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Lake Ivanhoe an African-American landmark
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Lake Ivanhoe an African-American landmark

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BY PETE WICKLUND

Burlington Bureau

LAKE IVANHOE - The early 1900s saw a massive influx of African-Americans from the South into the cities of the North, particularly Chicago. The influx created a variety of challenges, including demands on housing and jobs and increased tensions with white citizens.

Following major unrest, including massive race riots like the infamous one of 1919, upper-class established blacks, many with ties to Chicago's political machine, looked for weekend and summer escapes from the long, hot urban summers.

Southern Wisconsin's lakes beckoned. Among them was Lake Geneva, sometimes promoted as the Riviera of the Midwest.

But accounts from the time say when blacks arrived to Lake Geneva, they were not greeted with welcoming arms. Discrimination thwarted attempts by blacks to buy property in the Geneva area.

Against that backdrop, Jeremiah Brumfield, an assistant city attorney in Chicago; Frank Anglin, a truck executive; and Bradford Watson, a Chicago politician; set out to establish a resort for elite black society.

They located the 83-acre site that would become Ivanhoe in the early 1920s. It was then known as the Ryan Farm. A benevolent white real estate agent from Evanston, Ill., named Ivan Bell helped the men cut through the red tape to purchase the site. In gratitude, the founders renamed the lake "Ivanhoe."

Although black residents of the area would encounter discrimination through the years, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, the initial marketing of Lake Ivanhoe had elitist tones of its own. Touting lots starting as low as $87.75, ads sought to woo "high minded colored people. Church going people of education and refinement."

Lot sales were initially brisk. In the spring of 1927 a large $40,000 pavilion, complete with a wood dance floor, opened with big band leader Cab Calloway on hand for the occasion.

After the stock market crash of 1929, property sales in Ivanhoe dropped significantly. Nitchka Piantino, great-granddaughter of Brumfield and current Ivanhoe resident, said fortunes changed not only because of the Great Depression, but because of political changes. Blacks like Brumfield had prospered under Chicago's Republican machine, which began to crumble after the election of President Franklin Roosevelt and the ushering in of the era of the New Deal.

"It (life) wasn't high on the hog any more," Piantino said.

Some Ivanhoe properties were foreclosed, and in 1932 former Chicago Bear Edward Sternaman tried to buy property adjacent to Ivanhoe and thwart future expansion and lake access. After an unsuccessful legal challenge, Ivanhoe residents held their own.

Blacks living in Ivanhoe year-round tried to a degree to assimilate with the white populations of Lake Geneva and Burlington. Ivanhoe children attended - and still attend - Lake Geneva public schools. But jobs were hard to find for blacks in the nearby small cities.

Racism on the part of residents in neighboring communities could be blatant at times.

Piantino recalls being part of a group of blacks who in 1949 first integrated Lake Geneva's main downtown beach. Blocked access at the gate, Piantino's father made a call to Brumfield.

"I don't know what he (Brumfield) did, but within 15 to 20 minutes we were on that beach," Piantino said. "As a little kid you don't know what's going on or why."

Brumfield died at age 80 in 1952. The son of who Piantino describes as a con-man preacher, Brumfield enjoyed a successful legal and political career. His brother, Thomas, was a noted professor of religion at Fisk University in Nashville.

Lake Ivanhoe directly and indirectly found its way into the civil rights strife that permeated the 1950s and 1960s.

Even in Wisconsin, a state known for progressive attitudes, the climate of the times was in places no more welcoming than in the South. In the 1950s in Pell Lake, the seat of the same Bloomfield town government that represents Ivanhoe, signs were erected saying access to the lake there was "restricted," wrote Samuel L. Gonzalez in a 1972 thesis on Ivanhoe's history.

In 1959, Lake Ivanhoe resident Nettie Hatters, who was the first black employee and eventually a dietitian at Lakeland Hospital near Elkhorn, and a white Ivanhoe neighbor, Caroline Wilkins, fought to end discrimination at Lake Geneva's landmark Riviera ballroom. After confronting ballroom managers, they demanded their way into a concert by jazz great Louis Armstrong.

One of the Riviera proprietors was reported as saying he did not want "Negroes and poor white trash" in the establishment.

In 1961, violence hit the Lake Ivanhoe community when three young black men were shot by white passers-by traveling near Highway 50. The most seriously injured was Calon Watts, who worked at what was then the Browns Lake Resort near Burlington. According to accounts, the three were treated for buckshot wounds at Memorial Hospital of Burlington.

The early 1960s saw the formation in Lake Ivanhoe of a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The organization, which included some membership from whites in Burlington and Lake Geneva, worked to end job discrimination in the area, especially in Lake Geneva.

Ernestine Grace was president of the Lake Ivanhoe NAACP chapter and as a result endured instances of threats and property vandalism. The chapter eventually folded in 1967.

Lake Ivanhoe also provided the first black teacher for Lake Geneva. Doris Baker, mother of current Lake Ivanhoe Property Owners Association President Peter Baker, was persistent in getting the Lake Geneva district to consider her for employment. She taught in 1968-69 at St. Mary's School in Burlington.

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