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Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project Works To Commemorate 60th Anniversary Of The Black Nite Brawl

Courtesy of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project
Josie Carter became known as "mother of all protestors" after her decision to fight back against sailors who came to terrorize the Milwaukee gay bar Black Nite.

On August 5, 1961, a group of sailors went to the Milwaukee gay bar Black Nite on a dare, determined to “clean up” the bar. They were met with more trouble than they expected when Josie Carter mobilized the crowd to defend the bar instead of locking up and closing down.

LISTEN: Milwaukee's Black Nite Brawl Took A Stand For LGBT Visibility 8 Years Before Stonewall

The ensuing Black Nite Brawl changed local history. Newspapers sought to scandalize the event, but instead it illuminated Milwaukee’s LGBTQ+ community and instilled pride. While the sailors were cleared of all charges, the bar was closed down and the block was later demolished for construction of the freeway. Eventually the event was only remembered by a small group of survivors.

Audrey Nowakowski / Courtesy of Milwaukee Public Library
Milwaukee's first LGBTQ uprising arrived in August 1961 at the Black Nite bar on Plankinton Ave. The neighborhood was torn down in the late '60s for freeway construction.

Michail Takach, curator of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project, wants to make sure this uprising is never forgotten by publicly commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Black Nite Brawl this August.

“This event was nearly lost to history. It had become a bit of a drinking story, a bit of local folklore and had run the risk of becoming considered just an urban legend,” he says.

BJ Daniels is a local drag queen and a History Project participant. Daniels says that Josie’s act that night inspired people to stand up for themselves despite the danger that being out of the closet carried in 1960s Milwaukee. Josie Carter, who died in 2014, was a gender-noncomforming Black woman also known as "the Mother of Gay Milwaukee." She took care of many queer and transgender youth over six decades whose own families had abandoned them.

“That’s what made Josie such an icon ... in Milwaukee was because she didn’t care, she seriously did not care,” says Daniels. “Josie just showed people that being brave was just about living your life and that’s it.”

"Josie Carter really rose to an epic historic challenge, and I'm not even exaggerating when I say she truly changed history," adds Takach.

Courtesy of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project
Black Nite owner Wally Whetham and Josie Carter.

Takach and Daniels say that without the efforts of people like Josie, Milwaukee wouldn’t have made the progress into becoming a city that hosts Pridefest — a four-day long festival that brings over 50,000 people into the city to celebrate all facets of the LGBTQ+ community.

"There's a strong connection between these domino milestones, and if even one of them didn't happen we wouldn't be where we are today," notes Takach.

The Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project has never held a fundraiser in its 26-year history but decided to raise funds in order to light the Hoan Bridge in LGBTQ+ colors on August 5, install a historical marker at the scene of the uprising and petition the county and city of Milwaukee for formal recognition of this historic event.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley has recently announced his formal recognition of the event. Takach believes this may be the first time a trans person of color has received historical recognition in Milwaukee County. “This is more important than you know because it actually puts this on the record for the city and the county as an event that happened,” he says.

Daniels says he is excited to see the brave participants in the Black Nite Brawl recognized for their work. “Honoring someone like Josie and the contributions of trans and nonbinary folks, I think, is just an important step in legitimizing any way that people want to live their lives,” he says.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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