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by deon drane

Racine had only a handful of blacks in the mid-1800s, and most who came were escaping slavery.

Alexander Anderson was the first black on record in Racine. His presence here was recorded in 1842, six years before Wisconsin was admitted to the union on May 29, 1848.

By the late 1850s, more blacks migrated to Wisconsin, and in 1858 there were 250 blacks living in Racine. At the same time, the Civil War was approaching.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring freedom for all slaves in the rebellious areas.

Peter D. Thomas, who was born a slave, not only made history in Racine but earned the distinction of being one of the first blacks in the United States elected to public office. In 1883, Thomas was elected Racine County Coroner. Thomas had a reputation for being a hard worker, which brought him respect in the community.

In 1865 the Civil War ended. But the black population in Racine was not affected greatly for another 75 years.

In 1940, the population of blacks in the county was 484, and the city had 432. Leading into the next decade, the black population in Racine exploded.

Most came from southern states, looking for jobs. The Great Depression was over. World War II was on, and manufacturing was on the upswing. Many blacks took jobs in foundries or janitorial services.

By 1948, the county had 1,725 African Americans. The following year the population jumped to 2,330.

Through the decade, religion became visible in the black community. During the '40s there were four black churches: The Church of Christ Sanctified, on 12th Street; Wayman AME, on Villa Street; The Community Church, at the EMCA building; and St. Paul's Baptist Church, on Grand Avenue, which is also the oldest black Baptist church in Racine. St. Paul's will be celebrate its 138th anniversary this year.

With the black population in the community growing, the chance for advancement was shrinking. Problems arose and frustration began to develop in the community.

Physical aggression had not yet cropped up. In 1948, Judge Elmer D. Goodland of the municipal and juvenile court said that in the last eight years four black children appeared in court and one was from out of town. Of the local offenders, one was arrested for truancy and two for drinking.

But the tension grew thick as a mud pie, and by 1950 friction between the races became more noticeable. In 1951, 42 years after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed, the local branch of the NAACP was established. The first president was George Bray. Membership was 370.

Bray and his staff of civil rights activists had many obstacles to overcome. One of the major problems involved housing. Blacks in Racine had restrictions placed on where they could live. Blacks who

saved money and wanted to live the American dream were turned down because of race. Blacks could inquire about houses advertised in the newspaper only if they were listed as "Color Invited."

As more and more black people ventured to Racine, finding a living space was difficult. So most African Americans lived in army green trailer camps either by Layard and Blake avenues or west of Roosevelt Park.

The trailer camps were set up by the Public Housing Administration. Rent was $6.50 to $8 a month, depending on trailer size.

The trailers had no running water, sheet metal for walls, and residents had to take showers in a nearby bathhouse. Inside they included a living room, bedroom, kitchenette with refrigerator, gas stove and a tiny eating area.

Racine resident and former president of the NAACP Corrine Owens recalls how the trailers would be infested with rats and in poor condition.

In 1953, Owens, with the help of neighbors, passed out a housing survey on the conditions of their homes. Shortly after, the group petitioned City Hall for improvements.

The trailer camp closed in the spring of 1953 when the Public Housing Administration pulled the last trailer from the North Side camp. The South Side camp had closed the previous November, as blacks dispersed through the community.

Just as the Urban League for Racine and Kenosha began its quest for fairness, civil rights activist William Jenkins began making waves.

Jenkins came to Racine as a baby in 1917. In 1935, when he was at Horlick High School, he made all-state fullback and all-conference basketball.

Jenkins became the first black president of the Racine AFL-CIO Council, serving from 1964-1966. Previously, Jenkins was president of the NAACP from 1956-58.

In his time, he established himself as a civic leader.

As Jenkins now reflects on his life, he says, "People have changed. They don't think anymore. People are always looking for new things."

Meanwhile, down South, things began to rumble. Echoes were heard in Racine. On March 15, 1965, 600 people of all races marched downtown in Racine to protest discrimination and southern racial injustices. It was the largest civil rights protest so far in Racine. The march lasted about 20 minutes.

Strides were made elsewhere in the community as well. In 1974, Robert A. Elgie of Bradley University, in Illinois, and four undergraduate assistants used census numbers to study the equality of 28 mid-sized metropolitan areas in four categories: education, occupation, income and integration. Racine placed 18th.

The proof was visible in the city. At that time there were only three black lawyers in Racine, one black officer on the Racine County Sheriff's departmentand 12 blacks on the Racine Police Department. The fire department had only one black member, and there were three black social workers. Segregation had become the newest issue to plague Racine.

In 1977, Robert Turner, who was the city's black alderman for the 8th District, said minority people should be named to the police and fire commission to expand minority employment, particularly the fire department. Turner's fight for more black people in these fields stemmed from his own experience. Turner had earlier filled a lawsuit against Racine County, charging an exam he took for sheriff's deputy was discriminatory. The fire department had only one black among its nearly 200 employees.

In 1984, Turner was elected city council president, the first black in that job.

Turner also had a vision of becoming mayor. In 1987 Turner ran against another challenger, N. Owen Davies. When election day came, Turner had 11,211 votes. Davies collected 13,964.

Although Turner didn't win, the election brought more black people out to vote.

Now, new names and faces have taken the front. One is the Rev. Norma Carter. In 1993, Carter's creation, and her dream, was the start of the Adopt-A-Neighborhood program to help inner city families. As part of its mission, the program provides inner city children with school supplies.

For her efforts, Carter received the Whitney Young Jr. award for her work with disadvantaged urban and rural youths, and on April 21, 1994, the city declared Norma Carter Day.

Arthur Schomburg best described black history in America by saying, "There is the definite desire and determination to have a history, well documented, widely known … and administrated as a stimulating and inspiring tradition for the coming generations."

The data used in this story can be found at the Racine Public Library, The Journal Times ,The Racine County Historical Society & Museum Inc., and The Atlanta Journal / The Atlanta Constitution Feb. 12, addition.


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