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8 notable Black lives laid to rest in Milwaukee's Forest Home Cemetery

Sara Tomilin
Forest Home Cemetery
One of many headstones found in Milwaukee's Forest Home Cemetery.

WUWM is honoring the lives of Black Milwaukeeans and their contributions to our community during Black History Month. We're looking at some historical Black figures that you can visit at Forest Home Cemetery.

Forest Home is Milwaukee’s oldest cemetery, and it’s also one of the oldest cemeteries to allow anyone, no matter race or religion, to be buried on the grounds.

Sally Merrell, a volunteer tour guide at the cemetery, highlights a few of the cemetery’s notable Black residents.

Ezekiel Gillespie

Sara Tomilin
Forest Home Cemetery

Ezekiel Gillespie was a Black man who advocated for voting rights in Wisconsin in 1866, which was five years before Black men were given the right to vote nationwide, Merrell explains.

"Ezekiel Gillespie was probably born [into enslavement] in Tennessee or Georgia. His father was probably an [enslavement] owner. He managed to make his way, buy his freedom, and make his way to have a store in Evansville, Indiana. And then he moved to Milwaukee around 1850, where he set up another store. And he did a lot in Milwaukee and is honored still today," she says.

Louis Hughes

Louis Hughes is best known for his book, Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom. He learned how to read from another enslaved person living on the same plantation as him.

Hughes tried to escape a series of five times and the last time he escaped, he came back for his wife. "Louis Hughes was born into [enslavement] in 1832 and the reason why he's significant today is [because] he survived [enslavement] and became a free man. He ended up spending a lot of his adult life living and working in Milwaukee. He wrote a book called Thirty Years a Slave," says Merrell.

William T. Green

Sara Tomilin
Forest Homes Cemetery

Another iconic figure in the Forest Home Cemetery is William T. Green.

Green was born in Canada, but then made his way to Madison where he got a job as janitor. Merrell says Green then put himself through school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, becoming probably the first Black lawyer in the state of Wisconsin.

"The highlight of his career, from my perspective, would have been when he was totally involved in all the efforts to get Wisconsin to enact [the] Wisconsin Civil Rights Act, which became the law in 1895. The fight to make this happen took several years, took a lot of people, but he was front and center the whole time," says Merrell. "[This] prevented discrimination in public accommodations in Wisconsin for Black people."

Mabel Watson Raimey

Sara Tomilin
Forest Home Cemetery

Mabel Watson Raimey was born in 1898 and died in 1986. Merrell says when Watson Raimey was a teenager, she used to say she wanted to be a doctor, but women couldn't take up that profession. So, Watson Raimey got a bachelor's degree from UW-Madison — being the first Black woman to do so.

She then came to Milwaukee with the goal of teaching, and she was hired as a teacher with MPS. But, Merrell says, three days later when the school found out she was Black, the school fired her. Watson Raimey had some white ancestors and so by just looking at her, it was not apparent she was a Black person, Merrell explains.

Watson Raimey then decided to become a lawyer. She got a job as a legal secretary to put herself through Marquette University Law School, becoming the first Black woman lawyer in Wisconsin. The second Black lawyer in Wisconsin was Vel Phillips, 50 years later.

Watson Raimey's journey into practicing law was not easy. After graduating from law school, "she got a job as a legal secretary, which is how she put herself through law school, but she's back as a legal secretary," says Merrell. "I think from that position, she was able to gain the trust and respect and started getting cases and ultimately had her own law firm and a long time practicing law in Milwaukee."

A continuation of the conversation with Sally Merrell.

Wilbur and Ardie Halyard

Wilbur and Ardie Halyard
Forest Home Cemetery
Wilbur and Ardie Halyard

The Halyards were born in the South and moved their way north as part of the Great Migration. The two spent the rest of their lives in Milwaukee and established Columbia Savings and Loan in 1924 because so many Black people were coming to Milwaukee as part of the Great Migration.

"Banks would not lend money to Black people for homeownership and the Halyards said that's not right. They put together Columbia Savings and Loan and worked to provide homes to Black people coming to work in the factories in Milwaukee," Merrell explains.

Mildred Harpole

Shrine to Midred Harpole
Forest Home Cemetery
Shrine to Mildred Harpole.

Mildred Harpole went to Marquette University and then earned her law degree in Ohio.

When she moved back to Milwaukee, Harpole advocated for better education and became heavily involved in housing rights issues.

"She worked in the 1950s and '60s for education in Milwaukee. Her view was that all children deserve a quality education. ... She fought very hard for that, establishing freedom schools and other things to make sure that children got the good education," Merrell explains.

Harold Jackson Jr.

Judge Harold Jackson Jr. headstone
Forest Home Cemetery
Judge Harold Jackson Jr.'s headstone

Harold Jackson Jr.became the first Black judge in the state of Wisconsin when he was appointed to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court in 1972.

Merrell continues, "He left the bench to become counsel at the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. He also, in that job, was appointed special master to oversee the implementation of the consent decree addressing overcrowding at the Milwaukee County jail."

Updated: February 28, 2022 at 3:20 PM CST
This story was originally published February 23, 2022.
Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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