In Milwaukee History

Clayborn Benson displays a drawing of the tanneries once operated by the Pfister and Vogel Leather Co. on display at the museum.

Wisconsin Black Historical Society celebrates 30th anniversary

Clayborn Benson has been sharing the history of black people in Wisconsin for 30 years. On a bright and sunny fall morning, Benson described that history to dozens of visitors celebrating the museum's 30th anniversary.

Benson is the founder and director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum, 2620 W. Center St.

At the open house, Benson spoke about African-American history in Wisconsin, including the Underground Railroad and influential black figures in Milwaukee.

Visitors could browse exhibits about local dignitaries such as Vel R. Phillips, Father James Groppi and Lloyd Barbee.

Benson said he hopes the event helped emphasize the importance of people learning the history of important figures, but also their own history.

"All you need to do is learn about yourself," Benson said in one of his presentations. "You learn a lot about yourself by simply asking questions."

As part of the museum's mission, Benson offers genealogy lessons for people looking to trace their family tree and discover more about their history. He said he hopes this sparks an interest in learning more about African-American history in Wisconsin.

"The whole presentation that I share – and these are to people who know nothing about history – is about self-awareness," he said. "I give them a sense of pride through my presentations."

The Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum is the only institution in the state that collects and preserves African-American history specific to Wisconsin.

In addition to Benson's presentations the celebration featured musical acts and a vendor selling traditional African garments.

The Rev. Anthony Evans and his wife, Avis Evans, performed a gospel show for visitors. Avis Evans, who is from Milwaukee, said that she first heard about the museum on television during the initial renovations of the building when the museum was founded in 1987.

"This open house is important for understanding how far we've come and knowing the people who paved the way for us to have the freedom we have now," she said.

The couple, who have been married for 20 years and singing together for 15 years, said they "use music to help them survive the times."

The string duet SistaStrings, two Milwaukee-based sisters who use their training in classical music to try to create social change, also performed. Nana Serwah Mainoo-Yeboah, a clothing vendor from Ghana, sold shirts, dresses and jewelry at the event.

Vita Hubbard, a volunteer helping Mainoo-Yeboah, said she was visiting the museum for the first time. "To be a part of this celebration is wonderful," Hubbard said.

Kamryn Boyd, 18, is a freshman at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin and volunteers at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society. She learned about the museum during a class on multiculturalism.

"I hope the event helps to educate the community on the history of African-Americans," she said.

The Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum will also celebrate its 30th anniversary with a dinner and gala on Nov. 3 at the museum.


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