Since the mid-1800s, agriculture has created a path to agency and freedom for Black people in Wisconsin.
By Kynala Phillips
Tucked between 21st and Garfield, on Milwaukee’s north side, is an oasis known as Alice’s Garden. On any given week, the garden and urban farm is filled with music, volunteers and vendors selling barbecue and handcrafted jewelry and teas, while the bushes of herbs, flowers and other greens sprawl from one garden bed to another. Greeting visitors just beyond the shelter, in the center of the lot, there is a picnic bench and mural of a red heart with a blooming calla lily. Surrounding the heart is a quote from a Mexican proverb: “they tried to bury us…we were seeds.”
Alice’s Garden is located near Milwaukee’s predominantly Black Lindsay Heights Neighborhood. Named after community advocate and former executive director of Milwaukee County Extension Alice Meade-Taylor, the garden has since become a pillar of the Milwaukee Community, working to reclaim and reconnect people to the land. “Soil has a story,” said Venice Williams, the garden’s current executive director. “Every piece of land has a story.”
Alice’s Garden sits on land previously owned by abolitionist Sam Brown. In 1834, Brown and two other settlers developed farms on forty acres of his land. In 1842, the land became a stop on the Underground Railroad, which led to the passage of Caroline Quarlls. Quarlls became the first ever documented enslaved person to use Wisconsin’s underground railroad to escape to Canada. Decades later, Black families would flock to Milwaukee during the late great migration in search of new opportunity; between 1945 and 1970, the city’s Black population grew from ten thousand to 105,000 people.
The same land that Brown once owned was now sprawling with Black families and establishments, in a Black neighborhood called Bronzeville. In the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, Bronzeville was home to thriving commercial, cultural, and religious communities, and was the center of Milwaukee’s jazz scene. In the 1960s the city of Milwaukee set out to build a freeway through the neighborhood. That plan—coupled with “urban renewal” projects that forced Black residents to sell their homes in the name of revitalization—led to the destruction of Bronzeville and an abandoned freeway that was never finished.
By 1972, twenty years following the failed freeway attempt, a garden was established on a plot of land on 21st street and Garfield Avenue. As Williams continues to build out the farm, she said she still finds herself digging into the foundation of homes destroyed by the city’s defunct highway plan. “We’re cultivating a farm that was once part of Milwaukee’s Bronzeville. This was an African American Community. It was a vibrant community,” she said. “We were finding the foundations of basements. There are areas where I can’t go but so far because that family’s basement is still under this land. That matters to me.”
Black folks have always had a knack for carving out their own spaces in the most hostile environments. Wisconsin is no different. The state is routinely regarded as one of the worst places in the country for Black people, yet there is a strong track record of Black folks who have firmly planted themselves and continue to make space for other Black people in need of community—including a long legacy of Black agrarians who have used their connection to the land to build beautiful spaces for themselves and their community.
Williams said that when she first moved to Milwaukee, she learned there was a stigma around farming. She grew up in a huge family that grew food and saw it as a connection to land and agency, but many of her new Black neighbors saw it as a reminder of slavery. “So I realized right away that part of my work and my call was to help Black folk, in particular, navigate that tapestry of story…of both burden and blessing and shame,” she said. Now, Alice’s Garden invites people into the joy and freedom of farming in honor of the elders “who never stopped,” Williams said. “Who, even once they came here from Mississippi and Arkansas and Louisiana, the first thing they did was make sure they had a garden.”
In the mid-nineteenth century, Black people migrating to Wisconsin did exactly that. Black folks had lived in the state since the early 1700s, and the newly-founded state’s reputation for freedom and liberty (due to its early defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850)–along with its rolling hills and fertile pastures–made it an appealing stop for those escaping the violent threats of slavery and kidnapping in the nineteenth century. Free Black people throughout southern Wisconsin used their skills as agriculturalists to establish thriving communities where they could maintain their freedom and agency.
It all started when a Black man, Charles Shepard, moved his family from Virginia to Wisconsin after he was freed from slavery in 1848. Shepherd travelled to Wisconsin with his wife Caroline, their children Harriet, John, and Mary, and his brother Issac Shepard. The family got to Beetown, in Grant County, Wisconsin, by way of the nephew of their former enslaver, a man named William Horner. Horner was following in the footsteps of the thousands of miners who came to Wisconsin looking to take advantage of the state’s lead industry. But the industry was waning, so Horner purchased nearly three thousand acres of land instead. The Shepard family settled on Horner’s land until they earned enough money to purchase two hundred acres of their own.
Those two hundred acres became Pleasant Ridge, a thriving farm community and refuge for formerly enslaved people hailing from Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri. “These are primarily people who come to…what is now Wisconsin, with little to nothing—from an economic point of view and also from a political point of view,” said Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara, a historian and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “You’re gonna build a community where you don’t even have the right to vote and you’re not recognized as a citizen, but you’re still going to pour your blood sweat and tears into the soil, with no guarantees.”
Communities like Pleasant Ridge cropped up in various places around Wisconsin. Another settlement, Cheyenne Valley, emerged in the town of Forest, in Vernon County, Wisconsin. The Black families in Cheyenne Valley used timber to build their homes and raised bear, deer and grouse to keep their families fed. Children milked cows and shucked corn. Families grew grain, wheat, oats, barley, corn and rye, according to Zachary Cooper’s Black Settlers in Rural Wisconsin (1977). Neighbors would combine their time and resources to finish their farming duties until they earned enough money to buy their own tools.
Black farmers made significant contributions to Wisconsin farming. Thomas Shivers—son of Charlotte and Edmond Harris, who arrived in Cheyenne Valley in 1879—was a man full of ideas and known for bringing new techniques to his farming. According to Cooper’s book, he was the first in the area to have a farm tractor and one of the first people to install power and a hot and cold water system in his home. Thomas’s son, Alga “Algie” Shivers, constructed a series of round dairy barns known for being wind-resistant, easy to build, and a “sign of prosperity.” Roughly seventeen of these agricultural marvels are left standing today.
By 1895, the Black residents of Pleasant Ridge collectively owned and operated more than seven hundred acres of land. Isaac Shepard, Charles Shepard’s brother, became such a successful farmer that he even donated land to the schoolhouse of District #5, founded in 1873, which became recognized as one of the first integrated schools in the nation. “If you look at the Shepard brothers for instance, they’re coming from central Virginia where Black people had been forced to grow grains for hundreds of years,” Clark-Pujara said. “These are skilled agriculturalists, so of course they are attracted to places where they know how to work.”
In addition to farming, the community set out to organize and offer entertainment. A popular social club founded in 1906, called the Autumn Leaf Society, was known as the “organized voice of Negros” in the village. The club hosted regular barbecues and dances and managed the local cemetery. “We talk about…Black joy now but they were doing that then in some of the most insecure situations,” Clark-Pujara said. “[They] were determined to have joy.”
By 1850, the Pleasant Ridge part of Grant County was home to so many anti-slavery establishments it became known as “Abolition Hollow.” Charles Shepard’s brother, Edward Shepard, wrote a letter in 1858 calling it the “land of freedom.” Former Pleasant Ridge residents remembered the village and its surrounding areas fondly. “It was a beautiful place to grow up—where Blacks and whites were family. We all lived and worked close together and got to know people—so much so that you really loved them…I never paid attention to skin color. People were just people,” former resident Mildred Greene told one researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Despite this progress and inclusivity, racism loomed. Pleasant Ridge, nestled in the southwest corner of the state, was still surrounded by all-white communities. Slavery was prohibited in the region by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, but things were often more complicated. By 1840, Grant County was still home to ten enslaved people. “These [were] hostile places for Black people, and in some ways they have always been. But Black people were used to living in hostility,’ Clark-Pujara said. “Black people felt relatively safe here in their freedom, but they did not have liberty.”
In 1934, The Bloomington Record, the paper of a white village Northeast of Pleasant Ridge, ran a story on the Black farming community titled “Nigger Ridge and Its Early Settlers.” The article, written by a H.J. Starrett, gives little credit to the influence and success of the residents of Pleasant Ridge. Instead, it recalls one of few known instances of mob violence that led to the first Black man ever buried in the village’s cemetery. In a tragic sequence of events, a white girl was offended and, without due process, her family and friends hunted the Black man down and shot him. The article finished this anecdote by acknowledging the going sentiments towards the Pleasant Ridge community at the time—that “the Ridge darkies were so long-lived that they had to shoot one in order to start a cemetery.”
Long-time resident and then-president of the Autumn Leaf Club Ollie Greene Lewis’s response to the article was published in the same paper the next month: “The writer could have been more tactful in his choice of words and names, as we are human, and have feelings as to what we are called…We look with pride among the younger generation, who got their start in what the writer called “Nigger Ridge,” have educated their children in the public schools, those left on the Ridge are still farming their ancestor’s farms. We have records of service to our country in times of war and none of violence…We have always worked for the improvement of our race in the community in which we live.”
Lewis herself was a descendant of one of the first families to settle in Pleasant Ridge—a study of Lewis’s personal history found her own father owned nearly eighty acres of land, on which he raised pigs, chickens, cattle and grew corn and wheat—and her response made it clear that the contributions of Black folks in Pleasant Ridge and beyond were not to be reduced by anyone or by any means.
The community of Pleasant Ridge, like other farming communities, began to shrink as the younger generation opted for city life and sought out different career paths. Many Black people moved to cities for social and economic safety, Clark-Pujara said. Ollie Greene Lewis became the very last Black resident of Pleasant Ridge. Lewis’ prominence as a leader and organizer in the community is just one example of the resilience and impact of Black agrarians in Wisconsin. She died in 1959.
As Black folks continued to migrate to larger cities like Milwaukee, the number of rural landowners and farmers nationwide began to decline. In 2020, Black farmers made up only 1.4 percent of farmers in the country. In Wisconsin, there were only seventy-three Black farmers left in 2017, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Yet today, there is a growing movement of agrarians and urban farmers who farm as a source of freedom.
About fifty miles west of the old Cheyenne Valley, a La Crosse chef and farmer, Adrian Lipscombe, is raising funds to help buy land and tools to preserve Black foodways. In Milwaukee, a revitalization of the victory garden effort from World War I and II, which began as a way to feed families and redirect goods to the soldiers, has helped families build plots on their own land. The Victory Garden Initiative, in particular, is now responsible for installing more than thirty-five hundred gardens in the Milwaukee area. Both projects are directed by Black women committed to empowering their communities.
This movement and Williams’s own life work as an urban farmer echoes the legacy and determination of Pleasant Ridge and Cheyenne Valley. For Williams, helping others recover their agriculture roots is the first step in building bridges to resources, healing communities and connecting people to the peace and prosperity of being stewards of the land. “This is a vocation—it’s not a job. And when you approach your work as a vocation, as something you’re called to, you do it differently,” she said. “We’re regenerating communities, soils [and] practices.”
Part of her work building bridges comes from a cultural and agricultural network called Rural Urban Flow. This coalition of farmers, including Alice’s Garden, is committed to connecting neighborhoods and finding a common ground between rural and urban areas. But people don’t need to look far from home to create spaces of their own. “As much as I love our Rural Urban Flow, we don’t need to leave the city to farm,” she said. “I want us to acknowledge that this city of Milwaukee is overflowing with vacant lots. We have the land here.”
“One of my husband’s colleagues said to me, ‘You’ll never get Black people to come back to farming,’” Williams continued. “I said, ‘What do you mean come back? We never left.’” ■
Kynala Phillips is Belt Magazine’s reporting intern.
Cover image: Group portrait of members of the Greene, Shepard, Gadlin, Grimes, and Craig families who lived in the Pleasant Ridge community. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
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