On the trail of bluesman Blind Blake in Milwaukee
For years, no one knew what became of legendary and influential bluesman Blind Blake. But a couple years ago, Grafton's Angela Mack Reilly found not only where Blake spent his final years, but where he died and is buried. Here's her own diary of discovery.
April 3, 2011
Alex van der Tuuk emailed me that some important information had been obtained about Blind Blake's death. He asked if I would be willing to try to search and obtain a death certificate from Milwaukee. I said that I would, especially since it is in such close proximity to me and that my schedule had freed up a bit. He emailed me the small obituary excerpt (from The Chicago Defender newspaper) that Rob Ford had found containing the date of Arthur Blake's death as well as his Milwaukee address.
April 4, 2011
I first drove around North 10th Street in Milwaukee to try to find his home. I asked a Time Warner employee for assistance. The neighborhood was African-American and largely run down. I could not find his address. I found some factories, a Baptist church, a school that had been ruined by fire, some newer built multi-unit buildings and Leinenkugel's brewery in the area. The area is known as Bronzeville – Milwaukee's great African-American district that had a thriving music scene at one time.
Next, I tried to find the funeral home that buried him. But it didn't seem to be in existence. Oddly, I found a Paramount sign on a building along Cherry Street where his funeral home was. I took pictures.
Then I went to the Milwaukee County Courthouse and applied for a non-certified copy of Arthur Blake's death certificate. I filled out a self-addressed envelope and they told me that it would arrive within two weeks. Upon Alex's prompting, I visited the Milwaukee County Historical Society to search city directories for an Arthur Blake. I began with the year that he died. He was listed in the 1934 directory as living at 1844B North 10th St. with Beatrice. He was listed in the 1933 directory as living with Beatrice at 621 W. Brown St. in Milwaukee. He was also listed here as a musician. Arthur Blake was also listed in the 1932 directory as living with Beatrice. His occupation was listed as an artist and living at 621 W. Brown in Milwaukee. He was not listed in the 1931 or '30 directories.
I tried to obtain any other information about Blake at the Historical Society but could not find any.
When I got home, I emailed Alex immediately with the information that I dug up. He said that Beatrice was certainly a surprise. He was hopeful that Blake was listed as a "musician" and "artist."
April 7, 2011
The death certificate from the Courthouse arrived. My initial feeling was fear. I was scared to open it. I knew that the envelope in my hands most likely contained information that would finally lead to more clues about Arthur's life and how he died. I knew that researchers around the globe had long looked for this one particular document in my hands. It was almost like a "Holy Grail" of a document that I felt extremely humbled to open.
I hesitated for about 5 minutes and carried it around the house with uncontrollable shouts of elation and fear. My son David was home. I was trembling. I wanted to video the opening but was in too much of an excited state. I took photos of the unopened letter. Finally, I ripped the letter open by hand and took photos of the process. First thing I noticed? Cause of death. Pulmonary Tuberculosis. THAT was a surprise. Next I noticed his birthplace. Newport News, Va. Another surprise. Immediately I emailed Alex that it had arrived. My email text? "OMG OMG OMG" with a request for him to call me ASAP.
While I waited for him to contact me, I noticed that Blake's burial place was listed as Evergreen Cemetery. I did some Google searches and was shocked to see that there was an Evergreen Cemetery close by and just south of me in Glendale. It appeared that the cemetery had been renamed as Glen Oaks Cemetery. I called the number listed online. Surprisingly, somebody answered.
"I am wondering if there is an Arthur Blake in your cemetery."
"Can I ask what this is for?" he asked.
"I'm doing some research. Is Arthur Blake buried there?"
"Let me check the records. When did he die?"
"December 1, 1934."
"Yes, we have an Arthur Blake here who died in 1934. His address was 1844 N. 10th St.?"
"Yes. That's the one. I will be driving down there right now."
I was surprised that the cemetery that Arthur Blake was buried in was so close to me! I started jumping up and down for joy, laughing and shouting, "You son of a gun!" I marveled that his cemetery was on the same road as the pressing plant and recording studio in Grafton. (12th Avenue in Grafton leads into Green Bay Road otherwise known as the historic Green Bay Trail once paved by elk, Indians and recording artists.)
I got lost. My mind was in such an excited state. I forgot to write down the address of the cemetery. I just drove. Friends were calling me on my cell phone. But I declined them all. I just wanted to get to Blake's grave as quickly as I could. Nothing else mattered.
When I got to Glendale, I noticed that the area contained a lot of African-Americans. I stopped at a gas station to ask where the cemetery was. They didn't know. I asked a lady at the gas station. She didn't know. So I kept driving south on Green Bay Road.
At last! There it was! I took a left and pulled in to take a picture of Glen Oaks Cemetery in Glendale. I went to the office. The person manning the office was occupied for a good 5 minutes. So I took photos of my documents and inside of the office to help calm my nervous energy.
When he came to greet me, I asked if there was any documentation on Arthur Blake that I could see. He said that he already printed it out and then handed it to me. I asked for directions to the cemetery plot. Realizing that it was in a very remote part of the cemetery, I kindly asked him to lead me to it. Meanwhile, Alex called and I tried to give him as much information as possible over the phone while trying to contain myself. I told him to call me back in a half hour. Hopefully by then I could visit the grave site and give him more information.
The employee brought me to a remote part of the cemetery in the back that was obviously unkempt. He tried to help me find Blake's grave. But we couldn't find it. He kept insisting that it was in one place. But I pointed to the unkempt area and said, "Don't you think he might be over there?"
"God I hope not. They're digging a road there."
He said that he would go back to the office to look up names nearby on the computer. He directed me to call him.
While I waited for him to drive back to the building, I quickly and frantically looked at all of the gravestones in the unkempt area. I saw a lot of "Mother so and so" and "Brother so and so" names on the stones. I saw a lot of garbage and hidden gravestones. I quickly tried to clean each one up looking for Blake's name. NOTHING.
So I called him. "I'm at so and so's grave right now."
"You need to go to the next row."
"OK. Now I am at so and so's grave."
We went back and forth like this for quite some time. Finally, we determined that the exact location where Blake was buried did not have a tombstone. The records at the cemetery have him listed as being a single large grave 72 Range 115. Caroline Harvey was the closest tombstone to that. She was born in 1896 and died in 1934. Just north of him in Range 114 lies Willie Mae Hess, who died in 1935.
Alex called back. I stood at Arthur "Blind" Blake's grave while talking to my world renowned Paramount research friend. It seemed fitting that we should be on the phone together at that particular moment. It was very special. Alex deserved to be a part of that moment. But with him in the Netherlands, it was impossible for him to be there physically. He requested more clarification on Arthur's parents. At that point, the certificate was in my car a good few blocks away. I told him that I would walk to my car, contain myself and go through the certificate information with him once again while sitting in my car.
Directly east of Blake's unmarked grave lies a bush. Inside the bush is a forgotten tombstone, garbage and an American flag. He's buried in the farthest back, farthest east and "forgotten part" among many other presumably African-Americans. I had to tromp through the mud to get there. The cemetery dumps dirt back in that area. Many of the stones are damaged and remote hiding under trees and such.
I took photos of the unmarked grave, his neighboring deceased, my muddied feet which had collected burs, as well as my expressive face.
Clearly, this has been one of the best days of my life. And I want to stress that this was a team effort between Alex van der Tuuk, Bob Eagle, Rob Ford, Eric LeBlanc and myself. We all did our part. I was just fortunate enough to be able to reel the fish in. This discovery about Blind Blake will surely be remembered throughout history and around the world. I am honored and humbled that somehow a fellow musician and music teacher got to first visit Arthur Blake's grave. It felt very kindred. Definitely spiritual. I am truly honored and humbled. Alex is convinced that it won't be an unmarked grave for long. Arthur "Blind" Blake is among the blues legends. And we finally found our man. AMEN to that.
April 8, 2011
I drove to Milwaukee again upon Alex's prompting to try to obtain a marriage certificate for Arthur and Beatrice and to look in city directories for Beatrice. When I arrived to Milwaukee, I noticed Brown Street and tried to find one of Blake's homes. I noted that it was just a few blocks from Martin Luther King Drive. The home is no longer there. Multi-unit housing has been put in its place. There is a very large nursing home in the area, some big churches and a park north of where he lived.
I went to the Milwaukee Courthouse to try to apply for a marriage certificate. I was informed that I must search the archives myself and that if I found the information I was looking for, they would mail it to me. I searched the Milwaukee "Index of Marriages" 1928-34 for both bride and groom but did not find any evidence of a marriage in Milwaukee between those years. Unfortunately, I went away from the courthouse empty-handed.
I then went to the Milwaukee Historical Society to look in city directories for Beatrice Blake. According to the directories, she lived at various locations in the Bronzeville district between 1932 and 1949. Only one occupation was listed for her in the 1944-45 combined directory as a rag cutter for Acme Sanitary Wiper & Waste Company. I also searched for Beatrice McGee in the 1930 and 1931 directory to no avail. I sent all of the information to Alex along with a few details on an Alice that was listed.
I looked at the "Marriage Index" 1926-40. Apparently this is the index of people who register at city hall and not the courthouse. Arthur and Beatrice were not listed. However an Alice (Roben) Blake was listed in October 1932.
I inquired about information on Musicians Union Local 8 as well as Bronzeville information. The "Bronzeville Collection" listed in the card index consisted of a thin folder with current newspaper articles, a book that Avena Ivory wrote and a press release about a new "The Streets of Bronzeville Research Collection" at the Smithsonian. I was surprised that the Milwaukee Historical Society has a ton of information about the Italian immigrants to the area but virtually none about the African-American immigrants who occupied a very large part of Milwaukee.
Upon Alex's request, I called the Milwaukee Public Library Art, Music and Recreation Dept. for any information about black and/or Musician Union Local 8. The only item available was an article written in 1978.
Also upon Alex's request, I called the cemetery back to see what "Part donation" on Arthur Blake's cemetery records meant. Apparently it means that it was a County Burial (the County paid for it) and body parts were donated.
I called back a second time and the man who initially helped me answered the phone. I asked him if they had a Beatrice Blake there who might have possibly died around 1950. He told me that Beatrice Blake is indeed there. Grave 35. Row 4. Block 9. Section 3. He told me that this area, too, is a very remote area with very few tombstones. I inquired about other information. He said that she was buried May 23, 1953. She lived at 1015 W. Walnut St. at the time. He didn't think that she has a headstone.
I thanked him for his assistance and mentioned that I would be in shortly to get a copy of that record. I said, "Sir, if anything is published in regards to this research would you like to be credited?"
"Absolutely not. I want to be anonymous. What is this for anyways? Is this genealogy or just what is it?"
"Sir, it's ... it's just research."
"Yeah, but where is this going to be published? Who is this for?"
"Sir I'm not permitted to say right now."
"Well I certainly do not want to be mentioned especially because I don't have any idea what this is about."
I could tell that he was getting angry and was probably very confused about all of the fuss over two unmarked African-American graves. So even though I know his name, I will honor his wish to not be "any part of it."
April 9, 2011
My husband and I went to the Milwaukee Public Library. Upon Alex's suggestion, I tried to check the December 1934 newspapers in the area. I looked through both the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel microfilms for Dec. 1-5, 1934. I did not see any mention of Arthur Blake's death in the obituaries, death announcements or burial requests. I also looked at the entire funeral ads listed near the death announcements and could not find Raynor's Funeral home.
I asked the librarian if there were any African-American publications around 1934. She said that the earliest (that they have on file at least) is the Milwaukee Globe that began in 1948. I told her that I was looking for additional newspaper documentation of a 1934 death. She said that it cost money to purchase obituary notices, death announcements, etc., so, most likely, somebody who was poor would not have been mentioned in the papers back then.
Next we went back to Glen Oaks Cemetery to gather documentation about Beatrice Blake. I showed the employee my Milwaukee Bronzeville book and told him that I was doing historical research on African-Americans in that area. That largely put him at ease.
I asked if he had any information on the Raynor Funeral Services and confirmed again that Arthur and Beatrice were "County burials." He confirmed and mentioned that the funeral service probably serviced at a reduced cost.
I also inquired for a map of the cemetery. He made some edits to the map particular in section 9. He added two asterisks and broke it down into smaller subsections and pointed out the infant section that is west of Arthur Blake's spot. A lot of the infants were from the late '20s. There is some confusion because Blake's cemetery documentation lists him as being in Block 7. However, in reality I was directed to Block 9. Blake is north of the dirt road indicated on the map and east of the infant section.
I wanted to go back to obtain documentation on Caroline Harvey who is allegedly in Block 7 Row/Range 115 and Single Grave number 71. But by the time I got back to the office, he was gone.
Pat also noted the disorganization of Block 9 and took photos. The rows and the stones are very unkempt making it difficult to navigate. Like I said, if Caroline Harvey is listed in her cemetery records as indicated above, there is a great chance that is the exact spot where Blake is buried. If not, then a mystery is on our hands.
I'm concerned/confused because I was told that in Section 7, Single Grave 1 begins south (next to the railroad tracks) and the numbers go up as you go north. However, the grid on Arthur's cemetery document indicates the opposite. South of the railroad tracks is total demolition. There was a huge pile of blown up concrete there today. I am not sure what the grid on Blake's document means. There is not a grid on Beatrice's document.
Beatrice is listed as being buried May 23, 1953. She lived at 1015 W. Walnut St. at the time. She was also a "part donation" (body parts were donated because it's a "County burial"). Undertaker listed at O'Bee Funeral Home.
When I got home, I read through sections of Joe Trotter's book, "Black Milwaukee." In it he talks about Raynor's and O'Bee Funeral Home. These African-American-owned businesses were a source of neighborhood pride.
Aug. 29, 2012
Thanks to Mathieu Memorials Arthur Blind Blake will have a "grass marker" for his unmarked grave. The stone will soon be shipped from Connecticut to Wisconsin.
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