88Nine Radio Milwaukee

Preserving and celebrating Wisconsin’s Black history

640 480
88Nine Radio Milwaukee
Urban Spelunking: Wisconsin Black Historical Society

This week on Urban Spelunking, we check out a local organization devoted to preserving African American history.

The Wisconsin Black Historical Society opened its doors in 1987, founded by Clayborn Benson.  It occupies two buildings — a former public library which later became a fire station, and an old movie theater — near 27th and Center St.

Inside, you’ll find educational displays and artifacts celebrating black history.  On one end of the building, a replica barber shop offers a glimpse into the past.

There are also beer bottles from Milwaukee’s first black-owned brewery, People’s Beer.

Upstairs, a collection of books offers the public an opportunity to dig even deeper into black history.

Decades of planning

Benson was employed as a TV news cameraman in the 1980s while simultaneously working to open the museum. He would essentially work back-to-back full time shifts in those early days.

“I’m serious, I’ve given my life to this,” he said to OnMilwaukee’s Bobby Tanzilo. “I mean, 3 o’clock in the morning shoveling snow, climbing on top of the roofs and patching holes squirrels had dug. Maintenance all the time. All the time. So yeah, it’s a struggle.”

Clayborn Benson and Jamila Benson.

Now, 30 years later, Benson says all the effort was worth it as he prepared to hand off his legacy to his daughter, Jamila.

Click the player below to hear my conversation with Tanzilo.

To read Bobby’s complete story, visit OnMilwaukee.com.

All photos above via OnMilwaukee.