Facing Racism: Hidden history of Black leaders in La Crosse brought to life for an important message

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT)– Black leaders are keeping the conversation going about racism in America, by shedding a light on those left in the shadows. La Crosse community members are bringing attention to the hidden history in our own backyard.

We’re walking in their footsteps.

“He won a bronze medal in the 400-meter hurdles, making him the first African American Olympic medalist in the world,” said Denise Christy-Moss in an audio file portraying Nellie Poage.

Sharing the same home.

“We lived at 729 Mill Street, which is now an empty lot on Copeland Avenue,” said Dodie Whitaker, portraying Birletta (Waldon) Loving.

And setting up shop in the same spot.

“I managed an elaborate barbershop that was inside the Augusta Hotel,” said Torrence Chester, portraying John Birney.

Their legacies left here for us to learn.

“People have to know this and what better way than to do it on Juneteenth,” said Shaundel Spivey, co-founder and president for Black Leaders Acquiring Collective Knowledge.

B.L.A.C.K. organized a series of events for the day, which celebrates when the last of the enslaved people were freed in Texas in 1865. But for this event, they’re turning their attention to those who lived in the Coulee Region.

“A lot of folks don’t know the history of Black folks in La Crosse and the contributions that have been made over [the] years,” Spivey said.

That’s where the Enduring Families Project comes in.

“We pooled our resources to get the story out,” said Christy-Moss, who is also the producer for the Enduring Families Project.

The theater group through the La Crosse County Historical Society started with just a few stories of notable Black citizens but has grown into much more.

“This is a multicultural community today and it was a multicultural community back then,” Christy-Moss said.

It’s an experience Christy-Moss said can encourage inclusion and belonging.

“Conversations [and] new knowledge helps to eliminate bias,” Christy-Moss said.

Over the weekend, actors portraying some of those local movers and shakers stood where they once did. People listened to their life stories, like tales from the first black man to run for president, George Edwin Taylor.

“I was one of the nation’s most influential Black Democrats,” said actor Darrell Ferguson, portraying Taylor.

And heard about his foster parents, Nathan and Sarah Smith, through audio files on the Enduring Families Project website.

“Sarah and I had at least 30 children over the years,” said actor Walfsty Pierre, portraying Nathan Smith.

In the mid to late 1800s, the Moss family was well known for their work.

“My father Zachariah Lewis Moss had his shop on Pearl Street, between Second and Third. I first learned about barbering there,” said Anthony Norris, portraying Zachariah Henry Moss.

Even Lydia Redfora Moss owned her own barbershop.

“It filled me with great joy knowing that I paved the way for other women,” said Richelle Brunn, portraying Moss.

It’s a story that’s personal.

“I knew nothing about the Moss’s in this area,” said Christy-Moss.

Denise Christy-Moss married into the family. Her husband is one of the descendants.

“You think of African Americans moving to the urban districts. I didn’t know people moved to these smaller districts,” Christy-Moss said.

‘I didn’t know.’ They hear that one a lot– even from the actors.

“It’s very enlightening to learn about the African Americans that were here in the late 1800s and that were very prominent in the community,” Chester said.

It’s one of the reasons why their work is so important. To families like Lance Wulf’s, it’s more than just seeing the moments captured in time, it’s the bigger picture.

“…helping them to be proud of who they are. To understand that heritage and not be ashamed of it. To be confident of who they are as they grow older and become adults,” said Wulf, who has both black and white children.

By recognizing those who came before them they’re fostering the next generation of leaders. It’s a lesson learned in time.

“When young people know the greatness that they come from, they’re able to then reach for goals and dreams of their own,” Spivey said.

The Enduring Families Project is working to get these stories and others taught in the La Crosse School District. The district confirms they’re participating in the rewriting of the social studies curriculum.

They’re creating videos about the historic figures, though this portion of the project had to be delayed due to COVID-19. They’re expecting the videos to be finished in the Fall of 2021.

If you missed the tour, you can still hear the recordings and find the locations on the La Crosse County Historical Society’s website.

This is part of a series of investigations into racial issues in our area. You can watch others in the series here.