Oral history interview with Dr. Richard Harris. Dr. Harris recounts his childhood in the South Madison neighborhood, beginning in the 1930s before South Madison was part of the City of Madison. Dr. Harris highlights the experience of Black Madisonians, particularly the activism of a group of women he calls the Mothers Watch, as well as the activism of church leaders at Mount Zion Baptist Church and other Black churches. He recounts several stories of Black Madison residents who were unable to find professional career opportunities, and describes the discrimination experienced by Black residents of the Greenbush / Triangle neighborhood during the urban renewal period of the 1960s.
[START OF RECORDING]
INTERVIEWER: Good morning, this is Laura Damon-Moore recording at the South Madison Library. I will have my narrator introduce himself in a moment. If you could say your name for us.
Richard Harris (RH): I’m Dr. Richard Harris.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you, Dr. Harris. Our first, kind of opening question for you is to tell us a little about your and your family’s history in Madison.
RH: Yes, I’d be happy to. Well, I was born in 1937, at the Madison General Hospital, which was adjacent to the ‘Bush area. But I lived here in South Madison on Bram Street. I don’t remember from birth up until about the age of four or five. So I’d say in 1941, or 1942, I can recall South Madison was extremely—kind of back-woodsy. We had no sidewalks, no lights, no paved streets, no curbs, no gutters, no hot and cold running water, outdoor toilets. People raised family—they raised animals out here. My family raised pigs and cows. And it was kind of desolate.
I started out in kindergarten at the age of five. I went to a school called Badger Elementary School. I was there for a year, and in 19—I believe it was ’42 or ’43, the City of Madison annexed South Madison into the City of Madison. And so the outdoors toilets went, no more animals, we had sidewalks, curbs, gutters, hot and cold running water, and of course an increase in taxes for property.
My family bought their house in 1927. And they really enjoyed that area, not being involved with the City and the rules and regulations. So they weren’t happy when they got annexed and had to leave. I also had to transfer into Madison schools, so I transferred to a school called Franklin Elementary School, which is on Lakeside Street. And I grew up, and was raised.
My parents—my mother was very active. She was with a group—and, I’m going to talk about two things: South Madison as it impacted on Blacks, but other areas of the Black community [as well]. Actually there were three black communities: there was South Madison, there was the Triangle, or the ‘Bush, and then there was a Black—a group of families that lived on the near east side, that was Mrs. Miller, the Mitchell family, Goffords [sp?], they started the St. Paul AME church over there. So there were three areas. But we were very close.
Now I’m talking globally about the city. Because of discrimination and racism, which still exist today, Blacks were not employed in any meaningful positions. They couldn’t eat in any of the restaurants, and so they started their own restaurants. The Miller and Mitchell family started a restaurant called The Chicken Shack Restaurant, owned by Mrs. Williams, and they were open every day of the week, and they were really busy Friday nights, Saturday nights, and of course all day Sunday. And so there were just enough Black families to keep that business operating. You knew that you would be wanted, and the food was excellent, so we went there at least once a week on a Thursday or a Friday night. You couldn’t get in there on a Sunday, it was just too crowded. But at least you knew you were welcome.
There were several other things that I remember about Madison. There was a man named Curly Seales. He worked for a company called Pyramid Motors, it’s now called Smart Motors, I think. But anyway, he was a mechanic and so if any Black person had trouble with their cars, he would fix it on weekends or at night. They also had two Blacks that owned dry-cleaning establishments. There was one Black who did laundry.
The social life was very good back in those days. There was a Black tavern on West Washington Avenue, in the middle of the ‘Bush, was owned by my uncle Zachary Trotter; a lot Blacks went there of course. And then once a month Black people would have a dance on Park Street—there used to be an Army reserve center right next to—I guess it’s Pick’n’Save, or whatever this store is down on Park Street. So, there was enough social life, you know, for Black people at that time.
What I remember, getting back into South Madison and also … the extent of racism and discrimination. I was introduced to racism and discrimination along with a lot of my other friends…there was a group of women, and we didn’t know what to call them, but these Black women would meet once a month somewhere on the East side, probably in the basement of St. Paul’s church, they had about forty or fifty women, and they would socialize, you know, have coffee, pie, and what have you, and they would meet to discuss the problems of the day. And there were a lot of problems dealing with racism and discrimination. The biggest one that I can remember—and we didn’t know what, when we would talk about these things with the kids walking to school, we’d say, “Did your mother talk to my mother about something…” and that’s how we would…so.
Eventually we just began to call them, this group of women who watched over us, we’d call them the Mothers Watch Group. That was the only [INAUDIBLE] we could think to call them. You spoke of…who’d you speak to in Mississippi?
INTERVIEWER: Oh, Mona Adams Winston.
RH: Mona Adams, yes. Her family was very involved. Her grandparents, and her aunt were very involved in those activities.
And I remember the first—they did a number of things, but the one that I can remember the most is that a group of Black women began a complaint that when they would go down to the shops in downtown, the store owners would not let them try on shoes, or outfits or anything like the white women could do. This was at three stores, and they said that white women did not want to try on shoes or clothes that, what they said, “colored” people had tried on.
So they got fed up with that, and they met with a man named Reverend Joseph Washington, and Reverend Washington and about, oh, let’s see, thirty of these Black women met with these store owners, or whoever they were, and told them if it didn’t stop, they would come down and march before these stores every day until they would do it. Well, [the store owners] didn’t want that, so they changed that policy.
I remember when Reverend Washington announced it from the pulpit, he said “I want you women to know that [aside: and he named the three stores] we met with them. And they promised us that you could change—you know, [try on clothes], and if you have any problems, let us know, and we’ll take action against the store.”
We thought that was great, how they went—because [the store owners] didn’t want “colored” people, that’s what they called us back in those days, to try the clothes on.
And they were involved in other things in race discrimination. There were areas where Black people could not buy homes, because they had these charters and property, so they would fight against that.
Blacks could not find decent employment, so they began a struggle against that. So that’s how I got involved in, and became aware of, discrimination.
In South Madison itself, like I say, after the age of six or something, South Madison was just like any other area physically, except that we knew that you could never move out of South Madison. It was still kind of country. Park Street was just a one-lane dirt road, that became paved, and went to Oregon and when you went to Chicago that’s how you got to, you went down that way.
This area where we’re sitting here, was a large golf course called Burr Oaks Golf Course. We used to work over here for fifty cents an hour picking up golf balls, that type of thing. But it was—as young people, we weren’t really aware of the impacts of discrimination and racism. We knew that it existed, because our parents would tell us this. Most of the families—everyone came from the South. So there was a great deal of distrust that Blacks had toward white people.
Even to the extent—I remember I was going to, I went from Franklin School to Central High School, and I wanted to go to Central High School in seventh grade, because I wanted to play sports and get a jump on everything. And my mother said no, because she had talked to one of the Black mothers who lived on the east side and she said those white girls up at that Central High School are just too fresh. And I don’t think it’s a good place for Black boys to go because they’re going to be trying to date them, and you know what happens, there’ll be…
Our parents, and a lot of the other parents, when they came from the South, they remember the lynchings that occurred if a Black man even looked at a white woman. So they didn’t know whether that would be a factor up here or not, so we were just told not to date any white women.
So I was put off. I couldn’t go to Central until ninth grade, and I was very disappointed, but so be it. But that’s how I became aware of racism, discrimination, and the difference between Black and white people.
In the 1950s, my mother and a man named Kenneth Newville…my mother’s name was Willie Lou Harris, Willie Lou Harris and Kenneth Newville, and a white fellow by the name of George Gerard, they met with the head of the Madison Neighborhood Centers, his name was Chester Zmudzinski, and they talked about the possibility of getting a neighborhood center in South Madison.
They talked to the congressman…I forgot his name, but he asked the United States Air Force if they have any more use for the barracks that were out there, because the war’d ended and they had a lot of surplus things, so they said, we’ll give you a barracks.
So they gave them two barracks. And a moving company called Reynolds Transfer and Storage moved those. It took them three days, but they came up East Washington Ave, around the Square, down West Washington Ave, out Park Street.
They had a dickens of a time on Park Street because Park Street—right now Park Street is called Beld Street. I don’t know if you know where Beld Street is, but anyway, it was very narrow. But they got it up, and they got it over here to Taft Street, and they tried to go further but that was about as far as they could go, so they put them there.
My mother and Mr. Newville and Mr. Gerard were instrumental in getting the first South Madison neighborhood center out here. And the carpentry union donated most of the labor and all of the materials, the plumbers…and so a lot of people donated a number of things.
And I think my perception of whites began to change a little bit, because these were all white guys doing something to help Black people. But at the same time there was discrimination in these entities. So, my mother was involved in the beginning of the South Madison Neighborhood Center.
I’m going to go back, just to the Triangle, because in the—my mother died in 1954. And I think about two years before she died, in 1952 or 1953, the City of Madison began to talk about what they called “neighborhood revitalization.”
Well, a number of the Black people [in the Triangle] did not own the property, they lived in apartments down there. But some did own homes, and what have you. So then the City called it the Madison—they opened up a new office called the Madison Redevelopment Authority: MRA.
The Black ministers, I think we had three Black churches then, at least two. I know of two for sure. They warned their parishioners, you better be careful if you lived down that way because the City was talking about “revitalizing” the neighborhood. And when people asked, what does that mean, [the City] said, well, we’re going to tear down all the homes, and you can come back, we’re going to put new apartments here—oh, new “living units,” that’s what they called them—small homes and what have you.
There were also Italian families and Jewish families too, they all took a beating. The City did not follow through on its plans. I can recall a number of Black people, they woke up one Monday morning, here were graders out there ready to tear down—I mean, they knew nothing. The landlords did not tell them anything.
And I can recall a number of Black people, they had the pastors of these two churches calling people at all hours of the night, saying, hey, look, if you’ve got a car, go over here and help someone move whatever they had, into the trunks of peoples’ cars. And they brought them out to the churches to live temporarily, and this, all different places for them. Most of them had relatives out here in South Madison, so they could put them up and help them. That’s why South Madison’s Black population went pretty high after that.
I wrote in my book [Growing Up Black in South Madison: The Economic Disenfranchisement of South Madison, 2012] the story of a family called the Wiley family, W-I-L-E-Y. And that family epitomized what happened to Black people.
In the ‘50s the MRA sent them a letter. Now, [Mrs. Wiley] came to church and explained all this one Sunday. Reverend Washington said, I’m going to turn everything over to her. She read the letter that they sent. The letter said that, “This area is being revitalized. Your property will be assessed and you can do one of two things. Either we’ll give you money for what we think the property’s worth, or you can relocate temporarily, we’ll tear your structure down, put another structure up, and you can move back.”
Well, she—the other thing you have to understand is, we had no legal representation. Lawyers would not represent us—you had to go to Chicago to get a decent lawyer, or Milwaukee. So when she went and asked questions about this, they told her, it’s either this or no way. You can’t…
[The Wileys] had bought a two-story apartment and they bought it in the late 30s, or early 40s. So they’d been there about ten or twelve years and they paid off their property, so they owned it. The City came along and said—and they were living in the basement, and renting out the other two stories. So they were doing very well. The City said well, you’ve got to move. And Mr. Wiley said, give me something in writing, or give me some money now…I want to know that I can come right back to this spot…and then, [the City] sent some building inspectors out there, they claimed they found some building code violations.
They argued with these people for a good two years, and finally Mr. Wiley had a stroke and died. So Mrs. Wiley…and they finally sent her a letter saying she had to be out in thirty days. So Mrs. Wiley came to church, and I never will forget that day. Mount Zion was on Johnson Street at that time, Mount Zion Baptist Church, and it was located right across from—you know where the Nitty Gritty is? Located right across the street from there. And it was packed that Sunday, because they wanted to hear her story.
She was crying. And she said, people of Mount Zion, I want you to know what these white people did. They killed my husband. You know, because they were arguing…They took my property. I got a check for…I think she said she got a check for $6,500. They had paid about $13,000 for it. So the value was much higher. She got a check that small. And they said they’re coming out, and the next week they came over there with their graders. She got very little of her furniture out. I think she moved to Rockford Illinois, and then…she died, somewhere along the way.
When I think about that, it brings tears to my eyes, because I remember when she was…and, when the graders were tearing the house, they were singing “Bye Bye, Blackbird.” The guys running these big machines.
The MRA was supposed to—they had hired about four “relocation workers” and they were supposed to help people relocate, people like Mrs. Wiley, Mona, and everything. Never helped them at all. They were also supposed to get money for moving expenses. If you had an apartment, you were supposed to get some sort of reimbursement for what you owned. And, they were supposed to help you find a place. Well, because of race discrimination the only places they could go to was either the near east side, and that was packed, or South Madison. So of course everybody lived in South Madison, and you lived with people until you could find a place.
And when the City tore everything down, and they did put in, I guess it’s like a housing project there, I can’t think of the name of it now. But it was not open for these families. They couldn’t reapply for it. And they were not, they were big apartment complexes—Bayview, that’s what it’s called. It was an apartment complex. And they were promised small, individual homes. They had gardens down there…it was just tremendous.
They tried the same thing [neighborhood revitalization] out here in South Madison, but the Black people would have none of that. They did have what they called “selective renewal,” where they tore down homes that were very dilapidated, so maybe one out of every five homes was not good. And that’s how they should have done the other [neighborhood] but they didn’t.
So the Greenbush area was totally destroyed after that. Italian families…I mean, you could go down there and the Italians are having some sort of picnic, in Brittingham Park, Black families, Jewish families—the park was used every day during the week. Especially after work, or on weekends, and that was just their…and they got along famously, those people. Very nice neighborhood. But the City said it was an eyesore, because if you drove downtown, and up West Washington Avenue, you ran right past—and that, they didn’t like that. And they almost said the same thing about South Madison, coming to Park Street, you see all these “problems.”
So I think of Mrs. Wiley and I mentioned that in the book, because she was so typical of the families that were treated unfairly, on the basis of race. Or in the case of the Italian and Jewish families, on the basis of economic status.
In South Madison the thing I remember is that everybody had to live out here because of discrimination. But like the Bush it was a very solid community, and it was a community that welcomed people. I remember when the first Hispanic families moved in to South Madison, they were welcomed. And of course in the last maybe five to ten years, the Southeast Asians and Muslim families. South Madison has always been a tremendously warm and accepting melting place.
And I’m so happy to see that the Urban League is here, and the Nehemiah Corporation, right up the street there. You’ve got a Black church, Mount Zion Baptist Church and you’ve also have Reverend Alex Gee’s church just up the street. They provide the anchor, to make sure that this area will always be a home for minorities, especially for Black people. Because [the City] had plans on doing the same thing here as to [Greenbush neighborhood]. And when we heard about the plans that they had—what they were going to do was move everybody out of here and put them way over in Sun Prairie. There was some vacant space between Madison and Sun Prairie, and that’s where they would live, and what have you.
INTERVIEWER: Can I ask when that project was discussed?
RH: That was discussed…in the early 1970s, that’s when they began talking about relocating everybody out of here. And one of the things that they had to do was get rid of the schools. So the Board of Education, along with a lot of businessmen and women, decided to close Franklin Elementary School, Lincoln, and Longfellow. And you know, if you close the schools, you can easily come in with different kinds of programs [i.e., neighborhood revitalization programs—ed.].
So myself and a woman named Sandy Solberg, she lived in the Longfellow area, and several others, we went and formed a group, and we went to the Office of Civil Rights and we initiated a race discrimination complaint against the Madison Public Schools in 1978.
Well, the schools decided to go ahead with their plans anyway, and I guess they figured that once you start tearing down things, it’s hard for the government or the courts to come in and say “stop”…so we had to get a stay. And that stopped them from doing anything.
We won the complaint. We won the race discrimination [complaint]. So they had to keep Lincoln there, and they had to keep Franklin. Longfellow was closed because it was just in total disrepair. But we kept Franklin and Lincoln open. Once Franklin and Lincoln had to remain open, that plan fell by the wayside, so they couldn’t repeat the [revitalization] program that they did on West Washington Avenue out here in South Madison.
But when I think of South Madison, there’s a park up here called Penn Park, and Penn Park was just a vacant spot. There was a fellow by the name of Cliff Penn, and he owned the electric company called Penn Electric, P-E-N-N Electric. I think they’re still going, too. He asked the City if he could build a baseball park there. And of course they said no, because it would be something that would benefit this area and really make it stable…well, he finally went to court and he got it through, and [the City] approved it.
So he built the baseball park up there. It was called Penn Park—Penn Stadium. So for about ten years he’d bring in teams and they’d play baseball out there. He passed away and his daughter officially turned the park over to the City. She was smart. She said, however, I always want it to be a park for the people. So when they tore down the baseball lights and all that they put in, well, it’s a park. And when I think about it, she had foresight because that park is used every day during the summer for different activities and what have you.
We were thinking about that one day—how did they have the foresight to know that people needed some kind of a recreational area? Because you had Brittingham Park, but nothing down here in South Madison. So once they made that a park, that solidified everything because then you couldn’t just kick people out.
But the thing about South Madison that I really think about and can recall is that, for the amount of racism and discrimination, everyone out here could not find a decent job. They would be either orderlies at the hospital, or nurses’ aides at the hospital…I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1961. At that time the University of Wisconsin had a program where they tried to place graduates, that’s what it was called, the Graduate Placement Office.
So they sent me, after I took some state tests, they sent me to a job interview at Dane County as a social work aide, or intern, or what have you. They also made plans for me to go to the City of Madison and there was a job there, it was going to be like a Community Liaison. I don’t know what it meant, but it sounded good. So they made arrangements for those two interviews the same day. One was at nine o’clock in the morning, one was at about one o’clock in the afternoon.
So I went to the County one first, and when I walked in, the secretary would not even recognize me. I mean, she looked at me, and went back to doing her work. So finally I said “Hello.” And she looked up, she says, “Well, what do you want?”
I said, “I have an interview with so-and-so.”
She said, “Oh. Are you Harris?”
I said yes, she said “Oh my god. Would you stand over there, in the corner?” Not “Sit down,” just “Stand over there in the corner.”
So I went over there and stood, and I stood for about ten minutes, and finally I got tired and I just sat down. And after I sat down, I’d say a couple of minutes later, a police officer, a Dane County sheriff came in. And this woman pointed at me.
And then another woman came out. She was going to interview me. Her name was Taylor, I forgot her first name. She said, “I’m so-and-so Taylor, there must be a mistake. Because we don’t hire coloreds. Our staff would not want to work with colored people and our clients certainly would not have anything to do with you people. So [the sheriff’s officer] is going to escort you off the grounds.”
That’s why they had called him. There was nothing I could say. The officer comes over and he says let’s go, so we walked out and I said, well, can I use the phone here and he said “No, you have to leave.”
So I drove off and I stopped at a Shell Oil station and I asked the person if there was a telephone I could use. I don’t think—I know they didn’t have cell phones, but I don’t even think they had [pay] phones…so I had to ask to use one.
So I called the University of Wisconsin and I told her what had happened, and she said, “My gosh…” and I said, “Well, that’s what happened, I couldn’t do the interview because I was colored,” so she said “Okay, well, go to the second one at the City of Madison.”
It was somewhere on Doty Street, so I went over there and I walked in, and when I walked in the lady said “What do you want?”
And I said “My name is Richard Harris.”
And she said, “Well, what do you want?”
And I said “I’m here for an interview.”
She said, “No…they must have made a mistake. We don’t hire colored people. We’ll call them and tell them that.”
That was in 1961. A friend of mine, her sister was named Dolores Green—that was her married name, I can’t think of her last [maiden] name. She went to the Madison Public Schools in 1960, and they did the same thing.
There was a man named Ed Withers, now he was Mona’s cousin. Eddie Withers was the first Black to be named All-American football player at the University of Wisconsin, and he graduated in the mid-50s, or he went to school in the 50s and then he graduated in like 1959. His degree was in math.
The football coach at Madison Central, who was his football coach when he was in high school, he said, “Ed, after you graduate, after you get your degree, I’d like you to work with me as an assistant coach. You’d be tremendous with these kids.”
And he said “Okay.”
So they even put him on the payroll. At that time, to be with the football team, you had to teach. So the football coach said, “Ed, just tell the principal that I sent you over and that you want to teach math.”
So the principal didn’t know—he just didn’t draw. So when [Ed] walked in he said, “I don’t know.”
So he called the superintendent. And the superintendent said, “Under no circumstances do I want an N-I-G-G-E-R working for me.”
So he can’t do the football, you know. So he left went to Milwaukee, and got a job with the Milwaukee Public School as a teacher there, and I think he coached football for them, too.
I would hear all sorts of stories…so when it happened to me…I remember all these things while I was growing up, and it’s all coming back to me, with Mothers Watch and what happened with Black people in the Triangle area and here in South Madison. I think of racism and discrimination.
The area where I grew up in in South Madison was nice, I mean physically. I still like South Madison; I have relatives out here. And I think that’s about it. I still can’t get over Mrs. Wiley. This has got to be in the mid-50s; that was almost 60 years ago. But what she said there in church, “This is what they’re doing to me.” And she just sank to her knees.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you.
RH: So that’s what growing up black in South Madison meant to me.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s see. So you talked about the close-knit nature of South Madison, and the Bush as well. Do you remember any sort of traditions, or, you mentioned gathering places a little bit. Were there other gathering places, or places where that community was really felt, and developed?
RH: Well, during February, just for one week, we would have Negro History Week, which now became Black History Month. So we would meet at various churches every night, have a prayer, have dinner, and talk about the spiritualness but also what we were going through as Black people.
Both parks, Brittingham Park and Penn Park, were very helpful as far as knitting social fabric—at least you had a place to go where you could feel comfortable, eat good food, barbecue ribs, just…oh, I think of those days, they were just so good. And then, as I say, there was enough social activities for Black people not to feel isolated. But once a month, to be able to go down to this place [GESTURES] and have a dance, it was a tremendous experience.
INTERVIEWER: Was this at the neighborhood center? The South Madison Neighborhood Center?
RH: No, this was down at the Army Reserve Center, because you could serve drinks there. You couldn’t serve drinks at the neighborhood center.
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me a little bit about the [South Madison] Neighborhood Center? Because, you were the director there.
RH: I was the director of the neighborhood center at one time, yeah. It’s really interesting because when I didn’t get the job in Madison, my wife and I got married and we moved to…well, when I didn’t get the job here, I went back to the UW Placement Office and they said well maybe you should try to go to where there are a number of Black people. So she said, there’s either Detroit, Michigan; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; or Chicago, Illinois. So we chose Chicago.
She found some places for me to interview—there were three places. One was Cook County Hospital, it’s called the Stoger S-T-O-G-E-R Hospital now, the other was Cook County Department of Public Assistance, as a social worker, and the last one was as a social worker at a neighborhood center called the Hyde Park Neighborhood Center.
I interviewed for all three of those in one day. And it was really funny. I was offered a job at each one of those positions. After the interview. And the other thing was, I was interviewed by three Black women.
When I went to Cook County Hospital, the thing about the medical thing was that, gosh, going to the office I saw all of these people all bandaged up and I said, oh my goodness. And she said, what you’re going to be doing is working with the families of these patients. And I said, “Ooohhh.” [LAUGHS] But, based on your resume and I did talk with your pastor, I’d like to offer you a job. And I’ll give you a week to think about it.
So then I went to the Cook County Department of Public Assistance and the woman who interviewed me, I forget her name, but she had a PhD. I’d never seen a Black woman with a PhD. And we talked for a long time about Chicago, Illinois, and she said it’s much different of course than Madison Wisconsin, you have to be on guard more, blah blah. But as a social worker, she said, you’ll have to go out and visit people and that type of thing. And I did talk to your advisor at the University of Wisconsin, he was a social work professor, I’ve known him a long time, and based on what he said, I’d like to offer you a job.
So I went to the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club, and the assistant director was Black, her name was Norma Pendleton, and she was so warm. We talked and walked the neighborhood. I was going to be a social worker with, it was like a boys to men program; they were having a lot of trouble with boys getting into gangs so it’d be working with them. I really liked the idea of helping them find jobs, walking them to school, and that type of thing. She offered me the position and I took it.
When I told my wife, she said, “Isn’t that something. Three interviews, three job offers.”
When I went through this thing here in Madison, it was the middle of May, because school was still in session as I was graduating. And we didn’t move to Chicago until about September. I was say in about December, had to be December of the same year, I got a letter from—I don’t know if Madison had a mayor then, or did they have a…I forgot what they call them. It was like a City Director, some kind of a pilot thing, lasted just a couple of years, then they went back to the Mayoral system.
But anyway, the letter was signed by someone who was an assistant to [city director/manager role] and it said, Dear Mr. Harris, we heard about what happened with you at the City of Madison Relocation Program, and we just found out because we talked to someone at the UW Job Placement…we couldn’t believe it. We do hire Black people—Negros—that’s what they said, the letter said we’d love to talk to you again, we do have a position for you.
So I got that letter in about December. And I got another letter in December. In February I got a phone call and it was from the same person. And he said “Mr. Harris I’ve been trying to reach you, and wouldn’t you like to come back to Madison.”
And I said, “Wait a second.”
I reached into the drawer and I got those two letters out. And I said, “I want you to listen carefully.”
And I tore the letters up over the phone.
And I said, “What do you hear?”
And he said, “I hear paper shredding.”
And I said, “That’s right, I’m never coming back to Madison to work, and don’t call me.” And I hung up.
So about four or five months later, Chester Zmudzinski, he was the man who helped start the South Madison Neighborhood Center, he called me.
And he says, “Richard, I understand what happened…it’s all over Madison what you went through, blah blah blah.” And he said, “Listen, tell you what—we have a position open here. Our director wants to go back to graduate school and I talked to the board, and they’d love to have you here. Your mother helped start this thing, we’ve got a room named after her, would you consider coming back?”
Now he said, “Put all the other stuff behind you. You don’t have to worry about those people anymore.”
And I said, “Well, Chester, let me think about this.” So I talked to my wife. She was from a small town in Louisiana, and she said, “I did like Madison.” She was living with her brother who was stationed at Truax Field.
She said, “I did like Madison, because it was small, and…”
So we decided to come back. And I became the director of the neighborhood center for about two years, and while I was there…I really liked it. It was very challenging. I got business administration experience, which was so needed.
While I was there, at a Rotary Club meeting, talking about what we were doing at South Madison and what have you, and the director of the Madison Area Technical College was there, along with the Superintendent of the Madison Public Schools—they were part of the Rotary group. I met them afterwards.
About two or three days later, the public school superintendent called, and he said, “You know”—this was a new [superintendent] now—“We’re desperately trying to make up for a lot of issues that went…and I understand what you went through…can I talk to you about working as a school social worker here in the schools?”
And I said, “Well, I’ll think about it.”
About three days later, the guy from MATC calls and he said, “I was really impressed with your organizational skills, would you think about working here…we’re downtown, but we’re planning to move somewhere, I don’t know where…”
So I took him up on his [offer]. I talked with Chester Zmudzinski and we found a person to replace me that he liked, so I was only there for two years and then I was at MATC where I stayed for thirty-three years. But I enjoyed my work at the neighborhood center. Very challenging, but I didn’t have the issues—the South Madison area wasn’t facing the same kind of issues that they were facing in the Triangle. The families weren’t nervous, that was a big difference.
RH: I enjoyed the experience, and I didn’t think I’d ever come back to Madison again. So I enjoyed my South Madison experience. Got involved in program planning, organizational planning, budgeting, supervision, writing progress reports, writing letters for contracts for grants, community work, working with boards. All of that kind of thing, which was good.
INTERVIEWER: Is there anything else you would want us to know?
RH: Well, I just can’t say enough the impact that racism and discrimination had on not only Black people in South Madison [BACKGROUND NOISE], but when I think of how it impacted people in the Triangle area.
I wrote a letter to the Urban Renewal Program, in Washington, D.C. and I asked what could we do to have—at least have those Black people that were surviving, get some kind of compensation. And I sent a copy of the letter to the Mayor, Mayor Paul Soglin. He was very gracious. But the Urban Renewal Program said, we can’t do—that’s almost thirty, forty years ago. We couldn’t touch that. We wouldn’t know—we don’t have those records, we wouldn’t know how to make compensation. “It was too bad.” Maybe you could have a symbolic something; maybe you could have the mayor say something, put a statue that “this is what happened”. And I’m going to talk to him about that again.
But anyway, I think of South Madison, and I think of the Triangle area, and they’re both rich. I don’t think they get the proper respect from the Madison community. They’ll talk about other neighborhoods, but they missed the mark…and those people should get some kind of compensation. They never will. When you think of all the money they lost. So I think that was it.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you very much.
RH: Thank you.
[END OF RECORDING]