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Crossroads: Spaces, Places, and Beloit-Born Activism 

Crossroads are important, often deliberate connections that exist between the past and present. They connect actions, places, and spaces, and many of these crossroads shape our reality today. Memorials and spaces are purposeful and lived spaces that we occupy daily. History for/by the descendant communities of these spaces is starting to challenge silences about their stories. Utilizing activism, the untold and silenced stories are uncovered. Spaces and memorials are recontextualized and take on a new meaning/symbolism. Activism is an everyday practice that is multidimensional and multi-sited over time and generations.

Crossroads

Èșù-Elegbara

Unknown Yoruba artist

West Africa, early to mid 20th century 

Credit: Logan Museum of Anthropology, 2017.8.4

The spirit entity of Èșù-Elegbara (Yoruba) or variant spellings of Eshu-Elegba is known to be the caretaker of the crossroads; those pivotal points of decision wherein right action can be taken after careful deliberation. Though often read as a “trickster figure,” the more appropriate understanding is that it promotes individuals to be rigorous and discerning with their decisions at all moments. In this image of Èșù-Elegbara from a West Africa context, the elongated headpiece is representative of a parrot feather (ekodide) positioned to signify not carrying a burden on one’s head. The lengths of cowrie shells adorning the figure’s body represent the embodiment of an abundance of good character. 

 

The placement of Eshu-Elegba within this exhibit speaks to the creative and persistent ways African descendants create self-affirming ways to be in community. Eshu-Elegba also serves as a touchstone for thinking about ways to take discerning and persistent actions to chip away at structural and actual violence in our everyday choices.

What discerning anti-racist actions have you taken or will take in the future? What wise actions can you take in the future to support Black Livea Matter?

Underground Railroad 

Ozella's Underground Railroad Quilt Code

Credit: Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard (1999)

The need for African Americans to find locations where they could live without the threat of being enslaved or re-enslaved intensified with the Supreme Court Ruling in 1853, Dred Scott v. Sandford, issued on March 6, 1857. This ruling by the country’s highest court declared that African Americans were not citizens of the United States and could not sue in Federal courts. In effect, the law of the country had officially ruled that Black lives did not matter. 

 

The rise of the “The Underground Railroad” refers to the informal network of “way stations,” including individuals and organizations, like churches that helped enslaved Black Americans make their way to locations throughout the northern U.S. and Canada where they could be self-determining about their lives. 

The degree to which residents of Beloit were involved in the “Underground Railroad” has been long debated, as proof of its actual presence and the degree of local involvement have been contested. However, this provides a critical moment of insight about what counts as reliable archival sources for Black communities. Since living free as citizens with full and equal rights was seen as illegal for Blacks, alternative methods were devised to counter this assault to their humanity. The “Underground Railroad” is but one of many multidimensional practices that allowed individuals and communities to make their own choices about their humanity.

 

Clandestine activities to enable freedom for enslaved people wouldn't necessarily be part of official written archives because of the risk. However, “documentation” of the activities would exist in “alternative archives,” collections about lived experiences at the social margins hidden from view and written records. Black communities maintain several types of alternative archives. These include oral narratives of  persistence and activities are the records. Material culture also serves as an archive, such as quilts that could be hung over a fence with specific patterns indicating spaces of a safe haven.

Panel Grouping

Credit: Sharon Tindall

Even as Beloit might not have served as a central depot of the “Underground Railroad,” some residents were supportive of the abolition and anti-slavery cause. In November 1854, Fredrick Douglass,  the famous anti-enslavement orator and  fugitive formerly enslaved person, made a surprise visit to Beloit with Joshua R. Giddings, Radical Republican and Congressman from Ohio, known for his staunch anti-slavery position.  They spoke at the Baptist Church (formally sitting at the crossroads of the NE corner of Pleasant Street and East Grand). Significantly, Douglas’ appearance was a surprise, announced only hours before, yet the event was exceptionally well attended. This suggests that the word of mouth network was operative and effective in drawing a crowd for the event, yet protective enough that Douglas was not apprehended before or as he spoke. 

It is the slave (sic) who risked his (sic) life by following a “railroad” that required both the courage and ingenuity of its “passengers…” the true hero of any story about the underground railroad is the fugitive who somehow reached freedom against insurmountable odds

-Richard Hartung, Director of the Rock County Historical Society

(Quote from Book of Beloit by John C. Munson,1986)

While the particulars of many human resilience stories are lost to time, the power of hidden archives of Black resistance and persistence is preserved within music and songs, containing coded messages that tell other stories of Black existence and resistance. One example that is often cited as being significant to movement on the “Underground Railroad” is the genre of music known as “Negro Spirituals,” which articulated suffering and liberation for the Black community. One such example of a “Negro Spiritual” is “Steal Away to Jesus.” These songs of resilience and resistance provided the foundations for distinctive musical genres within the U.S., including the Blues, Rock n’ Roll, Gospel, Rhythm & Blues, and, Hip Hop and Rap.

 

What contemporary songs and artists are now associated with Black Lives Matter? What messages do they contain? What histories are embedded inside the lyrics? How does music educate about Black Resistance and Persistence? How does music create social space? 

Civil War Era 

2nd Wisconsin, Company C 

Circa 1862

Photograph 

Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society

Black Americans’ armed resistance to inhumane conditions of racial enslavement, structural exclusion, and state sanctioned violence is not new. One dimension of this active resistance was the ability to join the Union Army to fight against enslavement and the structural political, economic, and social systems that enabled it. The history of Black Soldiers who fought in the Civil War is nuanced and multidimensional. Four Black soldiers from Beloit are thought to have enlisted in what was then called the “U.S. Colored Troops”―Peter Dabney, Moses Nelson, James Reed, and John Strothers.  John Strothers is known to have returned to Beloit where he became a blacksmith, married and raised eight children. Two of his sons, Merril‘02 and Theodore‘03, later  graduated from Beloit College.

Early Migration Era

Fairbanks Morse African American Workers  “Fairbanks Morse African American Workers ,” Coming Up North: A History Harvest About Black Migration to Beloit, Wisconsin, accessed September 3, 2020

Fairbanks Morse African American Workers 

Credit: “Fairbanks Morse African American Workers,” Coming Up North: A History Harvest About Black Migration to Beloit, Wisconsin

In search of work prospects, better civil rights, housing, and educational opportunities for their children, many Black families migrated from the conservative South to the more liberal North. From 1910 to 1970, this wave of migration became known as “The Great Migration.”

Fairbanks Morse actively recruited Black men from northeastern Mississippi to work in their foundry. This recruitment sparked an influx of Black immigrants to Beloit, who required housing . Fairbanks responded to this pressure by creating Fairbanks Flats, a segregated housing community for Black factory workers and their family’s.

Civil Rights Era 

News Clipping: Rubie Bond worked untiringly for civil, human rights

Credit: Beloit College Archives

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s  saw the Freedom Riders, nationwide staged sit-ins at white-only eating establishments, international and national media exposing police brutality against peaceful protesters, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Beloit College students, white and Black, united to demand equal treatment and rights for Black students.

News Clipping: Delta Gamma Suspends Beloit Unit For Pledging Madison Negro Girl

Credit: Beloit College Archives

Sororities and Fraternities

Prior to the pressures for the Civil Rights movement, sororities and fraternities were not spaces for Black students. At Beloit, this is seen in the early 1960s when Robert Carter, a Black student, and his white roommate, Jim Zwerg, rushed a fraternity together. Carter was denied while Zwerg was accepted; Zwerg then refused to accept his bid (and soon after joined the Freedom Riders). 

The following year, Patricia Hamilton, a Black student, rushed Delta Gamma sorority. She was accepted by her peers, but the national organization suspended their chapter due to her race. In response, the local chapter founded an independent sorority, Theta Pi Gamma.

The Black Demands and Black Students United

News Clipping: Black Demands

Credit: Roundtable, March 26

In the spring of 1969, members of the Afro-American Union occupied the Admissions Office to demand more equal treatment and representation. Their twelve-point list, known as the “Black Demands,” called for increased enrollment of Black students, more Black faculty and counselors, additional courses in African and Afro-American history and culture, and the integration of academics and spaces dedicated to Black students.

In response, the college administration agreed to expand their search for Black professors, create a college-financed Black cultural center, revise the college catalog, run a symposium on Blackness, review course offerings, and create a committee to review and update admission practices. 

The 1969 Black Demands succeeded in changing the ways in which Black students were treated. Yet, there was a building frustration of things left undone. In the 1980s, student members of the Sounds of Blackness created  a new list based on the original 1969 Demands. Their goals were to establish a stronger sense of community, create a Big Brother Big Sister program to aid first-year students, bring in more activities and programming that represented Black communities, and finally,  create a Black Student Union. Few of these goals were realized, but these actions helped restart conversations about race and racism on campus.

Poster for the integrated curriculum rally at Pearsons Hall, 1994

Credit: Beloit College Archives

Sounds of Blackness Goals

Credit: Beloit College Archives

Demonstrations resumed in the 1990s, led by Black Students United. On March 23, 1990, a major protest took place at Pearsons Hall with over 300 students showing up to demand that faculty teach and utilize academic works from ethnically diverse scholars. 

On October 12, 1994, Black Students United presented a new formal list of demands including that Black students be refunded their student activity fee, a Black speaker be brought on campus each year, a Black professor be hired, 20 Black students be recruited each year, a new financial aid program provide scholarships for 5 Black students each year, a course on Blackness be taught by a Black professor every year, and finally,  Residential Life provide a space in Wood A (dorm)  for a Black Students United “house.”

Current Day Activism at a Crossroads

Students gathering after KKK graffiti

Credit: Roundtable, Ryan Jacquement, 2017

The Black Lives Matter movement gained national and international attention with the murder of Trayvon Martin. More recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and numerous other unarmed Black bodies by police has led to numerous protests against police brutality, along with calls for defunding the police.  Regrettably, the Beloit College community has not been immune to racist acts of hate and injustice.

Black Lives Matter

With a string of hate crimes occurring yearly, the Black Student Union and Students for an Inclusive Campus called on the college administration and student body to come together and reevaluate our ethics and the policies for dealing with racial attacks. Black Students United also created a list of demands for the college regarding the treatment of BIPOC students, faculty, and staff. 

 

In recent years, students and faculty have joined with the community in marches and protests against the murders of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless other Black lives that were taken by the police. 

Spaces and Places was curated by:

Fred Burwell'86

Shannon Fie

Sonya Johnson

Amelia W. Nuzzo'20