Author Muriel Simms remembers living on Lake and Dayton streets as a little girl, where many students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison now reside. She played with the neighbor’s children during the week and with the church youth on Sundays.
“That neighborhood was a predominantly white neighborhood,” she says.
Simms understood skin color; however, at the time, she did not quite understand racism or racial prejudices. She lived a normal life of a young girl, although she describes her playmates as “sometimey.” Simms does remember playing and dining with a young Jewish girl in her neighborhood.
“I was between these two worlds. I recall being okay with it,” she said. “I never felt like I didn’t have anybody.”
Simms and her family attended Saint Paul A.M.E. Church on Sundays where many of Madison’s African-American families gathered for worship. Church became a place of fellowship for Simms and her family. As a teenager, she attended Madison East High School during the week.
“I was the only African-American in my high school out of 400. I was elected vice president of my junior class,” she says.
Like Simms, Madison was a home and community to many of the early African-American families who chose to reside on either side of the isthmus. Some of these Madisonians shared their stories with Simms for the new book Settlin’: Stories of Madison’s Early African American Families. She hopes the testimonies in the book will enlighten people on the the culture and community of families who relocated to the city before The Great Migration.
“No one really knows why the storytellers moved up here,” Simms said.
Some came to the Midwest for job prospects, others followed their family members. Simms recalls the names of the African-American families in Madison, many of whom arrived in the early 1900s. Some Madisonians might recognize the names of some of these families and think of trailblazers and leaders in the community.
“We thought of ourselves as one community, but they led in a way that brought people with them,” she said.
Simms recalls people stepping up to the plate and mobilizing with organizations such as the NAACP. She says a majority of the African-American families were part of a working class. African-Americans owned businesses in Madison such as barbershops, stores and repair shops.
“They carried themselves in such a way, they were proud, stoic – like in a king and queen manner,” Simms says.
African-American families gathered for many reasons other than church, including local picnics, celebrations, to swim at the lake and to get involved with community organizations. Simms said she wants black newcomers and the rest of the Madison community to know a black community existed in Madison as early as the 1840s.
“I want people to be informed about early African-American life. I want people to know what they might have thought wasn’t true,” she said.
Simms’ book, published through the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, offers a glimpse of the vibrant community of the early African-American families in Madison and their descendants. Their testimonial offers readers perspectives to not only understand the stories of how they arrived but their survival and the ways in which they thrived.
On Feb. 19, the public will have the opportunity to learn more about these families at the lunch-and-learn series hosted at the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum.