Grant County (Wis.) Historical Society Executive Director Tracey Lee Roberts views studying history as a way of discovering something new, no matter how many people already have examined a certain time or place.
“History is made by new people looking at the same material and asking different questions,” she said.
Letting people ask new questions is part of the reason that Roberts hopes to soon launch a historical society online database on Pleasant Ridge. Founded in 1848 near present-day Beetown, Wis., Pleasant Ridge was a place where Black and White families once lived and worked together. During the Civil War era when the community existed, a community where both Black and White families were given equal opportunities in work and education was a rarity.
Black history has deep roots across the tri-state area, from slaves forced to come work in newly founded communities to more recent advocacy seeking to close racial divides. While some moments from the past are painful, area leaders are optimistic about the direction that efforts have taken in recent decades.
“We’re at a prime moment in the U.S.,” said Anthony Allen, president of the Dubuque branch of the NAACP. “Dubuque in the last five to 10 years has grown tremendously in terms of minority improvement in certain institutions. … We’re not where we need to be. We’re working towards being an all-American city, but there’s a lot of work to do.”
BLACK SETTLERS AMONG FIRST IN AREA
Black individuals were among the first settlers to the tri-state area in the 1820s, but most did not come by choice.
University of Wisconsin-Platteville associate history professor Eugene Tesdahl said some White people who came to make their fortunes in lead mining brought slaves with them. At that time, slavery was already illegal in what would become Wisconsin and Illinois under the 1787 Northwest Ordinance. It again was outlawed in the area by the 1820 Missouri Compromise.
“People should make themselves aware of these troubling historical facts about the existence of illegal slavery in the Midwest,” Tesdahl said. “They should accept that that happened because it did happen. All those people who broke those laws knew it was against the law. They knew they wouldn’t be fined.”
Lead miners bringing slaves to the area included Henry Dodge, who would become the first territorial governor of Wisconsin, and John , Platteville’s founder. Tesdahl and several of his UW-P students put together a 2017 exhibit at The Mining and Rollo Jamison Museums on Black lead-mine workers in the 19th century highlighting this history.
Through their research, Tesdahl said, the group found that Rountree brought a Black woman named Rachel with him to the area to work as a slave. Rountree also purchased a Black mother and son, Maria and Felix, from a man in Galena, Ill., for $330.
Roberts added that Col. Richard M. Johnson, the first man granted permission to mine lead in the Galena area, also brought slaves with him. By 1820, about 200 Black people lived in Galena, she said.
“Sometimes, they called them servants, but it was a veiled way of saying ‘slave,’” she said. “... This was done by people with authority. This was done by colonels in the army. They got away with it.”
Rachel, Maria and Felix all were freed eventually, Tesdahl said. While he isn’t sure what happened to Maria and Felix, Rachel continued working for the Rountree family until her death.
In 2019, a group helped restore Rachel’s gravestone at Hillside Cemetery in Platteville. Rachel was buried in the Rountree family plot, but Tesdahl said Rachel’s headstone is only marked with an “R,” a stark contrast to the surrounding marble stone.
“Some people continue to suggest John Rountree honored Rachel by burying her in the family burial plot,” he said. “I and other historians suggest this was done to show continued ownership.”
Both Tesdahl and Roberts said nearly all slaves in the tri-state area were freed by the 1840s, two decades before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Around this time, Tesdahl said, a Black man named William Maxwell owned and operated his own lead mine near what is now West Main and Hickory streets in Platteville, marking a positive story for the area’s early history.
Another positive anecdote involves Black Dubuque man Ralph Montgomery winning his freedom from slavery in the first Iowa Supreme Court case, officially decided in 1839. The court ruled that Montgomery’s former owner couldn’t order him back to enslavement in Missouri since Montgomery had permission to work freely in Dubuque.
“I think it’s really important to remember in any history, but especially any North American history, that Black history matters and Black history has always mattered,” Tesdahl said. “It’s always mattered, even when some people have suggested it hasn’t.”
DECLINING DIVERSE POPULATION
While Montgomery’s story marks a positive in Black Dubuque history, what followed soon after was the polar opposite. Black Dubuquer Nathaniel Morgan was lynched in 1840 by a White mob alleging Morgan stole clothes.
Allen said that Morgan’s murder was the “enough is enough” moment for many Black Dubuque families, and many left the area.
“The death of Nathaniel Morgan had a big impact on the African American population of Dubuque,” R.R.S. Stewart, NAACP treasurer and St. Luke’s United Methodist Church historian, added. “The population was basically the same from 1840 to 1950s, and it gradually started growing again during the modern era.”
Following the exodus after Morgan’s death through the 1950s, Stewart said, there were only about five or fewer Black families living in Dubuque at a time.
However, the 1848 founding of Pleasant Ridge in Wisconsin brought around 100 Black people to that community. The community, started by the Shepard and Greene families, also established a school for both Black and White children in 1873, before many schools allowed students of different races to attend together.
The Grant County Historical Society in Lancaster has an exhibit of Pleasant Ridge’s history. From the old photos, clothes and household items, Roberts said a thriving community can be visualized.
“What’s striking to me when I see this exhibit is how middle class and ordinary they seem to me,” Roberts said.
However, Pleasant Ridge eventually faded into nothing but an old graveyard.
There were multiple killings that could be linked to tensions over interracial relationships that could have led to the town’s end, Roberts said. Also, she said the job landscape for residents changed as farming industry advances outstripped the community’s capabilities and Black and White families alike began flocking to cities for more jobs. The last Pleasant Ridge resident, Olive Green Lewis, died in 1959.
Roberts added that Galena’s Black population declined to about 70 people by 1870 and was nearly zero by 1900. She said the decline, in part, could have stemmed from the extreme pushback against the plans of President Ulysses S. Grant, who has a historic home in Galena, to continue President Abraham Lincoln’s integration goals after the Civil War.
“The pushback on that was enormous, and this is when the era of Jim Crow rises. This is when the era of the KKK rises,” Roberts said. “... If we don’t confront our racist past, we’re not going to get to where we want to be.”
YEARS OF OVERCOMING PREJUDICES
While Dubuque wasn’t considered a very welcoming place for people of color during much of the 20th century, University of Dubuque history professor Brian Hallstoos shared one early glimmer of hope for changes to come. The story involves Sol Butler, a star athlete who was one of the first Black students at Dubuque German College and Seminary, now known as University of Dubuque.
Hallstoos is writing a biographical book on Butler, who played football, track and field, baseball and basketball and qualified for the 1920 Olympic Games in Belgium. Butler, who was from Kansas, came to Dubuque because he wanted to attend a college that would allow him to play sports without being benched.
Toward the end of Butler’s freshman year of college in 1916, Hallstoos said, a banquet was held at Hotel Julien Dubuque to honor the college’s sports letter winners. Prior to this, newspaper clippings reported that some sporting teams and musical groups were denied the ability to eat at the hotel because several members were Black.
However, Butler was among the letter winners that gave a speech and ate at Hotel Julien during the banquet, marking the start of change in Dubuque segregation.
“This is one instance where the right thing happened,” Hallstoos said. “Butler was brave enough to put himself in this all-White community. He was smart, he had his eyes open and said, ‘Here’s an opportunity.’ And fortunately, there were people at this school that would help him.”
However, Allen said extreme racial prejudice still was present in Dubuque at the time. In the 1920s, a conclave for the KKK existed in Dubuque.
“Any minority families living in that time in the area were probably terrorized,” Allen said. “That allowed Dubuque to stay White or say that individuals may come but not in large amounts.”
Ruby Sutton, who died in 2015, was one of the Black activists who took charge in the late 20th century to help change Dubuque. When her family moved to the city in 1959, they were one of the few families of color.
Lynn Sutton, Ruby’s daughter, said her mother and father had to overcome a lot of preconceived ideas and bias.
“People will tell you how she would help them in so many ways. I didn’t even know half of it until her (funeral) wake, talking to people, and I thought, ‘How did you get some of this done?’” Lynn Sutton said of her mother. “... She really had to break down a lot of barriers and really let people know that we are no different than anyone else. We may have a different skin tone and culture, but that’s not bad. There was a lot of re-education.”
Allen said Ralph Watkins took the lead on forming the Dubuque branch of the NAACP in 1989, as part of a group that included Ruby Sutton and Ernestine Moss.
This was also around the time that more minority people came to Dubuque, Allen said, as many could no longer afford to live in cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee. While this move increased the Black population in Dubuque, it wasn’t an easy feat.
“Integration is hard in itself, but when it’s forced, it’s even harder,” Allen said. “Some didn’t want them here and some didn’t want to be here, but they had to find a way to live together.”
He also recalls a plan pitched by a committee of the Dubuque Human Rights Commission in 1991, when about 300 Black people lived in the city. It included the controversial proposal to attract 100 minority families to live and work in Dubuque by 1995. But the City Council never approved the plan, and the task force disbanded.
“I was critical of it because you recruit basketball players. You recruit football players. You don’t recruit people to come to your city,” Allen said. “If your city is convenient, if it’s comfortable, if it’s secure and equitable, people will come, and that’s what Dubuque has come to do.”
Discussion of the integration proposal stirred up an ugly backlash. A dozen cross burnings were reported within several months of the emergence of the task force aimed at bringing more diversity to the city. As national media attention focused on Dubuque, a Ku Klux Klan leader of the time, Thomas Robb, and others organized a rally that drew about 100 people (and hundreds of protesters) downtown.
‘PART OF THE BORN HISTORY, NOT A MIGRATED HISTORY’
Many positive efforts toward making the area a more equitable place to live have occurred since the Dubuque NAACP’s first meeting in First Baptist Church, Moss said. This includes forming a police advisory commission to which people could bring complaints of discrimination by law enforcement, and furthering education on Black history and experiences in the Dubuque Community School District.
“African American history wasn’t really being taught, even in the public library,” Moss said. “Now, there’s quite a bit more literature available with Black authors that wasn’t available before that struggle. Changes did take place. Things haven’t got to where they need to be, but changes have taken place.”
Allen said the competency training that emerged through the NAACP’s work helped make Dubuque’s workforce more diverse today.
While he said there’s still a lot of work to be done toward equal opportunity, Allen credited people such as Mayor Roy Buol, City Manager Michael Van Milligen and Police Chief Mark Dalsing for listening to criticisms about the lack of opportunities and giving more people of color opportunities to work in higher-level positions.
Lynn Sutton became one of those people in 2011, though she was chosen by city residents. She became the first Black person elected to the City Council. She served until 2015 but still advocates for equality today.
“That was difficult for a lot of people,” she said. “It was something that had never happened. It was coming forth and breaking down those barriers. My parents used to say, ‘Never back down from a good fight,’ and that’s really what kept me going because so many things needed to happen and still need to happen.”
However, Allen is encouraged about the future of equality in Dubuque. Now, he said Dubuque has a larger population of Black children that can say they were born and raised in the city, something that many of Dubuque’s Black adults can’t say.
“Now, there will be an individual capable of saying, ‘I was born here. I graduated from Wahlert (or another Dubuque high school),’” Allen said. “Minorities will be part of the history — part of the born history, not a migrated history.”