House of History project works to preserve & share Milwaukee's Black LGBTQ+ history
Editor's Note: This story originally aired on October 4, 2023.
October is LGBTQ+ history month, and we can’t celebrate and learn from people and events of the past if they’re not documented and shared.
Janice Toyh has long been a part of Milwaukee’s LGBTQ+ history. She’s one of Milwaukee’s most legendary entertainers and a founding members of SHEBA (Sisters Helping Each Other Battle Adversity), a support group for Black women of trans experience. Toy is on a mission to make sure Milwaukee’s Black LGBTQ+ history is preserved and shared through the House of History.
The House of History is a project dedicated to collecting and sharing local Black LGBTQ+ history through interviews, as well as uncovering and sharing photographs and other artifacts that tell the stories of Black LGBTQ+ people in Milwaukee. For Toy, the journey from being a part of history to preserving it was instrumental for herself and the community.
"[The House of History] gives me the opportunity to document a lot of the girls who have passed. Document their life legacy, because sometimes when people die, we forget," says Toy. "A lot of the younger transgender community, they don't know the struggles that a lot of the girls had to go through before them."
The House of History grew out of a partnership between Toy and Dr. Brice Smith, the creator and project director of lgbt milWALKee. He was interviewing Toy and other SHEBA members for his app, and it was "just an instant connection" between the two of them. Smith introduced Toy to other programs and projects he wanted to bring to life, "and I just jumped aboard," says Toy.
One notable example of a person's legacy being preserved is Tina Terry, a beloved Black lesbian bar owner who was willing to die for her community. Her story was uncovered through oral history interviews coordinated by Toy that marked the beginning of the House of History.
Toy says she's noticed a void in preserving the legacies of people and places that she knew, such as Artony's — Milwaukee's longest operating Black LGBTQ bar — and the people who made Diverse & Resilientwhat it is today.
"My goal is to get the word out that we're here," says Toy. "And a lot of the sacrifices that were made by some of the people that are no longer here, their legacy can live on. Because everyone in our family, you know, has someone in the LGBT community, whether they want to admit it or not, whether they're in the closet or they're not. And their stories need to be told."
So far four sites have been added to lgbt milWALKee since June that share local Black LGBTQ history. Funding dependent, the House of History will have a website and social media platforms of its own to create and share content through storytelling. According to Toy, the House of History is in its introductory stage as she works to continue to collect and document materials.
"It was a life-changing experience and it was a way to make history and keep history going. I think that the [House of History] will give the opportunity to get that word out and get that connection that we need," she says.