Republican lawmakers may recognize Black History Month this year

A GOP proposal seeks to eliminate controversy

By: - February 8, 2022 6:45 am
Rep. Shelia Stubbs, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, leads a virtual 2021 celebration of Black History Month.

Rep. Shelia Stubbs, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, leads a virtual 2021 celebration of Black History Month.

Wisconsin Republicans continue to send mixed signals about acknowledging that February is Black History Month. Last year, Republican legislators refused to back a resolution circulated by Democrats recognizing Black History Month because it included language honoring people they did not approve of, including Milwaukee civil rights activists and groups. At the same time, Republicans in the Assembly passed a resolution to honor conservative radio figure Rush Limbaugh, who made numerous racially insensitive comments throughout his decades on the air. This year, a resolution to recognize Black History Month is being introduced by Sen. Julian Bradley (R-Franklin), the state GOP’s only African American elected official.

Bradley, who was among the Republican officials who supported honoring Limbaugh, put out a co-sponsorship memo in early January to recognize Black History Month this year. He called on fellow legislators to “join me in celebrating the contributions of Black Americans to our state and nation by co-sponsoring this resolution.” The memo set a Jan. 10 deadline to co-sponsor the resolution, but it has still not been formally introduced.

Sen. Julian Bradley (R-Franklin) official legislative portrait
Sen. Julian Bradley (R-Franklin)

Parts of Bradley’s draft resolution are similar to the 2021 Democratic proposal. The major difference is that the 2021 resolution listed 32 people and groups to be honored for Black History Month for their contributions to the Black community. Among the honorees were Naomi Carter, Wisconsin’s first African American nurse, and Vernice E. Chenault Gallimore, the first Black woman to serve on the Milwaukee Police Department. The 2021 resolution also honored numerous contemporary community activists including Tory Lowe, Vaun Mayes and Khalil Coleman as well as the protest group The People’s Revolution. Some of the activists listed were regular figures during the George Floyd protests of 2020; others have made their names through anti-violence advocacy and other work. Honoring them became a source of controversy in the Legislature and ultimately the Black History Month resolution went nowhere last year.

By contrast, the resolution to recognize Black History Month for 2022 doesn’t list specific honorees. Bradley’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment regarding the resolution. Some members of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, however, did offer their thoughts.

Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) called Bradley’s resolution “both disappointing and offensive.” Taylor told Wisconsin Examiner, “in what appeared to be an effort to placate his Republican colleagues, this African-American legislator was willing to diminish the contribution of Black people by choosing not to honor a single person in his resolution.” Bradley’s resolution does mention Carter G. Woodson, an African-American and the founder of Negro History Week, which later became what we now call Black History Month. Woodson felt the official recognition of Black history  “was needed to combat the deliberate omission and marginalization of the contributions, accomplishments, and history of Black people in the American Narrative,” Bradley’s resolution states.

Rep. David Bowen (via Facebook)
Rep. David Bowen (via Facebook)

Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) also noticed the lack of honorees in Bradley’s resolution. He stated that the Legislative Black Caucus plans to present a “more encompassing” resolution. In addition to honoring people from various fields including medicine, technology and  athletics.  The caucus announced earlier this month that it will host events centered around entrepreneurship, education and criminal justice to mark Black History Month in February.

During an opening event kicking off Black History Month, Gov. Tony Evers highlighted the construction of a statue of Vel Phillips on the Capitol grounds. Phillips was the first Black person to serve as Wisconsin Secretary of State. She was also an attorney and civil rights activist and was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School. She died in 2018 at the age of 95.

“Generations of kids will be able to look up at her statue and see a leader that looks like them,” said Evers. “And just as these kids dream of what their futures might look like and what great impact they’ll make on the world, it is our responsibility to do everything in our power to safeguard their future.”

Recalling the choices made around Black History Month last year, Bowen pointed to “Republican leadership opposition to any chance for us to all be on the same page.” This year, Bowen told Wisconsin Examiner, “I hope there is an attempt to handle Black History resolutions like we always have historically done them, actually adding a resolution that comes from all Black members of the Legislature. And that’s through the Black Caucus. Historically it’s always been that way, it should return to being that way this time. But we’ll see.” Bradley isn’t listed as a member of the nine-member Legislative Black Caucus, which includes Taylor and Bowen.

Sen. Lena Taylor portrait
Sen. Lena Taylor

Taylor feels Bradley’s resolution was “watered down” and “was done to assuage the grumblings and outright indifference of Republican legislators to African-American legislators’ wishes regarding past resolutions. It is shameful but not unexpected. After all, this is about how Republicans feel, what Republicans value, and what Republicans want.” She regards it as, “indicative of a broader problem in American politics and civic behavior. Far too often, mutual respect, compromise and the willingness to acknowledge that others’ voices, opinions and history matter are disappearing from the civic process.”

Bowen has also seen the nature of discourse shift over time. “Years ago, there was never this overt Republican opposition to Black members of the Legislature being willing to be able to draft a resolution on their own, rather than having it, in a sense, white-washed by Republican leadership.” Nevertheless, he maintains a hint of optimism, and hopes Republican leadership will embrace the caucus’ resolution. “There’s one more chance, before this session is over, to get it right,” said Bowen.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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