After 50 years, stories about the Black Nite gay bar in Milwaukee sounded like an urban legend.
Historian Michail Takach said people at parties would ask Josie Carter to tell stories, such as when the young black woman of trans experience and other bar patrons fought back against homophobic attackers. August 5, 1961. He said people would dismiss what Carter shared as a crazy story.
“But it really happened,” Takach said. “There’s documentation, police reports, media headlines (and) first-hand accounts.
“This is the greatest demonstration of the importance of preserving and documenting this history,” he added.
Takach, curator of Wisconsin LGBTQ History Projectin partnership with Radio Milwaukee on a six-part podcast series called “Be Seen”, which he says cements the state’s LGBTQ history, giving him the platform he deserves before the stories are lost for good.
In 2008, when he started the history project, Takach said he still had access to a whole generation of people who were alive before the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York.
But in the years that followed, so many died – often, he said, taking with them their stories, experiences, perspectives and wealth of knowledge. Pieces of this story were disappearing every day. He also said there were substantial losses during the AIDS epidemic.
The story of that August night at the Black Nite bar was almost forgotten. The survivors later died. The building and its surrounding neighborhood were destroyed, he said.
“Everyone involved was scattered to the winds, and there was really nowhere to go to really understand what this place was, why it was so important to everyone, and why they were willing to fight for it. this,” he said Tuesday on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show.”
Takach said a barrier existed between young and old members of the LGBTQ community, meaning “generational transmission of cultural heritage” hasn’t always happened. Time passes. Generations change.
That’s why he said it’s important to validate LGBTQ history with recordings and first-hand accounts before it becomes dependent on vague memories, half-truths or folklore.
The podcast, which began airing weekly episodes on May 23, begins with “Wisconsin’s first LGBTQ uprising,” the Black Nite Brawl, as Takach called it to the papers at the time. Other episodes are about when it was illegal to be gay, the state’s first drag show, notable women’s bars, the state’s oldest gay bar, and organizers fighting HIV and AIDS.
The history project first began as a tabletop exhibit at Pride Fest, he said, growing from “the look and feel of this very small-class project to the largest historical multimedia repository ( LGBTQ) of the state”.
People don’t tend to gravitate to the story, he says. He wanted the story to be more accessible and engaging, something people could emotionally connect with. A podcast, he said, allows them to “turn a valuable, static online resource into something that was really delivered to people in an experimental way.”
Carter, from the Black Nite story, died in 2014. People used to pay Carter to show up at parties or bar openings. She was famous, always considered a good time, Takach said.
Takach said it was in a 2011 interview that Carter first really spoke about Black Nite, at least in a way she had never done before – 50 years later.
“It was really life in their language,” he said.
The Black Nite stood out because it was founded as a gay bar, while Takach said other bars in 1960s Milwaukee mostly tolerated serving gay people – although there were technically have laws against serving them. The bar became one of the most welcoming places for gays, lesbians and gender non-conforming people in Milwaukee during this time, he said.
Takach said the August 5, 1961 brawl was unprecedented, at least in Wisconsin, for how the LGBTQ community spoke out against harassment, violence and homophobia. They fought back. While defending her boyfriend and the bar, Carter knocked out one of the attackers and sent him to the ER.
“It was legendary in so many ways,” Takach said. “It changed the perception of homosexuals in Milwaukee from being docile, passive and carefree to being scary and dangerous, like a sizzling undercurrent that was unknown in Milwaukee.”
Takach said LGBTQ people have been a part of Wisconsin history from the beginning, no matter how the stories were told.
“Whether they talked about it or not, whether they were visible or not,” he said. “They’ve been there, and there’s no denying that.”