20 Black Men & Women Who Shaped Wisconsin History

By Christina Lorey

January 23, 2023

February is Black History Month.

From the first slaves fighting for freedom to the modern day leaders rallying for change, Black people have positively and permanently changed the Badger state. Wisconsin’s history can’t be told without them.

This Black History Month, we’re sharing their stories– including some parts you probably don’t know.

Hank Aaron

1. Hank Aaron (1934-2021)

Baseball legend Henry Aaron (aka “Hammerin’ Hank) started and ended his Major League Baseball career in Milwaukee, playing 21 seasons with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves and two with the Brewers. He brought home one World Series title for Wisconsin in 1957.

By the time he retired, Aaron had broken the long-standing MLB record for home runs held by Babe Ruth (755), and he still holds the records for the most career RBIs (2,297), extra base hits (1,477), and total bases (6,856).

FUN FACT: The total base record is especially remarkable: at the time of Aaron’s retirement, he had travelled more than 12 miles farther on the base paths than any other player in history!

Aaron died in his sleep at the age of 86 in 2021.

DID YOU KNOW? In 2022, a recording of the WSB broadcast of the April 8, 1974 Braves-Dodgers game in which Hammerin’ Hank hit his 715th home run was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry.

Corinda Rainey Moore

2. Corinda Rainey-Moore 

A mental health professional and advocate for more than 25 years, Corinda Rainey-Moore was the first and only African-American to lead not just one, but two peer support programs for adults with severe and persistent mental illnesses in Dane County.

She is also the first and only African-American to have served as Chair of the National Alliance on Mental Health.

FUN FACT: Corinda has been married to her husband, Bobby, for 37 years and has two daughters and eight grandchildren.

In her limited free time, you can find her volunteering for more than a dozen organizations, including the Boys and Girls Club, NAMI, the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, and the Madison Reading Project.

Ezekiel Gillespie

3. Ezekiel Gillespie (1818-1892)

Born into slavery in Tennessee in 1818, Ezekiel Gillespie bought his own freedom and traveled north to Milwaukee in 1854. He quickly became a conductor on the Underground Railroad and helped open Wisconsin’s first Black church.

After the Civil War, Gillespie tried to register to vote, but was denied because of his race. His challenge reached the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which ruled in 1866 that black men could vote in the state– a right that wasn’t enshrined in the US Constitution until 1870.

DID YOU KNOW? It cost Gillespie $800 to buy his freedom from his European-American slave owner, who most likely was his father. (His mother was an African-American slave.)

Gillespie is buried in Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery, alongside 28 mayors, seven governors, and many other famous Wisconsinites.

4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1947- Present)

During his six seasons with the Bucks, the dominating, 7-foot-2 center put Milwaukee on the map. After leading the team to its first NBA championship at age 24 in 1971, he took the Muslim name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

And the rest is history. With his trademark skyhook shot, he quickly established himself as one of the league’s top scorers. By the time he retired at age 42, Abdul-Jabbar was the NBA’s all-time leader in eight categories, three of which he still holds today: points (38,387), field goals made (15,837), and career wins (1,074).

In 2016, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

FUN FACT: Abdul-Jabbar is also a martial artist and trained in Jeet Kune Do under Bruce Lee.

5. Ali Muldrow

Ali Muldrow is president of the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education and co-executive director of GSAFE, an organization that supports LGBTQ+ students in Madison schools. First elected to the school board in 2019, she helped guide the district through the COVID-19 pandemic and the hiring of a new superintendent. 

In 2015, she launched GSAFE’s New Narrative Project in the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center, which provides incarcerated young people with clear channels to academic success, civic engagement, and self-determination. She also helped create Wisconsin’s first Spoken Word class that allows high school students to receive academic credit by studying urban art forms.

FUN FACT: Last month, Muldrow was named among Wisconsin’s 52 most influential Black leaders.

6. Vel Phillips (1924-2018)

You need a lot of paper to list all of Vel Phillips’ ‘firsts,’ but among them, she’s the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School, the first African American and the first woman elected to the Milwaukee Common Council, and the first African American and the first woman to serve as a jurist in Wisconsin.

As the Badger State’s first female, non-white Secretary of State, she became the highest-ranking woman to win state office in Wisconsin in the 20th century.

DID YOU KNOW? Even after leaving office, Phillips devoted her life to service, creating her own charity to help minorities find affordable housing, good-paying jobs, scholarships, and more.

In August 2011, the University of Wisconsin-Madison renamed one of its residence halls for her, and in 2014, the Wisconsin Alumni Association awarded Phillips its Distinguished Alumni Award.

FUN FACT: Phillips will become the first Black person with a statue on state capitol grounds in the entire country, once hers is installed in Madison later this year.

7. James Cameron (1914-2006)

No, not that one: Wisconsin’s Dr. James Cameron is the kind of man movies are made about

In 1930, 16-year-old Cameron and two friends were jailed in Indiana for suspected robbery, murder and rape. A mob dragged all three teenagers out, killing Cameron’s friends first, before turning to him. 

After he was beaten, a noose was put around his neck, and he was hanged. Cameron’s life was spared when one person in the mob removed the noose. Although he was found guilty for accessory to murder and served five years in jail, Cameron used that time to write his memoir, “A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story” and plan for life as a free man. 

Post-prison life wasn’t what Cameron expected, so he and his wife decided to move to Canada. But, after stopping in Milwaukee along the way, they decided to make it their home!

 America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee was founded by Cameron.

8. Donna Burkett & Manonia Evans

In 1971, 25-year-old Donna Burkett and Manonia Evans, a Black lesbian couple, applied for a marriage license with the Milwaukee County Clerk’s Office. They were denied, so they filed a lawsuit and became part of the early national fight for marriage equality. 

Their suit was ultimately dismissed, but not before the couple’s actions received national attention and they were featured in Jet Magazine. 

FUN FACT: In 2014, Burkett received an “everyday courage” award from the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center.

Although no longer a couple, Burkett says she has fond memories of her relationship with Manonia and the movement they helped ignite together.

9. Melvin Gordon

Melvin Gordon III has been making football games exciting for Wisconsin fans since high school. The Kenosha native was named the Wisconsin Gatorade Football Player of the Year for his record-setting 2,000-yard, 38-touchdown senior season at Bradford High School before committing to the Badgers. 

He quickly made an impact, and by the end of his junior season, he became the send all-time single-season rusher in FBS history with 2,587 yards, just 41 shy of Barry Sanders’ record. After finishing second in Heisman Trophy voting that same year, Gordon entered the NFL Draft. 

FUN FACT: In 2018, he founded Beyond the Flash, a foundation that helps fight hunger by supporting organizations in California, Colorado, and Wisconsin.

Gordon is currently on the Kansas City Chief’s practice squad. He formerly played for the Los Angeles (San Diego) Chargers and the Denver Broncos, where he was reunited with former Badger Russell Wilson.

10. Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965)

Lorraine Hansberry’s Wisconsin connection is that she attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison for two years. During that time, she worked on Henry A. Wallace’s Progressive Party presidential campaign and classmates remember her as the only person “who could whip together a fresh picket sign at a moment’s notice for any occasion.”

In 1950, she left Madison to pursue a writing career in New York City. Nine years later, her play– A Raisin in the Sun, which highlights the lives of Black Americans living under racial segregation– would debut on Broadway, making her the first African-American female author to have her work performed on the Great White Way!

FUN FACT: At the age of 29, Hansberry won the prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, making her the first African-American dramatist, the fifth women, and the youngest playwright to do so.

She died of pancreatic cancer at 34 years young.

DID YOU KNOW? Hansberry inspired the Nina Simone song, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.”

11. Ross Bagley 

Born in the Dells, Bagley lived in the Badger State for his entire non-working life… which only lasted until the age of 6. That’s when Bagley starred as Buckwheat in the award-winning family comedy “The Little Rascals” (1994), which earned him a Young Artist Award.

Later that year, he won the role of Nicky Banks and moved to Bel-Air, both on & off-screen, to shoot “The Fresh Prince,” which earned him even more awards and several Golden Globe nominations.

DID YOU KNOW? Bagley briefly returned to acting in 2015, starring in two horror films, “Gnome Alone” and “Dead Ringer.”

Bagley currently works as a real estate agent in Los Angeles.

12. Prophet Blackmon (1921-2010) 

Born William Joshua Blackmon, he served in the U.S. Army during World War II before settling in Milwaukee in 1974, where Blackmon owned the Revival Center Shoe Repair and Shine Parlor in the now-demolished Sydney HiH building.

In 1982, he began an unexpected career as an artist after the wife of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s director saw Blackmon’s hand-lettered signs in his storefront window and bought one for $100.

FUN FACT: One of Blackmon’s paintings is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in D.C.

DID YOU KNOW? Blackmon was also a well-known, well-loved street preacher. 

“I stay in the streets. The greatest theology is in the streets. The troubles are in the streets. I go to areas where buildings have been torn down, where there are vacant lots and I minister to those people,” he told the Milwaukee Journal in 1982. Blackmon died of natural causes at age 89 and was buried with military honors.

13. Carson Gulley (1897-1962) 

Carson Gulley served as head chef at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1926 to 1954. He’s famous for popularizing fudge-bottom pie, and his original recipe is still served to students today! 

DID YOU KNOW? The building where he worked (now Carson Gulley Commons) is the first UW building to be named after an African American.

Gulley was also a staple on local TV. From 1953 to 1962, he had his own weekly cooking show, called “What’s Cooking,” on local station WMTV (NBC).

FUN FACT: Gulley published his first book, Seasoning Secrets, in 1949 at the suggestion of George Washington Carver!

The chef was also a community activist and led the Madison branch of the NAACP, playing an instrumental role in passing the city’s Fair Housing Ordinance.

14. Porche Bennett-Bey 

Porche Bennett-Bey first made national headlines in August of 2020, after a photo of her holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign at a protest in Kenosha, the city she grew up in, went viral. The image showed the mom and US Army veteran kneeling, as protesters threw water bottles and police officers tear gassed and pepper balled her.

Now in her mid-30s, Bennett-Bay hasn’t stopped organizing for change in her community, quitting her job as an in-home caretaker to focus on racial justice work. 

DID YOU KNOW? She was named Time Magazine’s “Guardian of the Year” in 2020 (and was put on the cover!)

Click here to read Time’s full profile on Bennett-Bay.

15. Velma Ritcherson (1927-2022)

Velma Ritcherson lived in the same Madison house from the day she moved to Wisconsin in 1966 until the day she died. But she spent most of her time traveling the state, working to help increase diversity at the University of Wisconsin and within local communities.

Ritcherson said her career highlight was linking the UW-Madison with four historically Black colleges in the South. She helped coordinate the program’s exchange of faculty and students between the schools. 

DID YOU KNOW? Ritcherson’s husband, Lewis “Les”, was the first Black coach hired for any sport in the UW-System. He was an assistant coach for the football team from 1966-1970. 

Velma and Les were married for 72 years, until Les’ death in 2019.

FUN FACT: Ritcherson was also known for her candid takes on life. Her secret to a long, happy relationship? “It’s a give-and-take,” she said. “And thanks to the Lord, when we pass in the hall, I know who you are. You know who I am. I know who I am, you know who you are. That health part is important. We are truly blessed.”

16. Cindy Bentley 

Cindy Bentley is the executive director of People First, a statewide self-advocacy organization for people living with disabilities. Born with an intellectual disability herself, she spent much of her childhood at the Southern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled.

When she started participating with the Special Olympics, Cindy gained confidence, lifelong friends, and lots of medals: in tennis, track and field, and even snowshoeing! 

FUN FACT: In 2000, Cindy was chosen as a Global Messenger for the Special Olympics International and has had dinner with two different American presidents at the White House. 

DID YOU KNOW? Cindy’s life story is the subject of a book, “Spirit of a Champion.” Click here to check out a free digital copy today!

17. Alfred Gorham (1920-2009) 

After joining the Army Air Force in 1942 during World War II, Alfred Gorham became a pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen. He saw action over Budapest, Hungary and shot down two German Focke-Wulf 190 Fighters on August 3, 1944. 

In 1945, his P-51 had engine trouble over Munich, Germany, and he was captured and held by the Germans until the end of the war.

DID YOU KNOW? Gorham was the only Tuskegee Airman from Wisconsin.

He earned a Purple Heart, Prisoner of War Medal, and a Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’ highest honor, in 2006.

18. Robert Pierce

The most recent USDA report shows there are just 73 Black farmers in Wisconsin: less than 1% of the state’s total. Robert Pierce is not only working to grow produce, but the number of Black farmers.

He created PEAT, a Program for Entrepreneurial and Agriculture Training, to share his love of organic farming with people near his home in Fitchburg. Pierce also helps prospective farmers find land to lease or buy. 

DID YOU KNOW? In 1910, black farmers owned 16 million acres of US farmland. Today, they own 2.5 million– an 85% decrease.

During the pandemic, Pierce ran four farmers’ markets in the Madison area.

19. Al Jarreau (1940-2017)

Al Jarreau is a renowned singer and musician from Milwaukee who went on to record 21 albums and earn seven Grammy awards! The singer remains one of the few vocalists in Grammy history to win in the jazz, pop, and R&B categories. 

FUN FACT: Jarreau’s 1981 song “We’re in This Love Together” reached No. 10 on the Billboard chart and was No. 1 on both the jazz and R&B charts.

DID YOU KNOW? Every night he performed, Jarreau would proudly announce, “I’m from Milwaukee.”

The Wisconsin Foundation for School Music honored Jarreau with a lifetime achievement award in 2016, and established an endowment in his name, which provides financial assistance to Milwaukee Public Schools students who participate in music programs.

20. BIPOC Allies (aka YOU!)

BIPOC (pronounced “buy-pock”) stands for “Black, Indigenous, and People of Color” and became a more widely-used term during the 2020 George Floyd protests. And “ally” refers to a person who actively supports the rights of any minority or marginalized group without being a member of it. 

Simply put: It’s on all of us to care about and use whatever platform we have to advocate for Wisconsin’s BIPOC community. 

Let’s make this clear: This isn’t meant to suggest Black people need help from white people, or anyone. But, simply from a numbers standpoint, 87% of Wisconsinites are white, and less than 7% are Black.

DID YOU KNOW?Travel Wisconsin has a list of the state’s most established and emerging Black-owned businesses.

FUN FACT:Yelp reports more than 45,000 businesses have registered as Black-owned, making them easier to find.


  • Christina Lorey

    Christina is an Edward R. Murrow-winning journalist and former producer, reporter, and anchor for TV stations in Madison and Moline. When she’s not writing or asking questions, you can find her volunteering with Girls on the Run, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and various mental health organizations.

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