Radio Chipstone: Early African-American Communities Of Madison

Dec 8, 2018

In 1840, there were less than 400 African-Americans living in Madison, Wis. Some arrived as slaves to fur trappers, others came to work in the mines. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act caused many to escape to free states like Wisconsin. But that's not where the story ends.

Born and raised in Madison, Muriel Simms is an adjunct faculty member at Edgewood College. She is also the author of Settlin': Stories of Madison's Early African American Families. Simms' father came to Madison in 1927 to attend the pharmacology program at UW-Madison.

Top left: Muriel's father, David Simms. Top right: The family at her grandparents' house in Missouri, including Mary Simms, Robert Chasteen, Muriel, Mary Chasteen, Dolores, and Dolores' sons. Bottom right: Muriel with her mother and father at their home on Lake Street. Bottom left: Muriel Simms as a child.
Credit Muriel Simms

After a brief return to Missouri, the elder Simms came back to Madison to settle and build a family. Simms says that her family's story is just one of many. Her book is a collection of narratives told by those who lived and remember what Madison was like for African-Americans in those early years.

In part one of this interview, contributor Gianofer fields asks Simms to set the scene. Where did African-Americans live and what did those communities look like?

"Back then, the homes were very small, but you could get in maybe seven to eight houses with in a half a block area ..." she says. "That section — 600 block of Dayton Street, and around the corner on Blount Street, which, I'm guessing would be about the 100 block of Blount Street [was where the majority of the African-American community lived at the time]."

Gulleys-- From Settlin': Stories of Madison's Early African American Families. WHI Image ID 46871
Credit Wisconsin Historical Images

She says some other areas blacks lived included Williamson Street, Wilson Street and the Greenbush neighborhood. 

"More than likely, the realtors played a big part in assuring the wider community that black people would live in a certain area," she says. 

"Blacks had multiple jobs and they owned multiple businesses. So, they were working people, and we considered ourselves just that, working people," Simms explains. "We did not consider ourselves a working class, or a 'class' of people. We all were at the same income level and practiced our faith on Sundays, so we thought about ourselves as a well-respected, well-connected community."

Tamale Cart- From Settlin': Stories of Madison's Early African-American Families WHI Image ID#18326
Credit Wisconsin Historical Images