Wisconsin’s Black lawmakers are feuding with one of their White colleagues after he proposed celebrating Black History Month by recognizing White abolitionists rather than letting them choose their own honorees.
Black History Month, an annual celebration of Black people’s achievements throughout U.S. history, runs throughout February. The Wisconsin Legislature has traditionally recognized the month with a resolution in both houses. But the resolution has been a flashpoint of contention the last three years, with Black lawmakers accusing their White counterparts of trying to control who the resolution recognizes.
This year, Rep. Scott Allen, a White Republican from Waukesha, introduced a resolution in December that would honor four slaves as well as six White Wisconsin abolitionists who helped slaves find freedom via the Underground Railroad.
“This resolution attempts to honor and recognize significant individuals in Wisconsin’s history, Black and White, who had the courage to pursue just and righteous actions through the Underground Railroad,” Allen wrote in a memo to lawmakers seeking co-sponsors.
The Legislature’s Black caucus has blasted Allen for not talking to them about the resolution. Milwaukee Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor sent Allen an email addressing him as a slave master.
“If this was intended to be without controversy you failed,” Taylor wrote. “Thank you Massa Allen for pickin’ whose we should honuh suh. We sho ain’t capable of thinkin’ fo ourselves, suh.”
Black lawmakers countered with a resolution honoring 14 prominent Black figures, including former NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who were killed last month in a helicopter crash.
“To see what (Allen) did in December was just mind-boggling to me,” Milwaukee Democratic Rep. David Crowley, who leads the Legislature’s Black caucus, told reporters after a state Capitol news conference Monday to kick off Black History Month. “It’s not say we shouldn’t recognize White people who have contributed. But there’s a reason we call it Black History Month now and why we recognize only Black Americans who have contributed. … The biggest issue is when you put forward as a White man a Black History Month resolution with no input from any African-Americans who you consider your colleagues.”
Crowley said he met with Allen two weeks ago about his resolution but wouldn’t say whether they came to any agreement. He said he told Allen to talk to every Black legislator to “mend the issue.”
Allen didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in December that he didn’t understand the opposition to the resolution. Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a White Republican from Rochester, also didn’t immediately respond to an email.
Republicans control both the Assembly and the Senate. None of them are Black.
GOP legislators in both chambers rejected their Black counterparts’ request to include Colin Kaepernick on last year’s resolution. Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, caused an uproar in 2016 when he started kneeling during the national anthem before games to protest police brutality and racial injustice. President Donald Trump criticized him as well as other players who knelt during the anthem.
Black lawmakers say the Republicans are trying to dictate how they honor their own culture. The resolution ultimately passed both chambers without Kaepernick’s name.
Crowley and Taylor introduced a resolution in 2018 that honored 14 prominent Black state residents, including Mahlon Mitchell, who was running for governor. Allen pushed back, saying the list shouldn’t be limited to just those people. He introduced his own resolution honoring Marcia Anderson of Verona, the first Black woman to attain the rank of major general in the U.S. Army, and the late Helen Barnhill, a single mother and Republican congressional candidate.
The Assembly ultimately passed both resolutions. Neither got a vote in the Senate.
UPDATE: After discussion with African-American legislators, Rep. Allen has withdrawn his Black History Month resolution as of the afternoon of Feb. 4.