Wisconsin has been a state since 1848 — 171 years ago and 13 years before the Civil War began. Wisconsin became territory in 1836 and was a territory for 12 years before it became a state. Prior to Wisconsin becoming a territory, it had been part of Michigan Territory (1818-1836), Illinois Territory (1809-1818), Indiana Territory (1800-1809), and the Northwest Territory (1787-1800).
In 1846, the U.S. Congress passed an “enabling act” allowing Wisconsin to become a state. However, Congress would not allow Wisconsin to become a state until 1848, because the state constitution did not include a provision outlawing slavery in the state. Congress had prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory when it was organized in 1787, and all of the states previously carved out of the Northwest Territory had prohibited slavery in their constitutions.
In 1846, the Democrats controlled the territory of Wisconsin, and the attitudes of its residents toward slavery were very mixed. Some of the territory’s residents, particularly those in the southwestern part of the state, many of whom worked in the lead mines of the region, had come to Wisconsin from Georgia, Missouri, and other southern states where slavery prevailed. Other residents of Wisconsin, however, including most of those in Walworth County, had come to Wisconsin from New England, upstate New York, and other northern states that did not permit slavery. Many of their residents supported the abolition of slavery.
Faced with the prospect of not being allowed to become a state, the voters in Wisconsin Territory voted to reject their first state constitution and approved a new one that included a clause prohibiting slavery. Accordingly, Wisconsin was admitted to the Union on May 29, 1848.
Indicative of the divided attitudes about racial equality among white residents of Wisconsin Territory was an election that occurred in the village of Geneva in 1846 where the voters of the village approved a proposal to allow African-Americans (then called “negroes”) to vote. The proposal was approved by a vote of 111 for and 70 against. After Wisconsin gained its statehood, a large number of Germans and other Europeans fled the failed revolutions of 1848 in Europe, and migrated to Wisconsin. The vast majority of them were opposed to slavery, and joined with the residents of the state who had previously come from New England and upstate New York in transforming Wisconsin into a decidedly pro-abolition-of-slavery state.
I can personally attest to another example of the divided attitudes toward slavery in Wisconsin during the 1840s. In 1967, when I was working as an archivist at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, I drove the society’s truck from Madison to Monroe, the county seat of Green County, to pick up the 19th century records of Green County. When I got the Green County records back to the Wisconsin Historical Society and was organizing them, I was startled to find manumission papers signed by Wisconsin Territorial Gov. Henry Dodge (after whom Dodge Street in Lake Geneva is named) freeing his slaves. The manumission papers were signed by his slaves with an “X.” Dodge was a native of Missouri who had brought his slaves with him from Missouri when he moved to Wisconsin, and he did not free them until much later in his term as governor.
During the years prior to the Civil War, quite a few slaves who had escaped from their owners in the South managed to make it all the way to Wisconsin. Some were able to board ships in Milwaukee and Southport (today Kenosha), which took them to freedom in Canada. Others remained in Wisconsin. A small community of former slaves was established in southwestern Wisconsin. Other former slaves settled in Beloit, Racine, Milwaukee, and Madison. A few former slaves managed to make it all the way to the land of the Menominee Indians, where they assimilated among the Menominee. By the time of the Civil War, many African-Americans were working as longshoremen in La Crosse, loading and unloading boats on the Mississippi River docks there. By the beginning of the 20th century, a few African-Americans were working as longshoremen on the docks at Superior, Wisconsin.
During the decades following the Civil War and continuing through the first half of the 20th century, however, racism against African-Americans once again raised its ugly head in Wisconsin, as well as in other northern states in the U.S. As the African-American population increased in Beloit, Madison, Milwaukee, and Racine, African-American residents were forced to live in “black ghettos.”
In Madison, the ghetto was called “The Bush,” a triangle of land between Regent, West Washington, and Park streets. In Racine, it was called “The Valley,” east of Racine Park High School, in Beloit, it was an area between the Illinois state line and a line one mile north of the state line. And in Milwaukee, it was an area around the intersection of Third and North streets.
A number of cities in Wisconsin became “sundown” cities where no African-Americans were allowed to remain inside its city limits after sundown. Janesville was a notorious sundown city. A sign on the highway at the city limits made it clear exactly what the city’s policy regarding African-Americans was. Lake Geneva was an “informal” sundown city. Only two African-Americans were allowed to live in the city. Anti-semitism was also rampant in Lake Geneva.
By 1929, racism against African-Americans had become much more pervasive in Walworth County. However, in that year, an incredible development occurred five miles east of Lake Geneva, just south of Highway 50. With the assistance of a non-racist Evanston, Illinois, real estate agent, Ivan Bell, three well-to-do members of Chicago’s South Side African-American community — Jeremiah Brumfield, Frank Aglin, and Bradford Watson — purchased the 83-acre Ryan farm on Ryan’s Lake in Bloomfield Township. On the property that they purchased, they laid out the plat of a community that they intended to develop as an African-American resort community. They named the streets in the plat after famous African-Americans. They named the new community “Lake Ivanhoe” in honor of the white realtor Ivan Bell’s Scottish heritage.
In 1927, they constructed a large pavilion overlooking Ryan’s Lake, which they had renamed Lake Ivanhoe. The new pavilion cost $40,000 and included a wooden dance floor. The pavilion opened with the performance of a “big band” under the direction of the famous dance band leader, Cab Calloway. By the 1950s, the resort pavilion had expanded and was known as Franklin’s Lodge.
Lots in the plat of Lake Ivanhoe were sold to what its developers described as “high-minded colored people, church people of education and refinement” who lived in Chicago. The cheapest lot cost $87.75. Among the purchasers of lots who then built homes on them were many “Pullman Porters” from Chicago who wanted their families to have a safe place to live while they were working on the passenger trains of the many railroads that crisscrossed the country.
When the Great Depression began following the Stock Market Crash in 1929, the sale of lots and the building of homes in Lake Ivanhoe dropped off sharply. Lake Ivanhoe did not become the exclusive resort community for “well-to-do and refined” people as its three founders had intended. As the Great Depression ended in 1939 and the U.S entered World War II in 1941, African-Americans from Chicago resumed buying lots and building homes in Lake Ivanhoe, but many of these new residents were working-class rather than “well to do.”
By the time World War II ended, Lake Ivanhoe had become an established African-American community. Lake Ivanhoe was within the Lake Geneva School District, and African-American youth attended Lake Geneva schools. As I was growing up in Lake Geneva during the 1940s and 1950s, there were always African-Americans from Lake Ivanhoe in my classes at Central School, Lake Geneva High School and Badger High School.
I would drive to Ivanhoe to visit one of my African-American friends who attended the same church that I did — the First Congregational Church in Lake Geneva — which had African-American members who lived in Ivanhoe.
During the ‘40s and ‘50s, there was, nonetheless, considerable racism, prejudice, and discrimination against African-Americans in Lake Geneva. Not all of the residents of Lake Geneva were racists, especially not most of the members of the First Congregational Church. During the week before Thanksgiving, members of the First Congregational Church’s “Pilgrim Fellowship” youth group (of which I was the vice president) would prepare boxes of food and fresh turkeys, which we would take to Ivanhoe and distribute to residents there who were living on the edge of poverty.
In 2019, Ivanhoe is a viable African-American community, although it now also has some white residents. The lake upon which it is located is not as attractive today as it once was. It has become quite silted in. Racism, prejudice and discrimination against African-Americans in Lake Geneva is not nearly as pernicious as it was during the ‘40s and ‘50s. The most recent census of the population of Ivanhoe revealed that 512 residents live there.
There is a very good film and a small exhibit about the history of Lake Ivanhoe at the Geneva Lake Museum. And at the Lake Geneva Public Library, there is an excellent 111-page master’s thesis by the late Samuel L. Gonzales (who had been a teacher at the Central-Denison Elementary School), which he wrote at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 1972 called “A Black Community in Rural Wisconsin: A Historical Study of Lake Ivanhoe.” A number of excellent articles about the history of Lake Ivanhoe have also been written, including those by Peter Wicklund and Lisa M. Schmelz, among others.
In every respect, Ivanhoe is one of the most interesting communities in the northern United States. Its unique history very much warrants a broader dissemination.
Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.