flag image
Form Wealth Management

A history of African-Americans in Lake Geneva

(click for larger version)
March 04, 2014 | 05:11 PM
I read with interest John Halverson’s article in the Lake Geneva Regional News edition of Jan. 23, about heavyweight champion Joe Louis being forced to abandon his plans to hold a training camp somewhere in the Lake Geneva area in 1937. The article was a poignant reminder that not every aspect of Lake Geneva’s history has been festooned with seashells and balloons.

One of the most depressing features of Lake Geneva’s history was the attitude held by many residents of the city regarding African-Americans, especially during the first half of the 20th century. As far as African-Americans were concerned, Lake Geneva was a racist city. As such it was not appreciably different from many other cities in Wisconsin.

At the time African-Americans lived in only five Wisconsin cities: Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, Beloit and Superior. Janesville was notoriously an “all-white” city. Blacks did work at the GM plant in Janesville, but they had to live in Beloit within a one-mile area north of the Illinois state line. Likewise, blacks who worked at the Nash plant in Kenosha had to live in Racine. In Milwaukee and Madison they were compelled to live in all African-American neighborhoods.

Only two African-Americans “were allowed” to live in Lake Geneva — Okee Perryman and his wife Hilda. Okee made his living washing the windows of the stores in the downtown business district and his wife was the janitress at the public library. Okee and his wife lived in a house attached to the old public library building (built by Asa W. Farr in the 1850s and donated to the city by Mary Sturges as a public library in 1894). When the new public library was opened in 1954, Okee and his wife had to move to Lake Ivanhoe, the all-African-American town a few miles east of Lake Geneva on Highway 50.

Lake Ivanhoe had been founded primarily by African-American Pullman porters as a summer resort and a place for their families to live while they were working on the railroad. The lake upon whose shores Ivanhoe was built had originally been called Ryan’s Lake. When I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, there were African-Americans in my classes at Central School, Lake Geneva High School and Badger High School, but they had to live in Lake Ivanhoe and were bused to the Lake Geneva schools. The first African-American to play on the Lake Geneva/Badger High School football team was Tom Kelly, who retired a few years ago as a clerk at the convenience store adjacent to the Dairy Queen. Tom was a freshman on the football team when I was a senior on the team.

Perhaps a good illustration of the attitude of many Lake Geneva residents had towards blacks is an incident that occurred during the summer of 1959 when I was working the third shift as a dishwasher at the Hickory House restaurant (the predecessor of today’s Popeye’s restaurant). Much to the shock and consternation of most of the restaurant’s staff, an African-American couple walked into the restaurant, sat down at a table and ordered two hamburgers.

The co-owner of the restaurant instructed the cook to liberally saturate their hamburgers with Tabasco sauce. “That will teach those bastards never to come into this restaurant again,” he remarked with satisfaction. The ubiquitous racism in Lake Geneva, however, did not deter quite a few male residents of Lake Geneva, including some prominent male citizens, from frequently availing themselves of the pleasures provided at the two “houses of ill repute” in Lake Ivanhoe.

Another illustration of the attitude toward blacks that prevailed in Lake Geneva: Okee Perryman had a prostate problem and was incontinent. One of the druggists who worked at Arnold’s drugstore would place chemicals in Okee’s cokes that would color his urine purple or chartreuse. When Okee, in terror, asked the druggist what was causing this, everyone seated at the counter (who, of course, knew what was happening) broke into peals of laughter.

But this troglodyte attitude toward African-Americans did not always prevail in Lake Geneva. As noted in previous articles, during the middle of the 19th century, Geneva was a stronghold of anti-slavery sentiment brought by the original settlers from Vermont and upstate New York. The First Congregational Church (United Church of Christ), initially a Presbyterian church, was the center of anti-slavery sentiment in Geneva. Although the federal censuses of 1840, 1850 and 1860 do not record any African-Americans living in Geneva, it is entirely possible that there were a few escaped slaves living here. One of the “underground railroad” routes led up the Rock River from the Mississippi to (ironically) Janesville and Milton, where escaped slaves were hidden.

Another route led up the western shore of Lake Michigan through the village of Southport (Kenosha). An all-African-American community was founded in Green County and African-Americans who were probably escaped slaves are recorded in the federal census as living among the Stockbridge Indians near Keshena. Hundreds of blacks worked as longshoremen in the Mississippi River port town of La Crosse.

An indication of the anti-slavery sentiment in Geneva occurred in 1846 when 111 citizens in the village voted in favor of the right of African-Americans to vote, while 70 voted against their right to vote. Geneva was very strongly pro-Union during the Civil War, and sent hundreds of its young men, many of whom were killed during the war, to fight against the Confederates.

But the attitude toward African-Americans began to change for the worse after the Civil War.

click to see advertisement
By the onset of the 20th century, it had become decidedly negative. During the 1940s Lake Geneva civic organizations would stage “minstrel shows” in the Lake Geneva High School auditorium, which reinforced local residents’ stereotypical views of African-Americans as “Sambos.” The appearance of the Harlem Globetrotters in the Lake Geneva High School gym during the early 1950s, however, prompted the modest beginning of a change in attitudes toward African-Americans.

If one were to identify a turning point in the 20th century when attitudes in Geneva toward African-American began to change for the better it would have to be 1954 and 1955. One of the very few African-Americans to be held in esteem in Lake Geneva during the 1950s was the world-famous musician Louis Armstrong, who played at the Riviera during the summers. But he was an exception. It was developments in the arena of sports that would prompt the beginnings of a positive change. In 1953 baseball’s Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee and they brought with them a number of black players. In 1954 Hank Aaron became the starting left fielder for the Milwaukee Braves after Bobby Thompson broke his ankle in spring training.

The Braves would eventually have more black players than most of the other teams in major league baseball. The Chicago Cubs bought the contracts of the double-play combination of Ernie Banks and Gene Baker from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. Residents of Lake Geneva who attended Milwaukee Braves games saw star black players for the first time, including Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays and Monte Irvin.

Likewise, the Green Bay Packers began signing black players for the first time, including Nate Borden from Indiana University and Veryl Switzer, the star running back from Kansas State, who had grown up in the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kan.

Because of the emergence of these black sports heroes, many residents of Lake Geneva began to change their attitudes toward African-Americans.

click to see advertisement
Locally, the Delavan Red Devils semi-pro football team, which played some of its games at Lake Geneva’s Dunn Field, would play teams such as the Elmhurst Travelers, which had African-American players, thus many residents of Lake Geneva saw black athletes in person for the first time.

It would, however, take the next four decades for a generational change in attitudes to prevail.

The nearby city of Delavan began to have an increase in African-American residents and African-American tourists began arriving in Lake Geneva during the summers. But the population of Lake Geneva did not include very many African-Americans.

To most people’s surprise, the new residents of the city who were not of Anglo-Saxon origin came instead from Mexico. And, regrettably, these new residents of the city encountered some of the same attitudes that had been visited upon African-Americans in the past, attitudes that had forced Joe Louis to abandon plans to hold his training camp in the Lake Geneva area in 1937.

Perhaps by the time that Mexican-American athletes achieve the prominence of Trevor York of the Lake Geneva Generals, or Ron Dayne, Monte Ball, Melvin Gordon and James White of the Wisconsin Badgers, attitudes toward Mexican-Americans will change for the better just as attitudes toward African-Americans have done.

Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.

Comments ()
Walworth County
Taste of Wisconsin