Plowshares and Prison Bars: Southwest Wisconsin’s Black Settler Communities

By Ben Prostine

A historical marker along a road in Hillsboro, Wisconsin describes the state’s largest black rural settlement, Cheyenne Valley. Established in 1855, Cheyenne Valley included nearly 150 black settlers, some former slaves and some long-free, who would not only become prosperous farmers but would also help establish the state’s first integrated schools and churches.

The community is remembered for its comparative harmony as black settlers intermarried and cooperatively worked with their Norwegian, Irish, and Czechoslovakian neighbors. The authors of the sign attribute the gradual decline of the rural black population to “the advent of the automobile, and other elements of change.” 

What could be meant by “other elements of change”?

To contemplate systemic racism also means to contemplate the wider social system racism cannot be separated from: capitalism. As a social system, capitalism depends on inequality and class distinctions and in the U.S. these relations have been and continue to be racialized. Even before the rise of modern racist ideology and the inventions of white supremacy, class relations depended on defining the exploited class in a degrading language of difference and estrangement. 

Furthermore, the history of systemic racism may appear in social and political ways that are difficult to identify, especially in the upper Middle West. Unlike the South, there are no plantation mansions, no living memories of Jim Crow, and no Confederate statues still waiting to be toppled. Indeed, in rural areas of the upper Middle West, systemic racism often remains largely hidden, its roots revealed in moments of history long buried and sometimes brief. 

Breaking the Laws of Slavery 

The two largest black settlements in rural Wisconsin, Cheyenne Valley (Vernon County) and Pleasant Ridge (Grant County), were both located in the driftless region in the southwest corner of the state. These settlements were established on land expropriated from the Ho Chunk nation through a series of land treaties in the first half of the 19th century. Wisconsin, along with Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, became a part of Thomas Jefferson’s so-called “empire of liberty” through the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. In what historian Ana-Lisa Cox refers to as the first Great Migration, numerous black settlers moved into the territory, establishing over 300 rural settlements between the passing of the ordinance and the beginning of the Civil War. 

While the Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery, an 1835 census revealed twenty-nine of the ninety-one blacks in the territory were listed as slaves. Nine slaves were owned by Southern officers stationed at Fort Crawford near Prairie du Chien; the others mostly resided in the nearby boom towns of the lead mining region. According to historian Eric Foner, slave owners in the Northwest Territory often claimed their illegally held slaves had “voluntarily signed long-term labor contracts.” In 1846, one illegally held ex-slave, Paul Jones of Grant County, would sue his former owner for back wages (the case was unsuccessful). 

If early black settlers in southwest Wisconsin were escaping increasingly hostile relations in the northeast or the “peculiar institution” of slavery in the South, Wisconsin was still far from the promised land. Only a year before the first settlers came to Cheyenne Valley, Joshua Glover, an ex-slave who was living in Racine, was captured by his former master and brutally beaten before his incarceration in the Milwaukee Jail. The capture of Glover was legally protected under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a federal law which allowed escaped slaves to be returned to their masters with the cooperation of free states where slavery was outlawed.

In response to Glover’s seizure, local abolitionists organized a “mob” numbering in the thousands. After appeals to the court failed to promptly free Glover, the group gathered outside the jail in Milwaukee. About twenty men seized a twenty foot long timber as a battering ram, broke down the jail house door and assisted Glover in his escape. Glover would take shelter in numerous farm houses near Waukesha and Burlington before fleeing to Canada by boat where he would live until his death in 1888. The actions of this so-called “mob” of abolitionists not only resisted the institution of slavery, but also the institution of incarceration, the jail. In a court case concerning this violation of federal law, the Wisconsin Supreme Court would declare the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional and refuse to enforce it. As the abolitionists realized before the courts, law and justice are not always synonymous. 

Sundown Towns and the KKK in Wisconsin 

It’s not hard to imagine that accounts of Joshua Glover and other victims of slave patrols and racist laws would haunt the early black farmers in Wisconsin. Furthermore, despite the spirited abolitionism of Wisconsin’s early years of statehood, evidence of systematic racism would continue to present itself. The predominantly white demographics of many rural areas and cities today is not an accident, but the historical result of exclusion, refusals to sell land or hire, and threats of violence. 

Between 1890 and 1930, over one hundred towns in Wisconsin became what researcher James Loewen calls “sundown towns” – “places that were ‘all-white’ on purpose.” During this period, Wisconsin counties without any black residents would double and by 1930, half of the state’s counties had fewer than ten black residents. Sundown towns included not only small rural villages but also larger cities like Appleton, La Crosse, and Janesville. These illegal tactics of intimidation were sometimes enforced by legal entities. In Sheboygan, for example, police officers would meet blacks at the train station and warn them not to stay there.

Adding to this culture of racism would be the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and the spread of the hate group to the North and Middle West in the 1920s. KKK members in Wisconsin sometimes included community leaders like ministers and government employees like the police. Former Madison police chief William McCormick, referring to the presence of the Klan in Madison in the 1920s, recalled how “pretty near all the men in the department were Klansmen.” While the KKK of the 20th century is often remembered for its terrorist tactics towards blacks, they also directed their hate at Jews, Italians, Eastern Europeans, labor organizers and Catholics. 

Otis and Blanch Arms, pictured in 1979. Photo courtesy of Darrell Lofton.

A KKK chapter was formed in Vernon County with its headquarters situated in an insurance office in Viroqua, about 30 miles from Cheyenne Valley. In an interview in the late 1960s, Otis Arms, a black resident of Cheyenne Valley, recalled how the KKK threatened his brother in the 1920s. After Arms told the KKK he would resort to self-defense if they returned, the threats ceased, perhaps further testifying to the local community support Arms knew he possessed. As Lynda Schaller relates in a piece published in the anthology Contours: A Literary Landscape, Arms was also defended by three Czech farmers after “an outsider called him a racist name” and demanded to know what he was doing in a Hillsboro tavern (the three Czech farmers preceded to pin the man to the wall before kicking him out).

Despite the Vernon County KKK chapter winning an American flag, valued at $150, for the most successful recruiting program in the state in August 1924, the chapter, along with most of the Klan’s organization in Wisconsin, dissolved by the end of the decade.

Plowshares to Prison Bars?

If the journey in this article begins with a road sign near Hillsboro attesting to a prosperous black farming community of the state’s past, it could end a short drive away at any of southwest Wisconsin’s four correctional institutions. In many rural counties in Wisconsin, the largest population of blacks now reside in prisons, such as the ones located in Prairie du Chien, Boscobel, New Lisbon, and Black River Falls. These incarcerated populations, often far from their homes and families and with no right to vote, are counted as residents of wherever the prison is located, a practice the Prison Policy Initiative refers to as “prison gerrymandering.” 

In addition, if Wisconsin was a sovereign nation, the state’s incarceration rate (676 per 100,000 as of 2018) would be less than the United States but higher than every other country in the world. And while incarceration disproportionately affects black, brown, and indigenous people, white incarceration rates alone would still place a hypothetical Wisconsin nation tenth in the world. As of June 2018, 44% of male inmates were black and 52% white. 

But this historical road trip from the site of black farms on former indigenous lands to the prison-industrial complex of farm country today was never an inevitability. The wider context of the growth of the prison industrial complex in Wisconsin and the rest of the U.S. includes deindustrialization, the continual dispossession of farmers, rising CO2 levels, the gutting of social welfare programs, and a runaway military budget. Mass incarceration has been one heavily funded political tactic, and a failing one at that, to address the failures of contemporary capitalism. 

But to return to our earlier account of Joshua Glover, the word “abolitionist” survives in our lexicon, too, no longer referring to one who envisions the abolition of slavery but to one who envisions and works toward a world where police and prisons are no longer the response to social ills. What might a country look like that shifted the billions of dollars it invests in prisons and law enforcement into physical and mental health care, housing, education, the arts, reparations, community farms and gardens? If swords can be turned into plowshares, so too can prison bars. 

Top photo: The Samuel Arms farmstead in the Cheyenne Valley. Photo courtesy of Darrell Lofton.

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