Wisconsin’s Legislative Black Caucus kicked off Black History Month with song, speeches, prayers and hopes for a better future in 2021. It opened a meeting Monday with caucus chair Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison), who became the first African American to represent Dane County in Wisconsin’s Legislature. “I broke 170 years of history,” Stubbs said during the caucus address. “I didn’t make it alone. I have made it with so many others who have pushed me along the way.”
Joining her in the meeting were Black lawmakers from across the state, accompanied by vocalists and poets who performed for the virtual meeting. Stubbs noted Wisconsin’s “complicated history,” as both a Northern state and one that struggles with systemic racism.
Gov. Tony Evers, who spoke during the address, said these enduring challenges “renew our state commitments as a state government to fulfill the promises we have long failed to keep.” He continued, “at this time, we find ourselves at a critical juncture in the march towards justice, in eradicating systemic racism that continues to hold back communities and families. This year has further highlighted the challenges we must face head on.”
Invoking the police shootings of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, and the health disparities that emerged during the pandemic, Evers said the state has many challenges ahead. “We know that there is much work left to do,” the governor said, “and we have to do it together, folks.”
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes echoed the point. “Our disparities run deep in the state of Wisconsin,” Barnes said. “That is due to an unwillingness to make sure these experiences are reflected in decision making.”
Barnes applauded Evers’ focus on appointing a multiracial cabinet, including Secretary of the Department of Corrections (DOC) Kevin Carr and Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole, who were both in attendance. “We keep on trucking,” said Barnes. “Because of our ancestry, we stand strong, we stand firm, we stand committed. And we aren’t going anywhere.”
During his speech, Carr emphasized the importance of working together to “examine practices which impede the change necessary to heal and address systemic racism.” He added, “We must seize this moment. And ensure that we are entering this new era with hope.”
Although some of those tasks might be challenging, or generate uncomfortable conversations, Carr asked Wisconsinites to muster courage and patience saying, “We must remain committed to the work, while always moving forward.”
As secretary of the DOC, Carr has been at the center of criticism over conditions in Wisconsin’s prison system during the COVID-19 pandemic. “While I know there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, I’m confident that our state, and our agency, is up to the task.”
Carolyn Stanford Taylor, state superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction, reflected on what lies ahead. “Most of us were anxious to give 2020 the boot,” she said, “only to witness events just as horrific in the new year. In the opening weeks of 2021 we witnessed an assault on the nation’s Capitol where violence, fear, intimidation and loss of life were on full display, indicative of a divided country. We also received the verdict in the Jacob Blake shooting. The contrast between the siege on the Capitol, and the Black Lives Matter Movement was not lost on our nation.”
But Taylor urged those feeling despair to join her: “I choose hope,” she said.
Rep. Samba Baldeh (D-Madison), an immigrant from Gambia, echoed the message of hope by sharing that his home country was home to Kunta Kinte, author Alex Haley’s ancestor immortalized in the television series Roots. Kunta Kinte was captured, enslaved and brought to the United States where he tried to escape multiple times. Baldeh noted how West Africans were part of a wider kingdom that spanned from Sudan to Senegal. “Indeed, the history of mankind itself began in Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago,” said Baldeh. “The roots of the Black community in Wisconsin run deep. They connect with each other here, throughout the nation and to our kinfolks in Africa.”
On the same day as the virtual celebration, news broke after a “small group” of middle school teachers in Dane County’s Sun Prairie community were suspended for distributing a controversial school assignment on slavery. The assignment tasked students with answering the question of how they would punish a slave for defying a master. The question noted archaic laws that justified a slave being put to death for such defiance. The school district has apologized for the assignment.
Need for cooperation
Working together toward common goals emerged as a prevailing theme throughout the event. “I remain hopeful,” said Barnes, stressing the need for cooperation. “We can’t do any of this alone. It takes us working with one another. It takes a collective body to get over the large humps which we are experiencing.”
The message from the event was consistent: A clear understanding of Black history is essential to address the deep currents of racism and inequalities facing Wisconsin. “Our history informs us that change is possible if we are clear-headed in our pursuit for justice,” Barnes said. “There are so many people who are depending on us, who are counting on us to get this right. We know that change is possible, but only if we follow the lessons and footsteps of so many people who came before us.”
Barnes went on to credit civil rights leaders, including Rev. Lloyd Barbee, who served in the Legislature and sued Milwaukee Public Schools over segregationist policies, calling him “a personal hero of mine.”
“As we reflect on past leadership, I also want to focus on current successes and the reasons to be joyful,” said Barnes. “We are in a time of unprecedented struggle. People marched and demanded justice for Black lives in every part of our state. In parts of our state where there are very few, if any Black people. Voters in our state, and across the country, overcame obstacles from the pandemic and voter suppression in November, and they elected the first Black woman to be our vice president.”