Unsung hero: William T. Green, lawyer and activist, author of the state's first civil rights law
By Gretchen Schuldt
Fewer than 30 years had passed since the end of the Civil War when Canadian-born William T. Green graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1892, one of the first Black people to do so.
He was by then 31 or 32 years old.
Law degree in hand, he settled in Milwaukee, where he became the city's first and only Black attorney. By that time, he already had authored the state's first civil rights bill.
Green's enrollment in law school was fortuitous, according to a September 1893 Milwaukee Journal newspaper story. The short, one paragraph account announced a benefit for Green, "a colored lawyer of the city, who was stricken with paralysis some time ago."
"Years ago he was an errand boy in Milwaukee, but later obtained a position about the state university building," the newspaper reported. "He was without money and although eager to learn was unable to provide himself with an education. One of the professors one day found him with his ear to the keyhole listening to a law lecture. Attracted by the lad's earnestness to learn the professor helped him through college and he graduated a year or two ago with high honors."
Green, as a young man, watched as the country moved away from its commitment to civil rights. In 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations.
The move had ramifications in Wisconsin. Black people were turned away from taverns and other public places; some attending a teachers' convention in Madison were not allowed to register at hotels, according to the summer 1966 issue of the Wisconsin Magazine of History.
The small Black population (304 people in 1880) began pushing for a state law that would do what federal law no longer did.
Then in 1889, Owen Howell, a Black man, bought a ticket to a play. When he went to the Bijou Opera House in Milwaukee, he was denied his seat and an usher instead directed him to the gallery. Howell sued in Milwaukee County Circuit Court.
Black leaders in the city, including Green, held a convention to show off their increasing political strength – the city's Black population was by then about 449 – and to push for a new civil rights league, which was indeed established. Green also helped organize a meeting to censure the Bijou's owner. The meeting drew about 75 people – about 17% of the city's Black population.
Howell won his case and was awarded $100 and costs.
Law student Green, meanwhile, was busy with his civil rights bill. It was drafted in late 1889, and introduced in January 1891 by a one-term legislator, Orren T. Williams. Republicans at the time were the advocates for civil rights.
They also were in the legislative minority that term.
The bill would have provided equal access to a variety of public accommodations, including restaurants, saloons, barber shops, theaters, and transportation conveyances. Violations would be punishable by fines of $25 to $500 and incarceration for up to one year.
The debate in the Judiciary Committee was overtly racist.
"Where is the man on this floor who will say the colored man is the equal of the white man?" Assemblyman John Winans asked. "God did not create them equal."
First the bill was watered down. Then it was defeated.
"Mr. Williams, who introduced it, wanted it killed because it had been limited to hotels and common carriers," The Milwaukee Journal reported.
Green soldiered on. He was a delegate to the 1892 state Republican convention, where he offered an amendment to the party platform:
We denounce and condemn the cruel and barbarous treatment of American citizens in some of the southern states as tending to corrupt good government and as contrary to the spirit of the constitution of the United States.
The amendment, The Milwaukee Journal reported, was adopted unanimously.
While denouncing the south may have been a morale booster, civil rights had been defeated at home.
Then things changed. In 1894, the Republicans won control of the Legislature. The civil rights bill was introduced again in 1895 and sailed through with little public notice. It protected access to many public places. The penalties were somewhat reduced from the original version, to fines of $5 to $100 or up to six months in prison. The bill earned hardly a mention in the press when it was passed.
The Journal would later report that Green secured passage of the bill "by appearing before the legislative committee in its behalf."
And on May 15, 1895, the Journal announced that "this evening the colored people of Milwaukee, at 450 Broadway, will celebrate the passage of the civil rights bill. There will be lots of ice cream, strawberries and speech-making."
Green was among those to be "specially honored."
Green's commitment to his community extended into the courtroom and he represented Black people in civil and criminal cases throughout his career.
He represented a plaintiff in a libel suit brought by John Jordan Miles, the head waiter at the Plankinton hotel, against leaders of the so-called Municipal League, which sought to "purify" municipal politics. The group's publication, The Municipal League Bulletin, accused Miles and another man of of "having aided corruption among the colored voters of the Fourth ward."
The settlement Green won for Miles in 1899 was not disclosed, but it included a retraction from the Municipal League.
In 1901, he defended Nina Brown, a Black woman accused of murder. The district attorney announced in open court that he was convinced, after listening to the case presented by Green, that Brown was insane. She was so declared.
That sensational development won Green a newspaper story of his own: "A Negro Wins Fame In Court."
"Mr. Green is the only colored attorney in Milwaukee," the story said. "He has always been recognized as an able member of the fraternity by his colleagues at the Milwaukee bar."
In 1903, he spoke out against a bill that would prohibit Black and White people from marrying each other.
"You may rest assured that the colored people and the better class of white people will fight the bill to a finish," he said, according to the Journal.
The bill failed.
In 1907, he was still working to organize. "For colored men," the Journal read. "Atty. William T. Green, Assemblyman Lucien H. Palmer and other leading colored men of Milwaukee are trying to organize an Afro-American Advancement association to induce colored men to settle here, to obtain employment and learn trades."
In 1910, he helped organize a group of Black people to take over a Wells Street hotel to operate as a first-class establishment for Black people.
"The colored people need a place where they can stop when in the city," Green said.
And in 1911, he was in the newspaper just once, under the heading of "Burial Permits." One was issued for William T. Green.
He is buried at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
Help WJI advocate for justice in Wisconsin