Black History Month kicks off today

GREEN BAY, Wisconsin (WBAY) – Starting today, every Wednesday in February at Action 2 News at Ten, we will honor those who have helped make our viewing area and the nation what it is today.

According to a local historian, the history of African Americans in northeastern Wisconsin can be traced back to the 18th century.

Black people moved to Green Bay as both free men and slaves over the next century. But only one man and his family from that era have made it into the history books.

Green Bay’s black population is fairly small compared to other cities across the country. Just over four percent of the people currently living here are black.

We begin by introducing you to William “Smokey” Dawson, Green Bay’s first permanent black resident.

Houses stretch as far as the eye can see on the corner of Forest Street and Morrow Street in Green Bay. But what is not visible is a hidden history.

It’s the corner where William “Smokey” Dawson lived and worked. Dawson came to Green Bay from Pennsylvania as a child in 1857 and lived at 1611 Morrow Street.

He owned four lots on the block, which is now the first four houses. An 1886 map – drawn by one of Dawson’s bosses – shows his holdings.

Well, just to think about it: 1886 was a time when most mentions of black people and property in other states would have shown slave housing.

Mary Jane Herber, local history and genealogy librarian at Brown County Library, says Dawson lived here as a free man during a time of slavery elsewhere in America. Thanks to the annexation of the Northwest Territory, which included Wisconsin, in 1848, as Mary Jane Heber explains: “The Northwest Ordinance states that the states that arise out of the Northwest Territory must be free states. They shall not be slave states.”

Dawson was a wagon delivery driver for the Smith family, and he was held in very high esteem, as Mary Jane Heber knows: “Apparently, I should say, the Smiths thought very highly of (Dawson) because the property he owned adjoined the family Smith, regarding where their truck farms were located. And even where her house was, for reference. They were only a block apart.”

This particular Smith family is part of the Green Bay royal family. It could be said that the man who employed Dawson is the grandfather of Walter Wellesley Smith — aka “Red,” who won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for sportswriting. And has a school named after him.

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

After decades of hopping on and off wagons making deliveries, Dawson found a new business and found success, as Mary Jane Herber recalls: “Later in his life he was listed in the city register as a broom maker. So he had other means of production, and there were certainly people in town who bought his brooms. Or he would sell them to the grocery stores or the general store for income.”

Dawson had five sons and one daughter. While much of the family later moved to Chicago, the Dawsons who stayed were a lasting presence in the community, as Mary Jane Herber explains, “There’s a consistency in the fact that he was here all along…his mother stayed here . I mean, his mother died here. His stepfather died here. One of his sons stayed here and died here.”

Dawson died in 1929 at the age of 80, having lived in Green Bay for 72 years.

We asked the historian if “Red” Smith might have known Dawson — and she replied that Smith graduated from East High School in 1923. He then lived across the street from Dawson before Dawson’s death. She thinks the two men, with their own unique places in Green Bay history, probably knew each other quite well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *