Generally, the most positive outcome of any bar fight is for everything to be settled and forgotten as quickly as possible. This is the story of a bar brawl that couldn’t stay buried because sometimes history is a shameless gossip. A basic version of events, stripped of context and embellishment, goes like this:
On a summer night many years ago in Milwaukee, patrons of the Black Nite tavern were minding their own business when four young men walked through the doors. Unwilling to furnish identification and sign a visitor’s log, which was required of all newcomers, the quartet insisted on admission to the point of disturbance, which was resolved only after one of the young men was brained with a beer bottle.
Later that night, the group returned to the Black Nite with reinforcements in tow. The attackers numbered in the double digits when they stormed the barroom hellbent on score settling. But the crowd inside the Black Nite was ready for them. A huge rumble engulfed the tavern for several frenzied moments until the intruders absconded into the night.
One can be forgiven for failing to identify anything in this summary that should mark the occasion with history’s imprint. However, the significance of this particular bar fight, subsequently dubbed the Black Nite Brawl, is coded on two additional pieces of information. One, the Black Nite’s customers were drawn primarily from Milwaukee’s LGBTQ community. Two, the date of the bar fight was Aug. 5, 1961 – roughly eight years before Stonewall Riots marked the official birth of the LGBTQ movement.
There are obvious parallels between the Black Nite Brawl and Stonewall Riots, but there are important differences, too. The Stonewall Riots occurred in response to a police raid on a haven of New York City’s LGBTQ community. The Black Nite Brawl happened because a pack of private citizens instigated trouble. The embers of the Stonewall Riots glowed hot over the course of six days of uprising and protest. The Black Nite Brawl was finished by last call.
Stonewall adhered itself to the nation’s popular consciousness, but the Black Nite Brawl had a similarly powerful impact in Milwaukee. While it did not ignite days of protests as Stonewall did, the brawl did spark the LGBTQ community to longer-term activism and political organization – a movement that would create lasting change in the decades to come.
And while the Black Nite Brawl has the notable distinction of occurring pre-Stonewall, it’s only one of a handful of similar uprisings in the 1950s and ’60s by an outcast community violently asserting its right to exist. It’s worth noting that there was peaceful and considered work being done to advance LGBTQ causes during these years as well, but measured efforts seldom land with the reverberating historical thud of a beer bottle upside the head.
THAT WE KNOW ABOUT the Black Nite at all is thanks largely to the recollection of one participant, Josie Carter, a Black “queen” and fixture of the Milwaukee LGBTQ community until her death in 2014. In life, Carter resisted being publicly spotlighted for what she did that night, but she did share the story often at parties, and in 2011 finally told it in a recorded interview. Carter’s partner was the Black Nite’s bouncer when the brawl took place, and it was Carter herself who swung the beer bottle that sent one of the intruders to the hospital.
In her own words:
“We got in a bar fight, Wayne and I. Wayne was a bouncer, remember, and he had fought those three guys, and I went out there with a beer bottle in each hand. … And the guy came over. … I popped him right here, and the blood went psssssss, and he fell to the ground.”
The man with the tape recorder was Brice D. Smith, then a researcher conducting interviews for the Milwaukee Transgender Oral History Project at UW-Milwaukee. A native of the Southwest, Smith came to Milwaukee a decade earlier to complete his education. He’s still here a decade later because, by now, Milwaukee is home. “I ended up coming here for graduate school, and I began transitioning here in Milwaukee, and I decided to stay here because this is a place where I felt like I was really able to become who I am and also to find a life that I always dreamed of,” he says.
Smith spoke to eight people for the project. Carter was a clear outlier. She was the only Black person and the only person whose background didn’t include what could be called intentional, conventional activism on behalf of LGBTQ rights. She was also the oldest participant by far, and her long memory enriched the project greatly. Smith knew it would be an unusual interview the moment he laid eyes on her.
“I decided to stay [in Milwaukee] because this is a place where I felt like I was really able to become who I am…”
-BRICE D. SMITH, RESEARCHER, MILWAUKEE TRANSGENDER
ORAL HISTORY PROJECT AT UWM
“We get to the bottom of the stairs, and then what opens up is this elaborate basement bar,” Smith says. “Josie’s sitting there in a beautiful sparkly dress with makeup on. She just looked absolutely lovely. She was waiting for me to come over and say hi. She immediately kissed my cheek.”
Carter and a friend, fellow queen Jaime Gays, held court in the basement barroom for the next hour regaling the tape recorder with their decades of lived experience. Carter spoke about numerous gigs performed at both gay and straight bars; about Wayne, the love of her life; about her time in the military beginning at age 16; about $20 hormone injections given to her by a doctor who was attracted to her; about her son. She told Smith everything.
Mostly, though, she talked about living her life as openly as possible and everything that came with that. While Carter is seen today as transgender, many who knew her say Carter didn’t apply that term to herself. Smith did not ask her directly in the recording. Instead, Carter referred to herself as gay, which Smith notes was used by people of Carter’s generation as a catchall term similar to how queer is used today.
And by any measure, Carter was queer. Though when she went to work at Capitol Stampings she presented as a man, she seemed most comfortable dressed as a woman. She told Smith:
“I didn’t have no big thing about – I go out in drag, and I went on a lot of straight things, you know. Dinners and stuff like that. That’s the kind of relationship I had with [Wayne]. That’s the way it was, with his bosses [aware of] it, which was cool; we were always tight. They’d bring their wives out and they’d be all over me, all around me. … They’d want to sit back and exchange recipes and talk about kids.”
THE STUFF ABOUT the Black Nite came toward the end of the interview. Carter rattles off a list of historic gay bars, pulling back the curtain on an entire underground gay district near Downtown in the 1960s. She mentions the Black Nite but is sidetracked when Smith asks if she was ever harassed by police, as gay bars were technically illegal at the time. Carter says no, she counted some on the force among her friends. She says most of the harassment she faced came from straight civilians.
Then, after telling a story about yet another bar fight (one of three instances of public violence mentioned in the interview) she circles back to the Black Nite Brawl. As a lead performer in that incident, this story is more vivid and detailed then others she shared that day. There was enough there for anyone who wanted to track down independent confirmation of her story.
The person who did is Michail Takach, a writer, archivist and sixth-generation Milwaukeean who now lives in Los Angeles. Long fascinated with history in general, and LGBTQ history in particular, he’s worked since 2005 to help the city rediscover its gay past. Takach knew Carter from social events and had heard references to the Black Nite Brawl in casual settings. He tried coaxing Carter into sitting for an interview as early as 2008. While she was happy to provide information about anything besides herself, she was reticent to share her story.
So you can imagine Takach’s shock when he heard Carter’s recorded interview with Smith in 2011. “While listening to the audio, I heard, again, this mention of a bar fight, with these sailors, and how the bar was destroyed in the process, and yet the police protected the bar patrons,” he says. “I remember thinking, this is something – really something – because the police were not friends of the LGBTQ community in those days.”
Takach met Carter at a social event the next year and quizzed her on the brawl – they spoke for hours. But when he attempted follow-up interviews, she remained unwilling to discuss herself.
“Unfortunately, this has become the mantra of the pre-Stonewall generation: maybe another time,” he says. “When Josie passed in 2014, Milwaukee lost a lifetime of hidden history.”
Takach’s own biography differs significantly from many of the subjects he writes about. He was born into a family already accepting of its LGBTQ members, so his own sexuality never caused him any trouble at home. “There are times that I think, my mother, who’s been gone for over 30 years, probably would’ve been disappointed if I was 100% straight, just because she was so liberal and so ahead of her time,” he says. “I didn’t live with these pressures and expectations, and I certainly didn’t live with any trauma for being who I was.”
Nor was his sexuality troubling to him in the community, despite whatever hostile attitudes others harbored. Takach was always supremely comfortable with his identity and place in the world. Where he does have clear discomfort is with the realization that his childhood was an exceptional one, far from the typical gay youth experience. “Do I feel lucky? I guess,” he says. “But what I usually feel is rage for the things that were done to people who didn’t know any better and who thought in their whole hearts that they were alone in the world and that they were the problem. I just feel a burning, incandescent rage for anyone who was ever put in that situation.”
“When Josie passed in 2014, Milwaukee lost a lifetime of hidden history.”
-MICHAIL TAKACH, WRITER, ACTIVIST
Takach took the freshly unearthed account of the Black Nite Brawl and dug deeper. His work, supplemented by colleagues at the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project, birthed a fuller view that told not only what happened but why. Thanks to their efforts, and the original conversation between Smith and Carter, we can now say the story of the Black Nite Brawl goes like this:
The bar that would become the Black Nite came about in 1958 when Harry Kaminsky purchased the wink-and-nod, men’s-only Old Mill Inn at Plankinton and St. Paul avenues with the intent of dropping the facade entirely. A straight man and incorrigible hustler, Kaminsky recognized that the LGBTQ crowd spent money just the same as their straight counterparts, and that he could reap the rewards if he offered them a place to spend it. The bar first opened as Mary’s and was renamed the Black Nite a year later.
The Black Nite’s reputation as a gay bar percolated out into the city at large. So well-known was the establishment that the four men who showed up on Aug. 5, 1961, knew exactly what they were stepping into. According to Takach, the men had been drinking at a place on the East Side when, as the result of a dare or lost bet, they were challenged to visit the Black Nite and return with proof. This accounts for why the young men were so insistent that they be admitted but couldn’t bring themselves to show ID and sign in. Some of the men were enlisted military personnel and could face official rebuke if their presence in a known gay bar was discovered. (Carter herself ran into this problem years earlier when the Navy learned about the taverns she’d been frequenting.)
It’s unknown exactly what words were exchanged between the men and Wayne, Carter’s bouncer boyfriend. But she describes her man in the 2011 interview as a 6-foot-2, blond Welshman who was extremely protective and didn’t suffer abuse lightly, so it’s probable he wasn’t especially accommodating to the pushy interlopers.
At some point, punches were thrown. One of the servicemen, 20-year-old Edward Flynn, tried to retaliate, he later told police. That’s when Carter, who was neither particularly tall nor strong, rushed in to take her swings with the beer bottle.
That big man reached out and grabbed [Wayne], so I took a beer bottle and I smashed it on his head. ‘Oh, you not going to hurt my husband.’ He was a big guy, and after that he got up, but this man turned on me, but I let him have everything that was left in that bottle. I cut him up bad. I’m not going to let him put his little hands on me.
She struck Flynn with enough force to dislocate her finger and was later fitted for a cast. Flynn, however, required more immediate medical attention, and was escorted to County Emergency Hospital by his compatriots. One announced as they were leaving that, “We’ll be back with friends,” according to an MPD detective quoted in news reports. Takach says that bar manager Wally Whetham wanted to close the Black Nite, but Carter wasn’t having it. “She’s like, ‘I don’t run from a fight and you’re going to open up the doors just like any other night,’” Takach says. Besides, she and Wayne were both confident fighters.
At 1 a.m., the men came back.
“The door swung open, the music stopped,” says Takach. One of the men addressed the crowd with a hateful slur and a “let’s do this.” “And the whole bar was like, ‘All right,’” Takach says.
Between 12 and 20 attackers squared off against as many as 75 patrons inside. Vastly outnumbered, they turned their attention to property damage. They busted windows, broke furniture, smashed liquor bottles against the ceiling and pounded an electric organ with a microphone.
Reports estimated the damage at $2,000, about $20,000 in today’s money. There were at least three hospitalizations as well, all patrons of the bar. One 36-year-old man from Oshkosh was hospitalized with a concussion when he was hit with a flying bar stool. Another 28-year-old man was reported to be in critical condition with a head injury nine days after the brawl. Records show a man with the same name and age died the following year; it’s hard to be sure, but it is possible that he died from injuries sustained in the Black Nite Brawl.
In the midst of the melee, someone had the presence of mind to take down the license plates of the two cars the assailants arrived in, and it was through this information that three of the gang were tracked down and arrested. Disorderly conduct charges for two were dropped within days, but the remaining suspect was hit with enhanced charges when it was learned there was still an injured man in the hospital. It’s unclear if the third man was ever convicted. The newspapers stopped covering the case and Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigation records don’t appear to extend back that far.
Regardless of how justice was served, the arrest of the three was a critical step that allowed this story to be verified in 2011. It ensured local coverage in the papers, which created tangible evidence to support Carter’s story after some five decades.
EIGHT YEARS LATER, another group of people, not too different from Josie Carter and Wayne, would fight off the New York Police Department’s Vice Squad at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, sparking a watershed moment that’s been depicted as a bookend for LGBTQ history ever since. But Takach takes issue with that interpretation.
“For a long time, people were taught that LGBTQ history started at Stonewall,” he says. “LGBT people have been around forever, going back to ancient times … and to limit their history to 1969 onward is not only very limiting but kind of irresponsible.”
By 1969, the Milwaukee brawl hadn’t become history, but the Black Nite had. City authorities forced Whetham to rename the establishment in 1962. Rechristened the Bourbon Beat, it soldiered along until 1965, when it was torn down for an extension of St. Paul Avenue that ended up not even using the bar’s land.
Last year, an event on the site – now a vacant lot under the Lake Freeway, across the river from the Milwaukee Public Market – commemorated the 60th anniversary of the brawl. It was the first time that a queer, trans woman of color – Carter – received historic recognition in Wisconsin. Smith recalls then-Mayor Tom Barrett saying he never knew the vacant plot held any significance despite living in the city for more than 60 years. That changed thanks to the work of Smith and Takach, who gave Milwaukee another piece of lore to add to its storied past, and gave queer people everywhere another precious example of historical visibility and resilience. It might not be exactly the legacy that Carter would have wanted. But it’s what she and others of the Black Nite deserve.
Zach Brooke wrote “Bar None” in the February 2021 issue.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct and clarify the degree of local media coverage the Black Nite Brawl received and the reason Josie Carter wanted to keep the Black Nite open that night. Also, while Carter did occasionally perform and did refer to herself as a “queen” in interviews, she was not a drag queen performer in the way the term is commonly understood today. An earlier version of the story included that term, including in the headline.