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Genealogists want faster action from UWM and others on Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery remains

Genealogists stand next to cemetery
Chuck Quirmbach
Genealogists Judy Houston (left) and Tiffiny Neal stand next to Cemetery One at the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center.

Some people who have had relatives buried at what is now the grounds of the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa are asking for more remains to be identified and properly reburied. Or at the very least, honored in some way.

The requests are being made to the medical center, a state agency, and UW-Milwaukee.

At the southeast corner of the medical center, just off Wisconsin Ave., a sloping piece of undeveloped land about the size of two football fields certainly looks peaceful. But the site leaves Milwaukee resident Tiffiny Neal anything but serene.

"It's sad, that this is the reminder I have of their sacrifices," Neal says.

Neal is standing next to what is called Cemetery One, one of four pieces of land that made up the Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery. In the late 1800s and for decades in the 1900s, it became the final resting place for thousands of poor people whose families couldn't afford a burial in more traditional graveyards or the deceased weren't allowed to be at those better sites — sometimes due to racism.

snow-covered land
Chuck Quirmbach
The area known as Cemetery One of the Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery, at the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center.

Neal says her Black ancestors who came to Milwaukee more than a century ago worked to create a better life for themselves and their descendants. Three of her relatives were buried at the poor farm.

By some estimates, one in six Black residents of the Milwaukee area at the time were laid to rest at these grounds.

Madison resident Judy Houston was born in Milwaukee. A Caucasian, Houston says a far smaller percentage of white people ended up at the Poor Farm Cemetery. But she finds that no less sad.

"This is something they didn't want, and unfortunately, they ended up here. Without love, without care, and they knew that that could happen," Houston tells WUWM.

Houston also says three of her ancestors were buried at the paupers' site.

Houston and Neal are part of group of genealogists that want the medical center to at least put up signs honoring Cemetery One and other poor farm burial sections disturbed in recent decades by construction projects. And the two women are worried that additional development being discussed at the center would disturb more graves. The center, which includes Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin, did not supply a comment or statement for this story, despite repeated requests.

Poor farm map
Provided by Prof. Jennifer Haas of UWM
The locations of the four burial sites at the Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery.

The genealogists are also calling on UW-Milwaukee to take more steps with the remains of nearly 2,500 individuals removed from poor farm graves during construction in about 1991 and 2013, and eventually put in the university's care.

Neal says UWM has the remains of her uncle, Emory Patterson, and runs a program that teaches students to complete what are called biological profiles.

"I know that it's not with any family knowledge or permission. So that kind of makes me angry that they would not even try to contact someone to ask, 'What would you like to have done with his remains?'" she says.

Neal says she'd like to see her uncle reburied near his late wife at Milwaukee's Evergreen Cemetery.

The director of UWM's Archaeological Research Laboratory Center says she and her students are doing what they can to identify remains.

On a brief tour of the lab, professor Jennifer Haas points to examination tables used to look at bones and other material disinterred in the early 1990s. "So we can make the assessment of whether this was a man or a woman, and the age at death, and those different indicators on the skeletal elements that may give clues of who they were," Haas tells WUWM.

Prof. Jennifer Haas, outside the Bioarchaeology Lab, at UWM.
Chuck Quirmbach
Prof. Jennifer Haas outside the Bioarchaeology Lab at UWM.

Haas says the work is difficult as many burial markers were missing and burial ledgers from long ago are not complete.

"For example, the ledger may say this was a burial of an old man. But when we look at the physical remains of that person who should match up, it's a young woman,'' she explains.

Haas says after some departmental reorganization at UWM and more hiring, she's trying to do a better job of reaching out to relatives of those who died.

The genealogists want the Wisconsin Historical Society through the Burial Sites Preservation Board to pressure UWM to move faster and to accept the citizens' plans for final disposition of remains from the poor farm.

A state spokesperson says people with a documented interest in a burial site can have their voices heard. The society also says it was an administrative law judge, not the historical society that granted the 2013 request to move remains so Froedtert Hospital could expand.

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