Black History Month kicks off today
GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Starting today, every Wednesday throughout the month of February, we at Action 2 News at Ten will honor those who helped make our viewing area and the nation to what it is these days.
According to a local historian, the history of African Americans in northeast Wisconsin can be traced back to the 1700′s.
Black people moved to Green Bay, both as free 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 four percent of the people currently living here are black.
We will start with introducing you to William “Smokey” Dawson, the first permanent black resident of Green Bay.
At the corner of Forest and Morrow Streets in Green Bay, it’s houses as far as the eye can see. But what’s not visible, is a hidden history.
It is the corner where William “Smokey” Dawson lived and worked. Dawson came to Green Bay from Pennsylvania as a child back in 1857 and lived at 1611 Morrow Street.
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.
Now, just to keep in mind: 1886 was a time when most mentions of black people and property in other states would have shown slave quarters.
Mary Jane 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 back in 1848, as Mary Jane Heber explains: “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.”
Dawson was a wagon delivery driver for the Smith family, and one held in very high regard, as Mary Jane Heber knows: “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 is one of Green Bay royalty. One could say that the man who employed Dawson is the grandfather of Walter Wellesley Smith - also known as “Red”, who won the Pulitzer Prize for sportswriting in 1976. And has a school named in his honor.
Another neighbor of Dawson’s in the early 1900′s 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 with it success, as Mary Jane Herber knows: ““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.”
Dawson had five sons and a daughter. While much of the family would later move to Chicago, the Dawsons who stayed were a lasting presence in the community, as Mary Jane Herber lays out: ““There’s a stability in the fact that he was here all that time… 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, after having lived in Green Bay for 72 of those years.
We asked the historian whether “Red” Smith might have known Dawson - and she responded that Smith graduated from East High School in 1923. He then lived across the street from Dawson before Dawson’s death. She believes the two men, with their own unique places in Green Bay History, probably knew each other quite well.
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