‘It’s About Healing’: Activist Works To Memorialize Milwaukee’s Only Black Lynching Victim
On Sep. 6, 1861, George Marshall Clark was lynched on the northwest corner of Buffalo and Water Streets in Milwaukee — becoming the only Black victim of lynching in the city. Efforts are underway today to put a headstone on his unmarked grave.
Clark was only 22-years-old when he was killed. He was studying to be a barber under his father who owned a shop on Wisconsin Ave.
Clayborn Benson, founder of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum, explains that Clark and his friend James Shelton were flirting with two white women in Milwaukee’s Third Ward when two Irish men noticed and took offense. A fight broke out between the men, and Shelton used a knife to injure two men and stab a third as he and Clark fled the scene.
Clark and Shelton were both arrested and brought to the city jail, meanwhile one of the stabbed men died from his wounds. Benson says at this point, a mob began to form.
“The Irish community sees it as a Black crime on the Irish community and they storm the jail, some 300 people stormed the jail to punish the two African Americans,” he says.
Shelton was able to escape the jail storming, but Clark was taken by the mob. Despite the mob having some knowledge that Clark was not the one who stabbed anyone, they still hung him in downtown Milwaukee, according to Benson.
He says the lynching and the police’s inability to protect Clark or Shelton caused fear amongst Milwaukee’s Black community and many fled the city entirely. “They were just frustrated that Milwaukee offered no protection for them that they left Milwaukee,” says Benson.
Eventually, Shelton and members of the mob were tried for their crimes, but no one was convicted in either crime. Benson says this was because in the eyes of the court, two people had died and no further action needed to be taken. “[The court] made the decision that the price had already been paid,” he says.
George Marshall Clark was eventually buried, unmarked in a public burial section in Forest Home Cemetery.
Memorializing George Marshall Clark Today
Tyrone Randle is an artist and activist in Milwaukee who first learned about George Marshall Clark's story while studying at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. Last summer while participating in a Black Lives Matter protest, Randle was hit by a car while being detained. He says his injuries prevented him from being able to march, but he still wanted to do something to contribute to the movement.
While Randle was recovering, he dove back in to learning more about Clark and find his final resting place to pay tribute.
“Not being able to protest, I kinda felt guilty about not being out in the streets and I decided to plan a march in Marshall’s honor,” says Randle.
His research led him to Forest Home Cemetery, where Randle discovered that Clark's is one of hundreds of unmarked graves in a public burial section. Forest Home is one of the oldest cemeteries to allow anyone, no matter race or religion, to be buried on the grounds together.
"I think it's important for people to be able to visit and to really connect to the figures that we learn about. For me to like show up at the cemetery and there not to be anything there, it was just like really, really, really appalling," says Randle.
Garen Morris, a sales manager for Forest Home Cemetery, helped Randle track down Clark’s burial site by looking through the cemetery's extensive interment records.
"We had started with a lot card, so we were able to take the map of section 17 and we knew where George Marshall was, and inside [his] area there are 10 actual burial sites. Then we went to another lot card adjacent ... [and] we were able to find a headstone about 20 feet or so away, and then I stepped it off literally foot by foot," Morris explains.
He says we can only speculate exactly why Clark’s grave wasn’t marked when he was buried.
“A head stone may have only been $5, $10 — $5, $10 back then was a lot money and the family probably either didn’t have it or as we might guess, they might not have wanted the public knowing where he was placed,” says Morris.
Randle also notes that Clark's family left Milwaukee shortly after he was murdered, so they may not have even attented the funeral.
He also says it's suspected that the limited police presence guarding Clark was a deliberate effort and
considers his death to be partially the fault of the police force at the time. Randle feels connected to Clark as someone who had experienced violence at the hands of the police in the same city over 150 years later.
"For me to be someone who can be considered a victim of police brutality, and then to read Marshall's story ... it just touched me. I was overwhelmed with emotion [when I found his burial site]," Randle recalls.
Randle has started a GoFundMe to raise enough money to install a headstone for Clark and Forest Home Cemetery is also contributing to that effort through its Momuments Preservation Projects. He says installing a headstone is a way to make sure George Marshall Clark’s story isn’t forgotten and serves as a key to healing the historical trauma Milwaukee’s Black community faces.
“It’s about healing, can’t really heal from things that aren’t acknowledged,” says Randle. “I think it’s important for people to be able to really visit. It's a little bit more tangible of an idea when you can see a headstone."
Morris says Clark's life and burial site is "another huge story in our cemetery that needs to be known."
“Leaving a person unmarked is heartbreaking to me," he says. "All too often headstones I help with today, I am always telling people, that dash in the middle is your life story, we need to try and tell it somehow. It's actually a blessing in some ways that Tyrone is looking at this so many years later, because I'm hoping the headstone that he helps create for this will tell the story. Not just a date of birth, a date of death — tell the dash.”