Sifting and Reckoning exposes decades of racism and bigotry on campus

UW–Madison’s ambitious Public History Project exhibition at the Chazen highlights those who fought back.
Black and white photo of a large crowd of people walking away from a state Capitol building in protest.
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin State Journal
The 1969 Black Student Strike marches down State Street.

Over the course of three months in 1961, then-Wisconsin NAACP President Lloyd Barbee and University of Wisconsin Extension faculty member Stuart Hanisch filmed a documentary using hidden cameras and microphones to capture instances of housing discrimination against Black people around Madison. The powerful, grainy, 12-minute film was effortlessly damning, often showing the addresses and faces of white landlords as they openly rejected applicants the moment they realized they were Black. Some offered excuses, while others seemed almost apologetic in their honesty. “I guess you know why. Sorry it’s that way, but I don’t want to have trouble with my neighbors,” said one white landlord to a Black actor posing as an applicant. “We don’t feel that we can rent to colored people,” said another, as chillingly “Midwestern nice” as the first.

But the public never saw the film. Despite University of Wisconsin–Madison officials knowing about the hidden cameras ahead of time and granting approval and even some funding, soon after screening the rough cut, the university legally restricted and locked it away in the UW Archives because they said it violated the privacy of the landlords. Barbee and Hanisch offered to obscure the identifying details, then asked to have the film rights returned — the university said no to both, instead deciding to film its own watered-down version using reenactments. This grabbed the attention of the NAACP, triggering headlines and statewide picketing, and Hanisch even resigned in protest — still, the original footage was never released. The 10 cans of film reels were sealed with magnetic tape and stored in red-stamped boxes for 50 years — until a 2019 initiative called the UW–Madison Public History Project, in an effort led by digital media archivist Cat Phan, petitioned to legally overturn the restriction, then worked with PBS Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Center for Films and Theater Research to restore and digitize the footage.

“Both Lloyd and Stu thought that it had been burned,” says public historian Kacie Lucchini Butcher, director of the Public History Project. She says when the film was finally released to the public for the first time in April 2021, it was one of the most meaningful moments of her career, particularly because of what it meant to the filmmakers’ families and to the generations that are still facing housing discrimination today. Now the documentary is part of a new exhibition called “Sifting & Reckoning: UW–Madison’s History of Exclusion and Resistance,” which runs through Dec. 23 at the Chazen Museum of Art and has important implications for all of us.

“While the exhibits focus a lot on UW–Madison, I think nothing that happens at UW–Madison is separate from Madison,” says Lucchini Butcher of the exhibition, which is the culmination of 140 new interviews with former and current students, and the examination of 150 years’ worth of newspaper clippings, internal campus correspondence, yearbooks and other items previously stored throughout the UW Archives but not formally organized like this until now. “We’re not the first [university] to do a project like this, but I would argue that we’re the first to do it so broadly. We look at racial and ethnic discrimination, discrimination against LGBTQ folks, folks with disabilities, religious discrimination. This is not a complete history, by any means. We’re just scratching the surface.”

The $1 million, privately funded Public History Project was commissioned after then-UW–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank appointed study groups to investigate evidence that claimed two 1920s student groups were affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. The findings confirmed that one group was indeed aligned with the national white supremacist group, but that, more broadly, there was a “pervasive culture of racial and religious bigotry” on campus — which only bolstered the results of a 2016 survey in which nonmajority students said campus culture still felt exclusionary. In other words, racism and bigotry on campus were hardly ancient history — and that history had yet to be formally acknowledged.

The “Sifting & Reckoning” exhibit — a play on UW–Madison’s “Sifting & Winnowing” motto, which champions a fearless pursuit of truth — reveals a tradition of minstrel shows; newspapers and flyers with snide anti-Asian and antisemitic caricatures; artifacts such as the Pipe of Peace, which was regularly used in the appropriation and mocking of Indigenous ceremonies by white students; and evidence of the so-called “gay purges” that systematically targeted gay men for removal from campus.

“There are letters in the archive that are communications between university leaders, university psychiatrists and the men who were being targeted, and they’re just really heartbreaking letters,” says Lucchini Butcher. “It’s men who are just begging for their futures, begging to finish school. They’re losing Fulbright scholarships, they’re losing jobs, they’re begging for their parents not to find out.”

But the collection also highlights the many examples of aggrieved communities organizing and resisting. There are protest posters, never-before-digitized photographs of the 1969 Black Student Strike and other student-led examples that center the affected people behind the stories — something that is very important to LaVar J. Charleston, UW–Madison’s chief diversity officer and deputy vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion. As painful as some of this is, he says, it’s also inspiring.

“Once you’ve seen something like this, I think it’s hard to unsee,” Charleston says. “What you will see at this exhibit is progress. We have a lot of work to do, but the truth is that we are a better society than we were 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, or 10 years ago.”

Make no mistake — the exhibit highlights many things that are still happening today. Contemporary Madison headlines are still decrying examples of Anti-Asian hate, Indigenous erasure and racial slurs hurled at students walking down State Street at bar time. These stories also extend beyond the borders of campus, which is why project organizers have chosen to make this a public exhibition with the intention of not only acknowledging the past but also sparking future change.

“We don’t exist in a vacuum, right? In many ways, the things that happen on campus are just a microcosm of our community, of society,” Charleston says. “History continues to shape our campus and our community whether we like it or not, and ignoring problematic parts of our history doesn’t make them go away. Contrarily, it actually allows them to fester and presents a greater opportunity for replication.”

After the Chazen exhibit closes, the project will continue to be hosted digitally at reckoning.wisc.edu. The collection will also be available to the public through the UW Archives at Steenbock Library, and organizers are creating research guides for anyone who wants to access specific aspects of the history without reinventing the wheel.

“The Public History Project is a beginning,” Charleston says. “It’s a starting point for conversation, it’s not an end.”

Maggie Ginsberg is an associate editor of Madison Magazine. This article appeared in the October 2022 issue of Madison Magazine.

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