The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

Archives on African American community dated before the Civil War

Abby Harvey

For one professor, the decision to research the history of African Americans in northwest Wisconsin happened by accident.

Tim Ericson, a senior lecturer emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, gave a presentation on campus Friday explaining the history of one of the oldest African American communities in northwest Wisconsin, specifically in Pierce County, as part of American Archives Month.

While researching the origins of Sam Tripp, a local horse thief from the 1800s, Ericson came across evidence of an African American community in Pierce County. While this fact alone is not very shocking, Ericson said, the fact that the documents were dated before the end of the Civil War was.

“I was so surprised to see a list of names, African American names,” Ericson said, referring to a list of African American members of a Prescott church. “Before the end of the Civil War? That was new to me.”

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After viewing the documents, Ericson said he was curious to see what else he could find about this little community settled in a predominantly white society. He said he discovered a strong African American presence in the area up until the early 1900s, when the African American population sharply decreased, supposedly because of the collapse of the once prosperous wheat industry there.

Scholars theorize that this population migrated to the St. Paul and Minneapolis, where there were more job opportunities, he said.

Pierce County is not home to the oldest African American community in northwest Wisconsin. But it did have one of the largest, especially in the 1870s, according to Ericson’s research. It accounted for almost 45 percent of the total African American population in northwest Wisconsin, he said.

However, there were more African Americans living in Pierce County in Dakota and Washington counties in Minnesota. Both border the Twin Cities – information that Ericson attributed to the fact that Wisconsin had passed laws that gave African Americans more equal rights in the 1850s.

In addition, there were no significant reports of racism in the area, Ericson said. His research shows that African American members of the communities attended the same public events as whites, served in the same Army posts and were buried in the same cemeteries.

“Of all the records I looked into, there was no evidence of prejudice,” Ericson said. “In fact, anecdotal evidence from local newspapers seems to indicate that the white and the African American communities existed amicably with one another.”

Local newspapers ran announcements of African American marriages, deaths and births the same as for whites, he said.

“I hope this points out the abundance of historical records available if we look hard enough and the importance of preserving and making available these historical records so that we can pass along to coming generations a fuller, more accurate account of our past.”

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