Narratives from men in Milwaukee who have witnessed history -- one honored with a prestigious award, and another encountered in day-to-day life -- challenge perceptions about our city.

Narratives are important and instructive. Our personal narratives – the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – hold power over our worldviews. The narratives we learn about others, whether true or not, shape our perceptions and beliefs. In our city, the stories we tell ourselves about who we were and who we are hold immense power over our future and how we imagine the collective “we” of who we will become.

As a historian, or maybe as an academic in general, those who respect the craft sometimes assume we know much more than we do. I take this narrative as an awesome compliment, and I’ve learned to appreciate the levity that comes with replying to random questions with, “I have no idea.” But as academics, we are constantly learning about our own areas from a range of sources, and occasionally, we learn something we should have known and wonder how it’s possible that it’s something we never knew. We are always looking for evidence, supporting or contradictory, for the narrative that shapes our research.

On Wednesday, May 11, the Milwaukee County Historical Society held its Annual Silent Auction and Dinner fundraiser. I cannot imagine a more fitting institutional host for the lessons shared than those shared by Dr. William Finlayson, the Society’s 2016 Witness to History Award recipient. Dr. Finlayson’s acceptance lesson added important threads to Milwaukee’s already rich patchwork of cultural narratives. As I reached to my iPhone to take notes, I questioned, “How could I not know this man?”

Dr. William Finlayson was honored with the 2016 Witness to History Award at the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

Dr. William Finlayson was honored with the 2016 Witness to History Award at the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

Dr. Finlayson served in the United States Army during World War II, earning the rank of 1st Lieutenant. The craft had already informed me that Dr. Finlayson’s narrative included experiencing the indignities of Jim Crow while serving his country, which he confirmed. I also knew that as a result of that experience, he joined a cadre of former soldiers and officers who returned home with increased demands for full citizenship, and inserted themselves within the broader movement for racial equality that would reach another zenith just one decade later. Finlayson was part of a cohort of servicemen and officers who returned with leadership skills that would be complemented with education made available through the G.I. Bill. Yet, as was the case with New Deal programs, many met racism in the administration of those benefits by local officials, despite increased federal protections stemming for wartime agitation for equality, most aptly characterized in the Double V Campaign.

Though I shared a table with colleagues from the Wisconsin Historical Society, I was sitting at the feet of an elder who patiently transmitted history and culture to a neophyte of the village. I fell in line behind a man whose words held lessons from the past and strategies for future survival. It was a natural ordering informed by communal responsibilities better explained by a Cultural Anthropologist. In so many ways, Dr. Finlayson’s lessons added important threads to our city’s racial narratives.

As most griots teach us, context is critical for full awareness of the lesson at hand. And it is context that serves as the DNA of any narrative.

While in elementary school, Dr. Finlayson received instruction from George Washington Carver, quite possibly America’s greatest scientist and inventor. Family friends included Mary McLoed Bethune, the “extraordinary educator, civil rights leader, and government official.” While a student at the prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta, he took courses from W.E.B. Du Bois, the most important public intellectual of the 20th Century. At college, Finlayson became fraternity brothers with a young “Alpha” by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. When Dr. King visited Milwaukee in the ‘60s, his fraternity brother was central to making that visit happen.

By the time Dr. Finlayson, an OB/GYN, founded the first black-owned bank in Milwaukee – North Milwaukee State Bank – and worked with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to address economic disparities across the city, he had already experienced decades of molding by some of the greatest Americans the country has ever witnessed.

Dr. Finlayson’s narrative represents how local greats demand our ongoing recognition and honoring. His story is further evidence of why local history and actors are necessary in our community’s efforts to reinforce strong, vibrant and healthy identities in young and old alike.

But these lessons can be found outside of classrooms and cultural institutions like the Milwaukee County Historical Society. These rich narratives are all around us, that is, if we listen for them.

The very next day I received instruction from another griot that imparted equally as impactful knowledge. My car needed service and the shuttle driver, a retired Teamster as best as I could determine, assumed his rightful cultural place. Mr. Dillon’s personal narrative, while maybe a bit more familiar, included threads that both challenge and compliment existing narratives about our city.

Mr. Dillon hails from Mississippi. And as soon as he began instruction, I turned again to my iPhone. While growing up in the Deep South under Jim Crow, Mr. Dillon’s experiences may seem atypical if we allow the standard narrative about Black southerners go unquestioned. His family, like many black families, migrated to Milwaukee in the 1950s and ‘60s. As part of the Second Great Migration, large numbers of black southerners moved to cities like Milwaukee from the 1940s through the 1960s in search of decent jobs and better life options than those to be found under the suffocating system of segregation. Yet, Mr. Dillon reminded me to never forget African American landowners and their efforts to maintain control of their land in the racially charged agricultural industry of the Jim Crow South. Mr. Dillon’s family wasn’t wealthy, but as landowners, they could live independently and were not trapped in the system of sharecropping that compelled agricultural workers, white, black and oftentimes entire families, into unfair labor contracts that kept them indebted to white landowners. Mr. Dillon and his siblings could perform farm work for other landowners “if they chose to.” Their land and farming skills were more than enough to allow them to live a life free of want.

But moving North mattered. Mr. Dillon found a decent paying job and was able to send all four of his sons to college – three graduated from Marquette University and one from UWM. He joked about how long he’s been paying back those loans for college, and he discussed his concerns with how issues of race are discussed in the undergraduate Sociology class he is taking to supplement his knowledge as a clergyman. He wrapped up our 15-minute session with reminders about love, marriage and parenting, and a short tribute to his mother of 91 years.

Dr. Finlayson and Mr. Dillon shared life experiences and lessons they had amassed over the years. Their narratives were hardly similar, but are equally important to Milwaukee’s cultural landscape. Each of these men role modeled the temperament needed to sustain decades of commitment to a cause greater than their own selfish wants. As another phenomenal griot instructed on this point, You see, you learn something when you listen to old people. They ain’t all fools… You don’t get to be old by being no fool…”

As debates continue to swirl on how to close achievement gaps and better educate the children of Milwaukee, local Living Legends such as these men must become part of our pedagogy and curriculum. Their narratives hold lessons for all of Milwaukee’s communities, and the healthy development of our children makes this a moral and therefore practical imperative.