Set in the middle of the newest exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art, opening Monday, is a video screen looping an artifact once thought to have been destroyed: A black and white film shot undercover in 1961 to document discrimination against students of color seeking housing in Madison.
For close to six decades, the creators of that film and their descendants thought it had gone up in smoke, intentionally burned by the university after the filmmakers recorded the blatant refusal of white landlords to rent to Black students. But through intensive sleuthing within the university’s archives, the footage was found.
“This is maybe the coolest thing (from) my entire career,” said Kacie Lucchini Butcher, director of the UW-Madison Public History Project, as she pointed out out the box where the film was hidden away for more than half a century.
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The 1961 footage, shot by a division of the UW Extension, is now part of the wide-ranging exhibition “Sifting and Reckoning: UW-Madison’s History of Exclusion and Resistance,” part of the broader UW-Madison Public History Project and opening at 10 a.m. Monday in the Chazen’s Pleasant T. Rowland Gallery.
Using a number of artifacts drawn from the university’s archives as well as a large number of photos, firsthand accounts and text, the show reveals both unabashed examples of discrimination at UW-Madison and those who fought against it.
“We cover 175 years of university history,” Lucchini Butcher said. “And we don’t just look at racial discrimination. We made a really conscious choice to do it all.”
So along with racial and ethnic inequities and barriers for women, “we also talk about discrimination against LGBQT+ folks, folks with disabilities, religious discrimination” and more.
Visitors to “Sifting and Reckoning” can view historical objects such as the “Pipe of Peace” used in campus rituals to parody Native American ceremonies until around 1940. They’ll find photographs of athletes who encountered or broke color barriers, and the cover of the embarrassing university student recruitment brochure – published as recently as 2000 — where the face of an African American student was cropped in among a crowd of white students to imply diversity on the UW-Madison campus.
The exhibit addresses incidents of micro-aggression as well as flagrant persecution, such as the “gay purges” of 1948-62, when male students believed to be gay were punished and expelled.
But as these histories are laid bare, “Sifting and Reckoning” is also designed to recount many previously untold stories of fighting back.
“As you can see in the exhibit, and as you start to study this history, people are always resisting,” said Lucchini Butcher, a La Crosse native known for her prior work on an award-winning study of racist housing policy in Minneapolis. “They’re always pushing back, and they’re always trying to change the university, in small ways and really big ways.”
The title “Sifting and Reckoning” comes from “sifting and winnowing,” a phrase in an 1894 statement by the university Regents who refused to censure a professor accused of being a pro-union socialist and that has long been a metaphor for the fearless pursuit of knowledge.
Dana Tabaza, a junior at the university double-majoring in industrial engineering and data science, was among 10 interns from the campus Multicultural Student Center invited last week to take a pre-opening tour.
Tabaza described the exhibition as “incredible.”
“I was surprised they were even allowed to put on this exhibit,” she said. “Going through this exhibit I felt angry, really, that all this was going on (in the university’s past). And so much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.”
An immediate example appeared Wednesday, when anti-Semitic messages were discovered on campus sidewalks as students began the fall semester.
A public voice
“Sifting and Reckoning” is a creation of the UW-Madison Public History Project, a $1 million effort funded with private money, not taxpayer dollars.
The project came about after violence at a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The tragedy spurred then-Chancellor Rebecca Blank to create a committee to study racist elements of the university’s past, starting with two student groups that around the 1920s bore the name of the Ku Klux Klan.
One, a fraternity house, was found to be affiliated with the National Knights of the KKK; the other was found to have no racist ideology or connection to white supremacist groups. The latter has sparked its own historic detour, which is still playing out today.
In 2018, a student-led group pushed to remove Academy Award-winning actor Fredric March’s name from a theater in Memorial Union because of his association with a group that shared a name with the Ku Klux Klan. Since then, dozens of actors, scholars and activists — many of them people of color — have urged the university to reconsider the move, noting the group had no connection to the white supremacist organization and that March had a lifelong legacy of standing up for civil rights, fighting for Black and Jewish artists.
The investigation showed that more work needed to be done. Blank commissioned the Public History Project as a way to take a broader look at university history and give a public voice to those “who experienced and challenged exclusion on campus.”
Since 2019, project researchers have conducted some 140 oral history interviews of alumni and current students about their experiences on campus, with more to come. Student staff — in majors ranging from American studies to history, journalism and anthropology — dug through decades of yearbooks, the Daily Cardinal student newspaper and administrative records housed in the university archives on the Steenbock Library’s fourth floor.
Their work resulted in not only the “Sifting and Reckoning” exhibition, but also a website, teaching materials, events and an upcoming report detailing just how the Public History Project carried out such a vast undertaking.
“We know that other universities are going to want to do this work,” Lucchini Butcher said.
Time of transition
Some already are. Brown University, the University of North Carolina, William and Mary, and the University of Virginia are among institutions taking steps to examine the legacy of slavery on campus.
But UW-Madison’s approach stands out because it employs “a broader lens, bringing in many kinds of exclusion and bigotry,” said Stephanie Rowe, executive director of the Indianapolis-based National Council on Public History.
And the Madison effort is unique because it employs a designated staff to fully focus on the project, rather than using faculty, who must balance their research time with other teaching and service duties, Rowe said.
Blank, chancellor of UW-Madison for nearly a decade, left earlier this year to take the position of Northwestern University president. However, she was not able to step into her next role as she is currently battling cancer, university officials said.
Jennifer Mnookin succeeded Blank at UW-Madison on Aug. 4.
“We have a new chancellor, and I think a time of transition is a great time for reflection,” said LaVar Charleston, the university’s chief diversity officer.
“This is not designed to make people feel bad or point fingers,” he said of the Public History Project. “But by uncovering our history we can get a better sense of the progress we’ve made and where we fall short, and place our focus on the future.”
“We didn’t have to do this project,” added Charleston. “But we chose to do it. That’s how important we feel it is for our institution.”
Visitors to “Sifting and Reckoning” first encounter a huge enlargement of the state seal, followed by a wall-sized map of Teejop, the land of “Four Lakes” where UW-Madison now stands. The map is covered with drawings of small homes sketched in red – markers of the dense presence of Ho-Chunk dwellings as the university began to expand.
The display is then organized into categories that reflect the way students past and present might experience the university: Student life, academics, housing, athletics, activism.
“This is an unusual exhibition for the Chazen, because it’s not an art exhibition,” said Amy Gilman, the museum’s director. “It’s very different-looking. It has a lot of text.”
Still, for Gilman it was important to host it “in the largest and most public display space on campus,” she said.
“Part of the role of museums is to be a place where we can talk about difficult things. We can have discourse about things that are complex and difficult to understand, and sometimes painful or scary,” she said. “And we live in a society where there’s not many places for that anymore.”
The exhibition includes a student newspaper ad for a minstrel show in blackface – a prominent form of entertainment on campus in the early 1900s, Lucchini Butcher said. The black-and-white film clip from 1961 was produced by the UW Extension’s Bureau of Audio-Visual Instruction, inspired by Wisconsin civil rights leader Lloyd Barbee, later a state legislator, and Stuart Hanisch, a professor in the bureau.
At the time, new students seeking rooms were sent into the community with a list of university-approved housing. But legally, landlords could turn away potential renters because of their race.
“Everything you see on the film was legal” in 1961, Lucchini Butcher said. “The reason (Barbee and Hanisch) wanted to make this film was because there was sort of a social conversation in Madison that housing discrimination wasn’t happening. And they said, if you don’t believe us, we’ll prove it. And this film proved it.”
So well, in fact, that the film was restricted by university administration for privacy reasons in 1962 and recovered only decades later by Cat Phan, digital and media archivist at the UW Archives. It has since been digitized by Wisconsin Public Television and is also available online.
“Sifting and Reckoning” concludes with a section on student activism, which features student-made posters pulled from the archives, as well as spaces urging visitors to record their own thoughts and reactions.
Taylor Bailey, who began working on the Public History Project as a UW-Madison graduate student, became its assistant director after receiving her master’s degree in Afro-American Studies in May. In the course of her research, Bailey wasn’t particularly surprised by the incidents that turned up.
“This university has been around for a long time,” she said. “Obviously, there are stories that aren’t ones to be proud of. But I think it was really courageous on the part of the institution to want to reckon with this history and want to use it to move forward in a way that centers on community.”
Bailey was struck by how groups of people have united around ideas, to fight for what they see as right.
“What we (found in the research) was that these groups of people fighting for change were tight-knit communities who care about the university, who care about Madison, who care about the faculty and the staff and the students here so much, and love the institution so much they want to change it for the better,” she said.
Several undergraduates who got an early preview of “Sifting and Reckoning” noted that change came from students who pushed back and found allies in the faculty or administration to work with them, Tabaza said. “Change never came from up above and trickled down,” she said.
At the end of its run at the Chazen, Tabaza said, “Sifting and Reckoning” should be given a permanent home on campus and made a must-see experience for students – especially white students, who might not have experienced feeling marginalized or excluded.
Manal Hasan, a UW-Madison junior studying psychology and global health, agreed.
“I felt this was so necessary,” said Hasan, who also got a preview tour of the exhibition.
“That’s the word I keep coming back to: necessary.”
“As a person of color, I see that there are people like me whose advocacy has given me a space today,” said Hasan, who identifies as a Pakistani Muslim American woman.
“So maybe it isn’t my heritage on the wall,” she said, “but because theirs is, is the reason I have the space to exist today.”
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