What was South Madison like for African Americans in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s? Not too many people really know. One man that does is Dr. Richard Harris, president of Genesis Social Service Corporation on Madison's south side, and his new book “Growing Up Black in South Madison” goes into great detail discussing it.
“I’ve been thinking about writing this book for 6-8 years but I really started working on it the last 2-3 years,” Harris tells The Madison Times. “I was talking with a good friend of mine who grew up in the Triangle Area [of Madison] and his parents were really not treated fairly. We talked with other black families who had the same problems. I felt like I needed to write about it.
“The second thing was that my granddaughter asked me, “What was South Madison like back in the day?” he continues. “And I felt like I should tell my story. As I wrote the book I not only remembered more but I learned more about my history and about Madison history.”
In his new book, Dr. Harris describes life in Madison as he perceived it from 1940-1970. He describes the discrimination and racism perpetrated on black people, and the successful attempts to combat discrimination by a group of black women and Rev. Joseph Washington which included the Urban Renewal Project in the Triangle, the attempts by the Madison Public Schools to close two South Madison schools (Franklin and Lincoln), and the discrimination against Black people in the area of employment.
“I’ve been getting two types of reactions [to the book[. Many of the whites who are reading it are upset. They are saying, ‘Yeah, it’s true. But let’s let bygones be bygones and move forward,’” Harris says. “Many of the black people I’ve talked about are interested in the history and what went on. Much of [that history] they had never known before.”
Unlike a number of stories by black authors, Harris does not describe life growing up in a large urban ghetto or in the sweltering heat of the segregated Deep South. Instead, Harris’ story is that of life in a sophisticated, enlightened, well-educated, liberal, mid-sized northern city. But Harris is unwilling to sugarcoat any of his experiences, many of them filled with discrimination and racism. He says that he feels that history needs to be recorded properly and not glossed over.
“I haven’t talked to a white person yet who said that they were aware of these things that were going on,” Harris says. “A lot of blacks, of course, were very aware. Some white people didn’t want to believe it.”
“Growing Up Black in South Madison” is full of great old photos that show what the time was like back in the day. The book includes a list of Madison black history facts and Madison black trailblazers and their individual accomplishments. “I have listed in the back of the book the names of every black person who lived in the Triangle from 1943 to 1961,” Harris says.
Harris starts recalling tales of South Madison a few years after April 14, 1937, when Harris was born at Madison General Hospital in the heart of the old Greenbush neighborhood. It's now called Meriter Hospital.
“When I was growing up, South Madison was very white, but I lived on Bram and Baird Street which was all black,” he remembers. “I thought the world was black until I started to go to school, church, and daycare and ran into a lot of white kids.”
He would soon find a much different world. According to the book:
There were no black police officers, nurses, teachers, or bus drivers. We heard countless horror stories about the indignities, especially acts of insults aimed at black women. The most vicious occurred when several department stores in the downtown area refused to let black women try on dresses, suits, or shoes before they paid for them. They were told that white women did not want to purchase shoes, dresses, or any clothes if they had been worn by black women. However, white women could try on clothes or shoes before they were purchased. The issue was resolved after a group of angry black women took action.
Harris' parents had come from the South to give their family a better life — his mom came from Georgia and his dad from Kentucky. They were well aware of racism in the United States.
“My parents could remember when black men would lose their lives for a variety of reasons in the South and they were always worried about me,” Harris says. “In 1954, when they killed Emmitt Till, my father said, ‘See. That’s what I’m trying to warn you about.’”
While there were no murders, Harris recounts various stories of racism and stereotypes and discrimination that happened to him in Madison.
Harris graduated from the UW-Madison on Aug. 12, 1961 and spent the next 10 days seeking employment in the Madison area. There were two opportunities for him in Madison — one at the city level and one at the county level. In trying to find a job in the town he loved, Harris would soon find out that clothing store racism was much more of the norm than an exception. Despite there being numerous openings and Harris being well-qualified, the lady at the county job told him that the staff and clients would not like to work with coloreds.
“I came to the interview and no one even asked me my name,” Harris recalls. “Then they asked me to leave and had me escorted out by a big, burly cop.”
Harris went to another job interview and got the same answer: “We don’t work with coloreds.” Harris ended up getting a job in Chicago because nobody in Madison would hire an African American.
“People tell me to ‘just let it die.’ They want to forget about it or whitewash over it. But I think it’s important to know our past as we go forward in our future,” Harris says. “I hope the book can be a learning experience for both black and white people. It can be enlightening for both.”
Harris laments the lack of progress made in black Madison since the olden days described in the book.
“The number of black teachers in the MMSD is 2 percent while the number of black students in the public school system is almost 30 percent,” he says. “The percentage of professors at that whole big university [UW-Madison] is 2 percent. There are no blacks working as television anchorpeople for the nightly news. Things have not gotten a whole lot better.”
The book is important, Harris says, because people need to know their history as they move to make a better future.
“The book is true, it’s factual, and it’s eye-opening. It kind of gives you a flavor on what life was like for black Madison and the economic situation we found ourselves in,” Harris says.
Dr. Richard Harris will hold a book signing for his just-released book "Growing Up Black in South Madison" Saturday, Dec. 1, 1-4 p.m. at Goodman South Madison Branch Library, 2222 S. Park St.
Books will be available for purchase and signing after the presentation. A partial amount of sales from the book will be donated to the Mt. Zion Baptist Church and the construction of the Family Life Center along with to the Genesis Social Services Drug Prevention and Treatment programs.