By Senator Lena C. Taylor
As we closeout Black History Month, I am reminded of the words of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall: “Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”
It is in that spirit that a coalition of organizations, have come together, to continue the work I initiated around Black civic engagement. Started as Black Lobby Day, this week we will be hosting Black Advocacy Day at the State Capitol. This event is an opportunity for residents to learn about Wisconsin State government, hear directly from those responsible for doing the work, interact with lawmakers, meet their staff, and see where decisions are made.
In my nearly 20 years in the legislature, there have been only a handful of Black legislators and far fewer Black staff. I think I have only met 2 Black lobbyists over my tenure and rarely do Black community members come to testify on the issues that impact them. Representation matters. Representation matters. Representation matters.
Therefore, I want to pay homage in this week’s article to William T. Green and thank the Wisconsin African American Lawyers Association for making me aware of Green’s existence and important contributions. Portions of their work in The History of Wisconsin’s Black Lawyers 2019 is the basis for my column.
William T. Green was born in Canada in 1860. He immigrated to the United States in 1884. He moved to Wisconsin in 1887 and worked as a janitor in the state capitol. In 1889, Milwaukee’s Black leaders called for a state convention that demanded an end to legal segregation in public places and state employment. Green was one of its organizers. With a keen interest in civil rights, Greene became one of the first Black graduates of the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1892.
He moved to Milwaukee, after graduation, in 1893. While his legal work included workers’ compensation, constitutional issues and criminal defense, he took on a number of cases representing African-Americans in civil rights cases.
Ultimately, William T. Green was one of the first African American lawyers to argue a case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Howell v. Litt, which ruled that discrimination by race was illegal in Wisconsin. The lawsuit led to the creation of Wisconsin’s first Civil Rights Act which he authored. It became law in 1895 and is the foundation for modern civil rights legislation in Wisconsin.
When Green died in 1911 at the age of 49, he was the only practicing African American attorney in Wisconsin at the time of his death. During his legal career, he advocated tirelessly challenging the status quo.
As African-Americans move through the halls of the Capitol this week, I want them to know about William T. Green. I want them to understand that he was a janitor who cleaned those halls. For years it was not lost on me, that many of the African-Americans that worked in the Capitol, came in the building after everyone left. Even today, most of us are the janitors. I want the visitors of Black Advocacy Day in the Capitol to understand that they belong in that building, as staff, legislators, lobbyists, and constituents. I want them to see the William T. Green in themselves.