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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

Searching for a Fuller Picture of Wisconsin's Abolitionist History

Aisha Turner
Left: a popular drawing of Joshua Glover; Right: how Glover is depicted on a Milwaukee mural.

This week’s Bubbler Talk is rooted deep in Wisconsin history... in the story of escaped slave Joshua Glover. Glover fled Missouri for Wisconsin in 1852 and was imprisoned in Milwaukee under the Fugitive Slave Law.

You can see parts of his story driving on Fond du Lac towards Milwaukee’s downtown. A large mural spans the walls of the I-43 underpass. It depicts abolitionists storming the jail, helping Glover escape to freedom in Canada.

One of our listeners -- Rocky Martinez from Waukesha -- was curious about the mural. He saw it as he was heading into Milwaukee with his son. “I took my boy to a ballgame and I was like ‘Oh, that's Joshua Glover!’,” he remembers.

A few years ago, Rocky had enrolled in a race and ethnicity class at Waukesha County Technical College. He was given an assignment to look into the abolitionist history of the area. “The instructor had us do a project looking into local history and that was one of the projects that we chose - was to look into the Underground Railroad here in Waukesha."

Credit Aisha Turner
Rocky Martinez looks over old newspaper clippings at the Waukesha Public Library, where he did much of his research on Joshua Glover.

The only records he could find of abolitionists helping slaves were from Joshua Glover and Caroline Quarlls - a woman who escaped to Wisconsin 10 years earlier than Glover.

Rocky thought there was something strange… The photo of Caroline Quarlls he found revealed that she was black - but light skinned.

And there are no known photographs of Glover -- only a black and white drawing that shows him as fair skinned, with European features and a 19th century suit jacket.

Rocky wondered were those abolitionists only helping light-skinned enslaved people? Maybe they were only helping slaves the identified more with...

And if the Glover drawing is accurate, why is he depicted as dark skinned with coarse hair and African features in the Fond du Lac mural?

“That's what I remember from the project,” he said. But “I'm not like a historian or anything like that, you know?”

So to get some clarity, I took Rocky to meet with Clayborn Benson from the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum.

“So this is the only image that we could find of him,” Rocky said as he pulled up Glover’s picture on his phone. “And we don’t know if it was accurate or not.”

The Museum commissioned the freeway underpass mural in 2006. Claybon Benson alleviated Rocky’s confusion immediately: “It’s not.”

“That is a European version of Joshua Glover,” Clayborn explained. “But in actual descriptions of Glover he is a worker. He worked mills, cut down trees... he was in no way polished like that image projects.”

Credit Jimmy Emerson, Flickr Creative Commons
The mural of Joshua Glover on the I-43 underpass depicts Joshua Glover's escape from slavery.

So if that drawing of Glover is inaccurate, that means Rocky's hypothesis -- that only light skinned slaves were helped -- isn’t true.

Clayborn explained that many of the white people to settle in Wisconsin were coming from European nations where they or their families had been serfs. They arrived in the United States deeply opposed to servitude.

This abolitionist spirit became ingrained in the state’s culture.

He said, “The State of Wisconsin goes on record as the only state in the Union to defy the Fugitive Slave Law. Now that's major. Waukesha is the regional headquarters for all of this activity.”

But Rocky was still unsatisfied. “So then we would have been able to find more cases [than] Joshua Glover and Caroline Quarlls.”

Clayborn assured him that there are many more. “If I were to guess, there were at least 400 or 500 runaway slaves.”

But there’s an important point he wanted to be clear on: “That didn't mean cities and and areas like Waukesha liked people of color. It didn’t mean that. What it meant was they didn't want to tolerate servants [or] slavery.”

At the end of their talk, the men exchanged email addresses. Clayborn promised to send along some books for Rocky to check out to learn more about Wisconsin’s Underground Railroad. And Rocky promised to keep reading and keep asking questions.

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