Milwaukee County Historical Society celebrates Black History Month by sharing a story of triumph in the fight for civil rights. Please join us at our location to learn more about the African-American community in Milwaukee County.
Long before Martin Luther King and his address in front of the Lincoln memorial, before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus, and before four students chose to sit at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, there was Owen Howell and a cozy opera house in Milwaukee’s downtown area. In what started as a dispute over a theater’s ”No Negroes” policy and ended with Wisconsin’s first law protecting the rights of minorities, Owen Howell refused to give up his reserved seats and kick started the civil rights movement in Wisconsin.
Nearly a decade and a half before Owen Howell would make history, the United States Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875. But the law was deemed unconstitutional only eight short years later, leaving the protection of freedmen up to the individual states. Very few states chose to protect former slaves from discrimination. In Wisconsin, a series of rights abuses began the debate over whether or not the state had a duty in protecting minorities.
In 1889, Owen Howell, a local railroad porter, reserved tickets at the Bijou Opera House for the night of September 12th. The Bijou stood on Second Street, just south of what is now Wisconsin Avenue and, on that night, would host a production of “The Runaway Wife” by the McKee Rankin Theatre Company. Howell had no trouble getting into the opera house that fateful evening – both the door keeper and an usher let the man through with his tickets without so much as a word in protest. It was not until he was just about to take his seat when the theater’s head usher informed him that he was not permitted in the lower section. African-Americans were to be confined to the balcony only. Howell, refusing to sit in the balcony, left the theater. Shortly thereafter, with the help of a man by the name of William T. Green, he filed a civil suit against Jacob Litt, the proprietor of the theater.
William T Green, was born in Canada in 1860. He arrived in the United States in 1884, and within a couples years became the leader of the Black community in Milwaukee. After Howell was thrown from the opera house, Green along with several other influential African-Americans organized the Union League of Wisconsin to fight discriminatory practices against the Black community.
The attorney who agreed to represent Howell’s case was Gerry Whiting Hazelton, one-time U.S. attorney and a former member of Congress. Howell v. Litt was heard in May of 1890 before Judge Daniel H. Johnson of the Circuit Court in Milwaukee County. Judge Johnson directed the all-white jury to rule in Howell’s favor; he was awarded $100 in damages and $51.85 in costs. In his argument Johnson stated:
In my judgment the law of the land, as it now stands, requires the proprietor of every public place of resort to which the whole public are invited and as to which the patronage of the whole public is solicited, to admit the public to a place of amusement without discrimination of race or color. I do not believe that, as the law now stands, any such proprietor has a right to exclude any man from any part of his theater who is willing to pay his price, who comes decently dressed and who behaves himself with propriety. I think he has as little right to exclude a colored man under such circumstances as a German or a Polander or an Italian or any man of any other race.
Judge Johnson’s plea for equal treatment under the law incited Republicans in the Wisconsin State Legislature to push for laws protecting racial minorities. William Green drafted a measure which called for the outlawing of discrimination in saloons, restaurants, inns, barbershops, and most other public locations. Democrats resisted the measure when it was introduced in the 1891 session, and the bill failed to reach the Governor’s office for his signature.
Green and his Wisconsin Urban League stepped up pressure on state representatives to pass the civil right bill. However, the Democrats, controlling both houses of the Legislature, blocked any action regarding the measure. It was only after Republicans had regained control of the Assembly and the Senate, some five years after the bill was first introduced, that the Civil Rights Act of 1895 was able to pass. Governor William H. Upham officially signed it into law on April 20th. The final wording of the law included fines of from $5 to $100 or a jail term of up to six months.
After he helped draft what would become the Civil Rights Act, William Green went on to become the first black graduate of University of Wisconsin Law School, and until his death was the first and only black lawyer in the City of Milwaukee. He became the first African-American member of Wisconsin Bar Association and the first black attorney to argue a case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Because of Green’s tireless effort and Owen Howell’s determination to be treated as an equal, Wisconsin was one of the few states to ban discrimination by law before 1900. It would be another 69 years before the federal government required all states to protect minorities from unjust treatment. The Wisconsin Civil Rights Act of 1895 was more than just a symbolic milestone – it was an important first step. Because of both Howell and Green’s refusal to be complacent, the fight for equality across all of Wisconsin can trace its roots back to a little opera house in Milwaukee.
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