With Black History Month in full swing, it is important to remember the lesser-discussed pieces of Black history that have been very impactful on generations to come. This was the mission of State Rep. Shelia Stubbs earlier this month when she visited The Milton House, a stop for the Underground Railroad and a crucial piece of Wisconsin history.
The journey to freedom through the Underground Railroad once went through the space that is now the Milton House Museum in the town of Milton, about 40 minutes southeast of Madison. With the original building being constructed in the first half of the 19th century, the location provided both safety and a transfer point for enslaved people seeking freedom, as well as a space where people like civil rights leader and abolitionist Sojourner Truth could speak as she did in the 1860s. Stubbs recalled setting the intention to kick off Black History Month in Wisconsin, and thought of this town and location fitting due to its largely unknown history.
“I was eager to go inside and just feel the history of The Milton House. Once I was in there, I realized that it was really the focal point of the community,” Stubbs, who represents Wisconsin’s 77th District, told Madison365. “I understood how it could be part of the Underground Railroad because it was just a busy part of the town. It actually represented the community. There’s a church, a park, a business, and the owner was very busy and understood what the community looks like. After I started doing the tour and going from room to room and understanding the historical aspect of it — and to be able to be at a national museum that’s recognized for an Underground Railroad, the only one in the United States that you still can visit — it was just a moment of awe.”
After spending time traversing the tight and dark spaces that enslaved people would have had to spend much of their journey in, Stubbs took time to engage with the impact of witnessing history in the present. The effort to get to the north and eventually Canada led enslaved people through different areas of the Midwest, and Milton’s location between larger areas like Chicago and Madison provided a much-needed stop before heading further north on their journey. The importance of such locations and the history they have to offer, both themselves and through the people that occupied them, were perhaps the largest aspects of the visit for Stubbs who discussed the importance of education around the subject.
“This space is so historic, and I also think, for me, I believe that Black History Month should not just be one month out of the year. I believe that my ancestors made history 365/24/7,” Stubbs said. “It’s just a small number of days in the calendar in which we recognize the work that they’ve done… I said, ‘We need a curriculum.’ I believe if you don’t know the history, you’re doomed to repeat it. There’s no way any school district should not want to educate students or scholars on education as it relates to Black history.”
To continue the capacity for these cities and spaces to upkeep this precious history, there must be public want. This message was clear in the debriefing that took place between Stubbs and many important people in Milton including the Milton School
District’s superintendent, the mayor of Milton, along with the county administrator. Public interest in these spaces was discussed as needing to be preceded by education and awareness around how close history is to the present, and how the effects of that history are still felt today.
“I think as these doors are opening, it’s important for us to walk in and walk through to build on those opportunities that are there. I think it’s also great at a state level to continue to push forward for the Black curriculum and for African American studies to be a part of the curriculum through DPI,” Stubbs said, adding that, “we need African American studies, Asian American Studies, Native American studies, any studies that talk about moments in time that impact communities of color.”
Stubbs is no stranger to taking the opportunities afforded to her by her ancestors as her path to being the first African American elected to the state legislature from Dane County in 2018 continues the legacy of Black history and forward drive. The possibility of opening up more opportunities for the public to engage with these places was also discussed. Making people aware through inviting organizations and groups, especially during Black History Month, certainly shines a brighter light on how close history is not only in time, but also in space. In summary of the experience, State Rep. Stubbs spoke to the necessity to continue conversations that center these stories, but to also take the time to think about what it means for the current day.
“It’s so important that we write the narrative and that we call wrong, wrong, and right, right. It doesn’t matter who you are. When you’re right, you’re right. When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. So we have to write the truth,” Stubbs said. “The truth will set you free, I believe in that, but I also believe that this is just a moment of time. It’s a moment that we all need to take to stop and reflect.”