60% of the city’s housing stock — open housing advocates were restrained in their celebration that night. But privately, they were thrilled.

Alder Rohr, the fiercest foe of fair housing, thought Thursday night was a smashing success, but Friday brought an uncomfortable understanding of what had happened. Reading the full account of what finally passed, he was aghast.

“My God!” he exclaimed. “I had no idea what we voted for last night.”

Two weeks later, Mayor Reynolds appointed the charter members of the Equal Opportunities Commission, including holdover members of the MCHR: McGrath, MacDonald and Rev. James C. Wright. He did not appoint Abrahamson or Colston.

Stu Levitan is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist, and a mainstay of Madison media and government since 1975. As a member of the Dane County Board of Supervisors, he wrote the countywide Fair Housing Ordinance, adopted in 1987. This piece is adapted from his book, Madison in the Sixties (Wisconsin Historical Society Press 2018).Magazine footer that says "Like this article, get so much more by subscribing"