Michelle Robinson, a research, data and policy associate with the Race to Equity project, said she’s noticed that local residents don’t often know how people of color fit into Madison history.
“One thing I recognized quite early since I’ve been living here is no matter how long you reside here, if you’re a black person or a person of color in general, you’re a chronic outsider,” she said.
The invisibility of people of color and historically unrepresented groups in Madison’s history was the major theme of a Cap Times Talk on historical preservation on Wednesday night at the Goodman Community Center, which Robinson was a part of.
The talk, called "What should Madison commemorate that it hasn't already?", came at a time when historic preservation has been a hot topic in the city. This year, members of City Council grappled with whether to remove a stone monument at Forest Hill Cemetery memorializing confederate Civil War soldiers. Some members of the community had condemned the monument as a barrier to inclusion in the city, given the racist history of the confederacy.
The talk also comes as the city continues work on its Historic Preservation Plan, an effort by the city to improve its record on commemorating the history of historically unrepresented groups.
Oscar Mireles, executive director of the Omega School and Madison’s poet laureate, was another member of the panel. He said he thinks Madison has done a fine job celebrating its history in some ways.
“I think they’ve done a great job in the classical sense of how you identify buildings of significance,” he said.
Now, he said, the question is how to preserve the parts of Madison history "where there’s not a physical representation, but there’s stories and families?”
The participants in Wednesday night’s talk each offered up examples of the kinds of people, places and events they felt merit commemoration that have gone overlooked.
Mireles said that the city could recognize pivotal figures like Ricardo Gonzalez, the former owner of the erstwhile Cardinal Bar on Wilson Street. Gonzalez is a Cuban immigrant who served on City Council, has been an outspoken advocate for the city's LGBT community, and helped establish Madison’s sister city relationship with the Cuban city of Camaguey.
Robinson highlighted the work of people in Madison to end Jim Crow-era discriminatory laws and norms. For example, black families and community institutions like the Mount Zion Church were key in addressing segregation and educational access in Madison schools. She said that a complaint filed with the federal government by families affiliated with Longfellow Elementary School resulted in longstanding voluntary desegregation plan in the state, including policy incentivizing schools to meet racial quotas.
“None of that would have happened if it weren’t for black families in the city, particularly in the south side, who said they weren’t going to take this,” she said.
Mai Zong Vue, the president of the Hmong Institute, said that Hmong farming in the area was deserving of recognition.
“I feel so alive when I go to the farmers market, and there are Hmong farmers selling stuff,” she said. “They work their full-time job and still do this every Saturday … That kind of attitude, and that kind of energy, should be documented and preserved.”
Vue also said that some things that merit preservation or recognition are cultural in nature — for example, the predominance of multi-generational households in the Hmong community. She said that there's a fear that such households and family values are at risk of eroding in the face of mainstream American culture.
Missy Tracy, the municipal relations coordinator for Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison, noted that while some people think of Madison history as beginning with the arrival of James Doty in the 19th Century, the Ho-Chunk have lived in the area for 12,000 years. She said that the area’s effigy mounds are relics of that history that need preservation.
However, she said that while signage is well and good, she hopes for a different sort of preservation: recognition in the minds of Madisonians.
“Just to be respected,” she said. “Just to be included when thinking about Madison’s history. Just that acknowledgement of the indigenous people. That’s what I’m talking about.”
That question of not just what to preserve, but how preservation happens, was another theme of the night.
Vue brought up the importance of place in preservation. She said that the Bay View Neighborhood, as a hub of Madison’s Hmong population, is a place that not only merits recognition as a historically significant place, but still serves as a home for Hmong people and is a site where they reflect on their history.
“Madisonians (should) know that Bay View is a place of newcomers,” she said. “Bay View can be that place where we preserve history, where we celebrate the new kids on the block.”
She also noted the importance of preservation in school curriculum. She said that she was concerned with the lack of Hmong people in lessons on the Vietnam War, for example.
Other methods of commemoration and preservation discussed included holidays, walking tours and historical trails, living history projects and even poetry – Mireles shared poems he had written about the Municipal Building downtown and the Monroe Street neighborhood.
But Robinson emphasized that it’s important to recognize the limitations of traditional means of historical preservation. She said that the goal should be to have the history of all people more deeply embedded in our institutions, and to “not just expect folks to take it upon themselves and go on a special tour or a walking path.”
“How do we institutionalize this knowledge, so that kids across race, across ethnicity, are being exposed to these histories as early as possible in their education?” she said.
Cap Times reporter Abigail Becker moderated the conversation, which will soon be available as an episode of the Cap Times Talks podcast.