Madison’s black history enriched through book ‘Settlin’

More than two dozen oral histories shape the book
Madison’s black history enriched through book ‘Settlin’

More than two dozen oral histories inform “Settlin’: Stories of Madison’s Early African-American Families” by Muriel Simms. Published in late 2018 by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, the book sheds light where public records have not.

As Simms writes in the introduction, “Only a fraction of what is known about Madison’s earliest African-American settlers and the vibrant and cohesive communities they formed is preserved in archives and libraries. The rest is contained in the hearts and minds of successive generations.”

Simms, a lifelong Madison resident, is an adjunct faculty member in the doctoral program in educational leadership at Edgewood College. She first became interested in collecting these oral histories in 2003.

African-American settlement in Madison started in the 1840s but increased with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, prompting black people to seek refuge in the free state of Wisconsin. Although many Black Union soldiers stationed at Camp Randall stayed in Madison after the Civil War, as of 1870 fewer than 50 African Americans lived here.

Simms writes about Eston Hemings Jefferson – a freed slave widely believed to be the son of Thomas Jefferson and slave Sally Hemings – who died shortly after moving to Madison with his wife, Julia, and their three children in 1852. Their sons, John and Beverly, bought the American Hotel in Madison, enlisted in the Union Army and survived the Civil War.

“Settlin'” also introduces several other black Madison residents, including Myra Allison, a fraternity house cook who integrated an all-white dime store and diner on Capitol Square by insisting on eating there even after the police were called.

Allison’s granddaughter, Lois Waldon McKnight, recounts prejudice she faced from other students at Madison West High School in the late 1940s when there were only eight black students enrolled there.

William Miller earned a law degree from Berea College in Kentucky, but as a black man was denied a license to practice law in that state. He had no better luck in Chicago or Milwaukee, Simms writes. Miller was working as a waiter at a Milwaukee hotel in the late 1890s when he met then Wisconsin Gov. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette. La Follette hired Miller as a legal consultant.

To work for the governor, Miller and his wife moved to Madison in 1902. He and his wife bought three houses, two on East Dayton Street, one of which they rented to black students and families new to town. The Miller home at 647 East Dayton St. is now a historic city landmark with a plaque identifying it “as the earliest known black-owned building remaining in Madison” and describing members of the Miller family as “local leaders in the advancement of black people.”

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