OPINION: Local Black History Every Milwaukeean Should Know

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We asked our neighbors to raise Black history in Milwaukee that they want their entire community to know about. They responded with these tributes to artists and business leaders.

(Photo courtesy of Kellen Abston)

Kellen “Klassik” Abston is an award-winning Milwaukee-based musical polymath recording and performing artistmore recently named the 2021 City of Milwaukee Artist of the Year Mildred L. Harpole. His mix of jazz, hip-hop, soul and electronic music has guided his growth into an intergenerational communicator, educator and community activist.

I would like to take this moment to honor and pay tribute to my uncle, visual artist Gerald Duane Coleman.

He was an integral part of the Freewheelers, a group of black artists from this city in the 1970s and 1980s who regularly held their own art fairs at the King Library. He also toured the city on horseback doing historical re-enactments and performances of legendary black cowboy Nat Love.

He would go on to have works installed throughout Milwaukee, including the Atkinson Library – which was my neighborhood library when I was growing up – the Midwest Express Center (when it was built and was still called that), the Bradley Center and many others.

Artist Gerald Duane Coleman plays legendary black cowboy Nat Love. (Photo courtesy of Kellen Abston)

Her work incorporates a mix of textiles, fabrics, found objects and her own exceptional skills in freehand drawing and painting, creating ethereal visualizations of life across the black diaspora, enhanced by her frequent travels to Brazil and West Africa.

In many ways, I only now realize the influence my uncle had on my life. Growing up, I was surrounded by his art when I visited his home. He also used to cut my hair and taught my dad how to cut my hair. Then, seeing his art in the city, I could see one man’s impact and vision on a grand scale. I got to see with my own eyes what a successful full-time black artist looked like, which helped shape me into who I am today.

Like many of our elders, I look forward to learning more about his story. I embrace and relish the fact that he still resides here in Milwaukee, in Bronzeville, where I will continue to learn more about his rich history and that of our city.

At the opening of an exhibit called ‘Woman In Bloom,’ artist Gerald Duane Coleman poses with librarian William Beaudot at the King Branch of the Milwaukee Public Library, where Coleman exhibited frequently in the 70s and 80s (Photo courtesy of Kellen Abston)

(Photo provided by Tia Cannon)

Tia Cannon is Director of BID Marketplace 32. She is also an entrepreneur and owner of ANC Real Estate.

That El-Amin, founder of Young Enterprise Society, is the embodiment of black history and a pioneer in the community. Over the years I have watched him build and develop some of the most impactful and influential staples in our community.

The mission of the Young Enterprising Society is to be an international epicenter for financially, politically and socially progressive individuals. Serving as a hub, Young Enterprise Society mobilizes people, information, resources and capital for the greater good of its members and society as a whole.

Que has helped catalyze hundreds of businesses and entrepreneurs, while creating affordable community housing that will house many families over time. Que’s accomplishments have given hope to the community, a new outlook, and redefined black history. It gives homes to families, keeps children off the streets, employs the unemployed, and opens doors for brown and black people of all ages.

Que El-Amin (Photo courtesy of Tia Cannon)

His work in Milwaukee influenced many others, including myself! He made history and is still in the making.

Another story maker is my grandfather, King Solomon Lawrence. In the 1960s, he became a highly respected black man in a predominantly white profession.

(Left to right) King Solomon Lawrence poses with his daughter Khalifah Muslim and son Guyton. (Photo provided by Tia Cannon)

He broke barriers when he was hired and transferred from Schenectady, New York, to Milwaukee to be the first black innkeeper at Holiday Inns anywhere in the country. He created a high-class hotel nightlife by presenting celebrity entertainment to high-profile guests who frequented the establishment.

He, his wife, five children, and several of his grandchildren lived there and led very abundant lives. They were constantly surrounded by affluent patrons and entertainers such as the Jackson Five.

He eventually moved his family to an all-white neighborhood where they were the only African-American family. King was the first in our family to earn a college degree in business.

He is part of Black Milwaukee history as a trailblazer and someone who opened doors for those who will follow.

(Photo courtesy of Andre Lee Ellis)

Andre Lee Ellis began his theatrical career with the Hansberry Sands Theater Company and spent 40 years in theater across the country. He now runs his own non-profit theater group, Andre’ Lee Ellis & Co.

I remember a time when black actors were limited on Milwaukee stages, especially local actors. Then came the People’s Theater in the late 1960s and the Hansberry Sands Theater Company in the early 1980s.

The People’s Theater Company was founded by Gerald Wallace in the late 1960s. It gave local African American actors a chance to be seen on stage in a more positive light.

The Hansberry Sands Theater Company was founded by Asante Scott, who started out with the People’s Theatre. I started working with Hansberry Sands in 1984 and left Milwaukee in 1987 for New York. After attending the Herbert Berghof Studio in New York, I returned to Milwaukee as artistic director of the Hansberry Sands Theater, where I remained for three seasons.

Archived photos from the theatrical career of Andre Lee Ellis. (Photo courtesy of Andre Lee Ellis)

Black stories and history have become a mainstream weekend attraction. Our stories were told and displayed by us. Over time, other black companies emerged, and today even local professional and non-African American community theater companies include black actors, black stories, and black lives. We are now the writers, directors, producers, artistic directors, stagehands and stage managers. We even hold administrative positions.

How can you tell American stories and history without including black people? You can not. Our contributions, in all areas, are too vast and too important to be denied and worthy of recognition. We have earned these privileges. Now we even win prizes.

Who would have thought?

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