Earlene Fuller Broke Racial Barriers In Milwaukee's Bowling Community
Earlene Fuller moved to Milwaukee in 1948 from Jackson, Mississippi during the middle of the Great Migration, which saw Black Americans moving out of the south and across the entire country.
While living in Milwaukee, Fuller would find one of her greatest passions in life — bowling.
The sport wasn’t legally integrated until two years after she moved to Milwaukee, but curator for the Wisconsin Historical Society David Driscoll says that even after the legal integration, bowling teams stayed segregated.
“At that time [bowling] was very much a community activity, that it was either neighborhoods folks bowling together at their local alley and in a lot of cases, they were work-related teams,” says Driscoll. “Since most of the neighborhoods then and even today are fairly segregated and many occupations then and today are fairly segregated, it sort of worked out that bowling was not a particularly integrated activity.”
Because of the de-facto segregation, Fuller bowled on all-Black teams through the 1960s and in the 1970s she finally played on integrated teams.
That decade her teams won two city and two state championships. Individually, she won the National Bowling Association's scratch singles champion in 1978 and would eventually be inducted into the Milwaukee Bowling Hall of Fame in 1992.
Fuller wasn’t just known for her bowling skills though; she also became famous for her custom bowling shirts.
“She started making clothing for herself and her teams, and it was impressive enough that at the lanes, people would say, ‘Where did you get that uniform? Oh, you made it, could you outfit our team?' and so she started doing that and doing that not just for Black bowlers but for white bowlers as well,” Driscoll says.
She became so well know that in the 1970s, the Swiss national team asked her to design their uniforms. Many of her designs included kente cloth and inspiration from traditional African clothing patterns.
The historical society has 10 different shirts that Fuller designed, and Driscoll says it’s important to highlight figures like Fuller because museums and historical societies have not only often overlooked the achievements of Black Americans but also those figures who aren’t household names.
“This is a woman who managed to combine a talent that she had, a passion she had for bowling turned it into a successful career. She was an outstanding bowler, she was an outstanding dressmaker and designer, but she’s not a headline maker. There’s not a lot of narratives and discussion about people who are just making their way and doing a good job of it,” he says.