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Black History | Wisconsin Historical Society

Black History Month | BIG History

Black History Month

Celebrating Big Moments: African American history in Wisconsin

The Society is celebrating BIG moments in Wisconsin history, including the significant impact that African Americans have had on the history of the state. Learn about this impact through the articles, artifacts, and other important items below that help tell the story of African Americans in Wisconsin.

African American History Maker: Vel Phillips 

Vel Phillips’ life was a series of firsts. She was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin–Madison law school, the first to win a seat on Milwaukee’s City Council, the first to become Secretary of State of Wisconsin, the first to become a judge in Wisconsin. More impressive, Vel did it all at a time when many African Americans were not allowed to exercise their civil rights. Check out this video to learn more about the fascinating life of Vel Phillips, and explore items from the Society's historical collections related to her story below.

The Vel Phillips Historical Collection

Vel Phillips Desk

Common Coucil Desk

Portrait of Mrs. Vel Rodgers Phillips which links to Vel Phillips Papers

Vel's Papers

Vel Phillips campaign sticker.

Campaign Brochure

Head and shoulders portrait of Vel Phillips holding a telephone.


Explore more African American history

Learn more about the African American experience in Wisconsin and beyond through the historical essays below.

Studio portrait in front of a painted backdrop of Martha and Notley Henderson with their three children. Their son Allen is standing. The Hendersons were early African American settlers in Madison.

Black History in Wisconsin

An integrated group of mostly young people sitting on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Many of them are holding signs showing support for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).

Freedom Summer

The Milton House was supposedly a part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. The house was built in 1845 by Joseph Goodrich and turned into an Inn. The frame house and log cabin behind the Inn were also built by Goodrich, along with the Milton House Tavern. The Milton House was later taken over and turned into a museum.

The Underground Railroad in Wisconsin

Lloyd Barbee in a somber crowd at a memorial gathering for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Lloyd Barbee

More Historical Essays

Civil Rights Movement in Wisconsin | Slavery in Wisconsin | Black Thursday | African American Civil War Unit | Benjamin Butts | African American Life in the Midwest | Desegregation and Civil Rights in Wisconsin | African American Migration

Fascinating Items from the Society's Historical Collections

The Society has over 2,000 items related to African American history available to explore in our online collection, and this collection is always growing. Explore some of these amazing items and the stories behind them below. 

Threatening note signed 'K.K.K.' (Ku Klux Klan) with rock and rag that was thrown through Daisy Bates' window in August 1957. The note reads: 'The next will be dynamite.'

Daisy Bates' Rock

Hand-drawn and colored maps of Wisconsin showing how each county voted in the gubernatorial race of 1865, and on a referendum regarding suffrage for African-Americans on the same ballot.

Black Suffrage Referendum Map

Image of a runaway slave with stick and satchel.

Fugitive Slave Collar

Earlene Fuller's bowling shirt - back, c. 1995

African American Bowling Shirt

More Historical Items

Racine Branch NAACP Letter | Necktie Quilt by Allie Crumble | Interview with Julian Bond | Miss Annie Mae’s Church Hat

Compelling Images from the Society's Historical Collections

Flyer for a rally 'The Right To Vote' 'The Fight To Vote' sponsored by the Federation of Negro Civil Service Organizations, Inc. Speakers include Jackie Robinson, Daisy Bates, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Roy Wilkins.

The Right To Vote Rally Poster

Waist-up portrait of Hank Aaron in his Atlanta Braves uniform. The print is autographed at the top.

Autographed Hank Aaron Print

Poster for Black Roots Black Art event held at Chadbourne Hall. Image is a woodblock print of an African American face. Featured work from Henry Hawkins, Josiah Tlou, Orlando Bell, and Frieda High.

Black Roots Black Art Poster

Eugene (Gene) Parks with his wife and children relaxing outdoors. From left to right are Kendra Parks, Marilyn Park, Wendy Parks, Stacey Parks, Reggie Parks (the baby) and Eugene Parks. Parks had a long career in Madison politics, often as a champion of civil rights issues. He was president of the local NAACP chapter from 1975-1979.

Photograph of Eugene Parks and His Family

Jerry Jordan's Learn At Home Poster featuring a young black girl at a table full of books and computer looking engaged in her studies

Jerry Jordan

Local Artist

Jerry Jordan is part of a growing movement of painters that are reinterpreting classical painting into what they call contemporary realism. He counts such painters as John S. Sargent, Anders Zorn, William M. Chase and Joaquin Sorolla as major influences in his artistic growth. However it was the artist of the Harlem Renaissance that fueled his desire to pursue painting.

More About Jerry Jordan

Past Events Celebrating African American history

Youths posing after open mic night

Just Bust! First Wave Open Mic

Feb. 7, 2020 | 8 PM - 11 PM

Madison’s longest-running all-ages open mic returns to the Wisconsin Historical Society HQ with a special Black History Month theme. Share space, enjoy art, and perform in a welcoming and supportive community atmosphere. This open mic is a space to share all mediums of art: music, poetry, dance, comedy, etc. All are welcome. This event is free of charge and open to the public.

Migrating Black Men

African Heritage, Inc.'s 22nd Annual Black History Program

Feb. 15, 2020 | 1 PM - 5 PM

The Society will host a variety of programs and exhibits highlighting the history of African Americans in conjunction with this event. There will be an open house from 1 p.m. - 2 p.m. The main program runs from 2 p.m. - 3:30 p.m. with a reception following from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. The traveling exhibit "A Stone of Hope: Black Experiences in the Fox Cities" will be featured, along with other museum and archival collections,  food, and live entertainment. 

African American Woman with street signs, and a quilt in the background

Wisconsin Historical Museum Open House

Feb. 21, 2020 | 10 AM - 4 PM

The Society will host a variety of programs and exhibits that highlight the history of African Americans. African American quilts, Folklorist Janet Gilmore, Womens' Suffrage Exhibit, and Guidance on how to research your family history! Hourly guided tours are available. This event is free of charge and open to the public.

Support the preservation of African American history

Make a big impact

Make a BIG impact by supporting the Society's efforts to continue to collect, preserve, & share stories about African American history in Wisconsin.

Explore Wisconsin's History

You can find out more about our history in these pages focusing on other monthly celebrations!

Explore Women's History in Wisconsin

Women's History

Explore WHS's Response to COVID-19

History Is Happening

Explore Earth Day History in Wisconsin

Earth Day History

Explore Pride Month History in Wisconsin

Pride History

Explore the Women's Suffrage Centennial History in Wisconsin

Women's Suffrage Centennial

Explore the Wisconsin's History during WWII

Wisconsin During WWII

Explore the Wisconsin's Political History

Political History

Explore Hispanic Heritage Historyin Wisconsin

Hispanic Heritage History


History is a story with many voices, always growing and evolving — a story we tell together.

Let us know if there are ways we could improve!