The Madison author discusses her new oral history of Madison's early African-American residents. Info
In the new book Settlin': Stories Of Madison's Early African American Families, lifelong Madisonian and retired educator Muriel Simms uses 25 oral-history interviews to deepen a chapter that's often left out of the story Madison likes to tell about itself. The black families who put down roots in Madison in the late 19th and early 20th centuries may have been relatively few in number—Simms reports that about 143 African-Americans lived here by 1910. But they went about building communities and resilient institutions, from the state's first black newspaper (the Wisconsin Weekly Blade) to Hill's Grocery, which operated for 65 years at 649 E. Dayton St., to civic organizations focused on battling discrimination and improving African-Americans' access to education and economic opportunity. Simms' interviews, mostly with the descendants of these families, also shed light on life in the Greenbush, a neighborhood just south of the UW-Madison campus where African-Americans lived alongside Italian and Jewish immigrant families until the city's urban-renewal policies gutted the area in the 1950s and '60s.
The people Simms interviewed for the book include Pia Kinney James, who was the first woman of color to become a Madison police officer and Beatrice Russey Gulley, who worked on a pioneering TV cooking show with her husband, the renowned chef Carson Gulley. Simms lets them all speak in their own voices, but presents their recollections with a great sense of narrative cohesion. Just a few interviews into Settlin', the reader begins to develop a vivid sense of how deeply intertwined Madison's early black families really were—interviewees frequently refer to not just the same landmarks and institutions, but also to each other's families, including Simms' own, which put down roots here after her mother moved to Madison in 1935. Taken collectively, the interviews offer a range of nuanced perspectives on the black experience in Madison, and along the way we catch glimpses of historic characters including Fighting Bob LaFollette and Duke Ellington. It's a must-read for anyone who wants a better understanding of Madison's past and more context for the racism and inequality that still pervade the city today. —Scott Gordon