Remembering the Black Nite Brawl’s Role in Milwaukee’s LGBTQ History

Public recognition is finally coming for a transformational LGBTQ uprising that occurred at a Downtown bar 60 years ago.

The Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project on Thursday will host an event at the site of the former Black Nite tavern, 400 N. Plankinton Ave., where a young Black transgender woman named Josie Carter fought back against the homophobic violence that invaded the establishment on Aug. 5, 1961.

Scheduled speakers at the event are expected to include: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett; Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa; a representative of the Milwaukee County Executive’s Office; Brice Smith, author, historian and coordinator of the Wisconsin Transgender Oral History Project; Elle Halo, transgender rights activist, educator and community health champion; and Don Schwamb, founder, and Michail Takach, curator, of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project.

On Thursday night, the Hoan Bridge will be illuminated in pride and transgender flag colors from dusk until 2 a.m. to honor those being called the “unsung heroes of the Black Nite.” All lighting costs will be covered by the Black Nite 60 fundraiser, hosted by the History Project and GoFundMe donors.

“She knew her very existence was criminal, her actions could have extreme social and legal consequences, and she may even be killed. But Josie Carter did not run from a fight,” event organizers stated.

 

 

With violence awaiting at the tavern’s doorstep, Carter beckoned to her community to start fighting back – inspiring something they’d never felt before – a sense of pride in themselves and each other, according to those who have tracked the history of the uprising.

“On the great game board of local LGBTQ history, all the dominoes lead back to the Black Nite,” said Don Schwamb, founder of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project. “Nothing was ever quite the same again after that night.”

The Black Nite Brawl, as it became known, triggered cultural change in Milwaukee. News coverage of the Black Nite episode continued for more than a week, leading to demands for liberation from the city’s once-isolated LGBTQ community.

Some of the earliest gay rights activists, including Eldon Murray and Alyn Hess, cited the Black Nite Brawl as an early glimmer of hope. Enterprising business owners began to open more and more bars catering to LGBTQ people, including some of whom identified as LGBTQ themselves. By 1969, nearly 40 gay bars had opened in Milwaukee.

The Black Nite, however, was forced to close and the block on which it had sat was demolished to disperse the gay neighborhood that had been thriving there since 1949, the group said.

“Thanks to the efforts of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project, this seminal event in our community’s history has been reclaimed from storytelling lore,” said Smith, who served as coordinator of the Milwaukee Transgender Oral History Project, where Carter’s account of the Black Nite Brawl was first recorded in 2011.

“For more than 50 years, Carter was encouraged time and again to recount the night she fought off homophobic instigators and led her queer bar-mates in defending one of the few city spaces where they were free to be.”

The Black Nite rebellion has never garnered the attention given to more well-known uprisings, like the Stonewall riots, a series of demonstrations by the gay community in response to a police raid in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. There also was Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, sparked by violent and relentless police harassment of drag queens and trans people.

“Unlike the Stonewall and Compton’s Cafeteria riots, the Black Nite Brawl did not pit queer and trans people of color against the police,” Smith said. “Milwaukee police stood with their friend Josie on the right side of history, rounding up the queer community’s attackers.”

Many of the first generation inspired by the Black Nite lost their lives to AIDS, leaving an ever-shrinking group of aging survivors with first-hand remembrances of the uprising. Carter died in 2014 without ever accepting or receiving any formal recognition for her pivotal role in changing Wisconsin LGBTQ history.

“The Black Nite demonstrates why commemoration is so important,” Schwamb said. “LGBTQ history is not taught in Wisconsin schools. Until LGBTQ life experiences are fairly reflected in public museums, exhibits and landmarks, they will constantly run this risk of being lost to time.”

Carter was survived by a son and countless other “children” that she’d informally adopted, coached and mentored over the years after their own families had rejected them due to their gender or sexual identities, the group said.

The Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project began as a collaboration between PrideFest Milwaukee and the National Gay and Lesbian Archives to preserve and protect local LGBTQ history. Since 1995, the Project has grown from a table exhibit to the state’s largest collection of LGBTQ memories and memorabilia.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.