Historian John Gurda guided the evening’s story tellers by explaining signposts of historical significance to the Capitol Heights neighborhood and Milwaukee’s Black community. In 1956, a mall that came to be known as Capitol Court made Capitol Heights its home. It was Milwaukee’s third major shopping center, after Southgate, on South 27th, and Bayshore. At Capitol Court’s founding the neighborhood was barely 10% percent African-American. Today at least 75% of Capitol Heights is African-American, with a growing population of Hmong-Americans.
A few blocks away, on Fon du Lac Avenue, sits Satin Wave Barbershop. Gurda relays that Fon du Lac Avenue, once an old plank road, epitomized the folk saying describing Milwaukee “Look to the East the Lake, and to the West the Land”. Back then, farm goods carted into downtown from as far as the name sake of the street, true also of Appleton Avenue and, at one time, Windlake and Muskego Avenues to the South.
As diagonal roads, they represent seminal thoroughfares that pre-date Milwaukee’s grid system of streets. Around the same time, in the 1850’s, Sully Watson became one of Milwaukee first Black land owners, after migrating with his manumission papers gained from Virginia. He and his wife Susanna lived successful lives in ante-bellum Milwaukee, supported by his work as a tradesman.
Overcoming, Making a Life
Although under the constant looming menace of the Fugitive Slave Act, which gave any white person claiming ownership over a black person force of law to take them into their possession immediately, the Watson family carried on raising a family. The Watson offspring found little success extending their family tradition of gainful trade under the repressive, reactionary and often violent post-Reconstruction American social caste system. The Milwaukee Public Museum recently added a tribute to the Watson family to the Streets of Old Milwaukee.
Pt. 1 Shaping Influence, ExFabula, Barbershop
Pt. 2 ExFabula, John Gurda on Capital Court History
Pt. 3 ExFabula, The Sherrill’s, A Black Business Legacy
Pt. 4 ExFabula, Sunshine and Rain<
Pt. 5 ExFabula, Tom Crawford, a Thankful Trim
Pt. 6 ExFabula, Monumental Integrity and Murals