Black History Month: Green Bay’s first permanent, Black resident, “Smokey” Dawson

The first African American settler in Green Bay
Updated: Feb. 1, 2023 at 10:05 PM CST
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - February 1 marks the beginning of Black History Month. Every Wednesday at 10 through February, Action 2 News will honor people who helped make this area and nation what it is today.

According to local historian Mary Jane Herber, the history of African-Americans in Northeast Wisconsin can be traced back to the 1700s. Blacks moved to Green Bay, both as freed men and as slaves, in the next century, but only one man and his family from that time made the history books.

Green Bay’s Black population is fairly small compared to other cities around the country. Just over 4% of people currently living here are Black. As we begin our Black History Month series, we introduce you to William “Smokey” Dawson, the first permanent Black resident of Green Bay.

At the corner of Forest and Morrow streets on the city’s east side, near the East River, it’s houses as far as the eye can see. what you don’t see is a hidden history.

At this corner, Smokey Dawson, the first Black resident of Green Bay, lived and worked.

Dawson came to Green Bay from Pennsylvania as a child back in 1857 and lived at 1611 Morrow St.

He owned four lots on the block -- what are now the first four houses. A map from 1886, drawn by one of Dawson’s bosses, shows his property.

You have to remember, 1886 was a time when most mentions of Black people and property in other states would have shown slave quarters.

Herber, the local history and genealogy librarian at the Brown County Library, says Dawson lived as a free man here during a time of slavery elsewhere in America thanks to the annexation of the Northwest Territory, which included Wisconsin which gained statehood in 1848.

“The Northwest Ordinance says that those states that are created out of the Northwest Territory have to be free states, they are not to be slave states,” said Herber.

Dawson was a wagon delivery driver for the Smith family, and one held in very high regard.

“Obviously, the Smiths thought, I would say, highly of [Dawson], because his property that he owned was adjacent to the Smith family, in terms of where their truck farms were. And, even where their house was, in reference, they were within a block of each other.”

This particular Smith family was one of Green Bay royalty, you could say.

The man who employed Dawson was the grandfather of Walter Wellesley Smith, also known as “Red,” who won the Pulitzer Prize for sports writing in 1976 and has a Green Bay school named in his honor.

Another neighbor of Dawson’s in the early 1900s was Marcelin Lambeau, the father of Earl “Curly” Lambeau.

After decades of jumping on and off wagons making deliveries, Dawson found a new venture and continued to find success.

“Later in his life, he’s listed in the city directory as being a broom maker. So, he had some other means of producing, and so there certainly were people in town that bought his brooms, or he sold them to the grocery stores, or the general store, in terms of income,” Herber said.

Dawson had five sons and a daughter. While much of the family would later go to Chicago, the Dawsons who stayed were a lasting presence in the community.

“There’s a stability in the fact that he was here all that time,” Herber said. “His mother stayed here -- I mean, his mother died here. His stepfather died here. One of his sons stayed here and died here.”

Dawson passed away in 1929 at the age of 80, living in Green Bay for 72 of those years.

We asked the historian whether Red Smith might have known Dawson. She said Smith graduated East High School in 1923 and lived in the family home across the street from Dawson.

She believes the two men, with their own unique places in Green Bay history, probably knew each other quite well.

Our first report on this first day of Black History Month is about another first, named William "Smokey" Dawson