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We asked our neighbors to lift up the Black history in Milwaukee that they want their whole community to know about. They responded with these tributes to artists and business leaders.
Kellen “Klassik” Abston is a Milwaukee-based musical polymath and award-winning recording and performing artist, most recently named the 2021 City of Milwaukee Mildred L. Harpole Artist of the Year. His blend of jazz, hip-hop, soul and electronic music has guided his growth into an intergenerational communicator, educator and community activist.
I would like to take this moment to honor and give tribute to my uncle, the visual artist Gerald Duane Coleman.
He was an integral part of the Freewheelers, a group of Black artists in this city during the 1970s and 1980s that regularly held their own art fairs at the King Library. He would also ride around the city on a horse doing historical re-enactments and portrayals of the legendary Black cowboy Nat Love.
He would go on to have works installed across Milwaukee, including the Atkinson Library — which was my neighborhood library when I was growing up — the Midwest Express Center (when it was first built and still called that), the Bradley Center and many others.
His work incorporates a mix of textiles, fabrics, found objects and his own exceptional free-hand sketching and painting skills, creating ethereal visualizations of life across the Black Diaspora, bolstered by his frequent trips to Brazil and West Africa.
In many ways, I’m just now realizing the influence my uncle has had on my life. Growing up, I was surrounded by his art when I visited his home. He also used to cut my hair and taught my dad to cut my hair. Then, seeing his art out in the city, I got to see the impact of one man and his vision on a large scale. I got to witness firsthand what it looked like to be a successful full-time Black artist, which helped me become who I am today.
As with many of our elders, I look forward to discovering more of his story. I embrace and relish the fact that he still resides here in Milwaukee, in Bronzeville, where I will continue to soak up more of his and our city’s rich history.
Tia Cannon is manager for BID Marketplace 32. She is also an entrepreneur and the owner of ANC Real Estate.
Que El-Amin, founder of Young Enterprise Society, is the epitome or Black history and a trailblazer in the community. Over the years, I’ve watched him build and grow what are some of the most impactful and influential staples in our community.
Young Enterprising Society’s mission is to be an international epicenter for financially, politically and socially progressive individuals. Serving as a hub, Young Enterprise Society mobilizes people, information, resources and capital for the greater good of its members and society at large.
Que has helped catalyze hundreds of businesses and entrepreneurs, along with having created affordable housing for the community that will house many families over time. Que’s accomplishments have given the community hope, a new look and redefined Black history. He’s giving families homes, keeping children off the street, employing the unemployed and opening doors for Brown and Black people of all ages.
His work in Milwaukee has influenced many others, including myself! He’s made history and is still history in the making.
Another history maker is my grandfather, King Solomon Lawrence. In the 1960s, he became a well-respected Black man in a white-dominated profession.
He broke barriers when he was hired and transferred from Schenectady, New York, to Milwaukee to be Holiday Inn’s first Black innkeeper anywhere in the country. He created high class hotel nightlife by introducing celebrity entertainment to prominent guests who frequented the establishment.
He, his wife, five children and several of his grandchildren lived on-site and had a very abundant life. They were constantly surrounded by affluent patrons and entertainers such as the Jackson Five.
He eventually moved his family into an all-white neighborhood where they were the only African American family. King was the first in our family to graduate from college with a business degree.
He is part of Milwaukee’s Black history as a trailblazer and someone who opened up the doors for those to come after.
Andre Lee Ellis began his theater career with the Hansberry Sands Theater Company and has spent 40 years in the theater business all over the country. He now operates his own nonprofit theater group, Andre’ Lee Ellis & Co.
I can remember a time when Black actors were limited on Milwaukee stages, especially local actors. Then came The People’s Theater in the late 1960s and The Hansberry Sands Theater Company in the early 1980s.
The People’s Theater Company was founded by Gerald Wallace in the late 1960s. It gave local African American actors a chance to be seen on stage in a more positive light.
The Hansberry Sands Theater Company was founded by Asante Scott, who started out with The People’s Theater. I started working with Hansberry Sands in 1984 and left Milwaukee in 1987 for New York. After attending the Herbert Berghof Studio in New York City, I returned to Milwaukee as the artistic director of Hansberry Sands Theater, where I remained for three seasons.
The stories and history of Black people became a common weekend attraction. Our stories were being told and displayed by us. As time moved forward, other Black companies emerged, and now today, even the local professional and non-African American community theater companies include Black actors, Black stories and Black life. We are now the writers, directors, producers, artistic directors, stage hands and managers. We even hold administrative positions.
How can you tell American stories and history and not include Black people? You cannot. Our contributions, in every area, are too vast and great to be denied, and worthy of being compensated. We earned those privileges. Now we’re even winning awards.
Who would have thought?