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Remembering George Marshall Clark, Milwaukee's only documented lynching victim

As we gear up for Black History Month, we might assume that the only purpose of the month is to celebrate the achievements and history of African Americans, but it’s also to recognize the sacrifices Black people made while paving the way. Tyrone Randle is one of the many folks in Milwaukee who is doing just that.

Randle can be described as many things: an activist, artist, historian and self-proclaimed grave hunter. When Randle was a student at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, he was working on his thesis on police brutality. When he felt that he needed more sources to support his work, he took on an independent study. During that time, in 2015, Randle came across an article that unraveled a haunting historical story that propelled them to his title as a grave hunter.

Tyrone Randle | Courtesy of Tyrone Randle

He learned about George Marshall Clark, a 22-year-old Black man who was murdered by lynching in 1861, the only reported lynching in Milwaukee History.

Let’s take a look at our history. In 1850, Congress passed the fugitive slave act requiring that slaves be returned to their owners even if they lived in a free state. In 1854, Joshua Glover, a fugitive slave from St. Louis sought asylum in Racine but was ultimately captured. These tensions drove a significant portion of Milwaukee’s Black community to flee.

One of the few who stayed behind was Clark. Clark was a respected member of his community and a barber. In 1861, Clark was accused of bothering two white women on the street. That evening Clark was forcibly removed from his jail cell and ultimately lynched by a group of 50 to 57 Irishmen.

It wasn’t until Randle had first-hand experience with police brutality that he made a personal connection with Clark. Randle was one of many who protested around Milwaukee after the death of George Floyd.

“I ended getting beaten up by the cops,” said Randle. “I was hit by a car because they left me in the middle of the streets and dragged 50 feet. I broke three ribs, both wings of my pelvis, my lower spine and I had a concussion.”

Randle said he felt defeated at the hospital because it was a time of action and he couldn’t do anything. He ended up talking to folks and sharing Clark’s story and decided to dedicate a march for him.

Before marching in his honor, Randle wanted to pay respects at his gravesite. Upon arrival, he quickly realized that because Clark was carelessly buried that night 161 years ago, there was no headstone or proper marker to locate his gravesite. It took two whole days to find his location. He used the process of elimination and checking off named gravestones. The first day was a bust. Then he met Darren, a worker at the Forest Home Cemetery.

“We were hovering over the spot and he measured where he thought the location was,” said Randle. “That led for him to call his people, they came and located the plot.”

Realizing that history had been erased in real-time inspired Randle to spread awareness. With crowdsourcing and working with Forest Home Cemetery, funds were raised to place a headstone over Clark's site, so Milwaukeeans can properly pay their respect. The headstone in section 17 of the cemetery is inscribed, “Lest we forget George Marshall Clark.”  

Randle said that although Clark is the only reported lynching in Milwaukee, he isn't the only person with an unmarked gravesite. Randle is already starting the process of obtaining a headstone for Martin Smith, a Black man Randle calls a hero.

“There was an entire block of Black caucus changer makers over here and Martin was in that first group,” said Randle. “When we talk about the earlier days of the city, this Black group of people was helping change the laws. They are important.”

Smith also helped abolitionists break out Joshua Glover via the Underground Railroad.

“That’s something that needs to be in the history books,” said Randle. “Something that Black children need because it’s something I didn't have growing up. Something that probably would've helped me think a lot more fondly of myself and my blackness.” 

Randle is in the process of raising funds for a headstone for Martin Smith. If you would like to follow along his journey or get involved, follow him on Twitter.

Audio Storyteller / 88Nine On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee