Local History Topics
for the week of June 14 – 20, 2020
by Kristen Parrott, curator
“You’ve got to be carefully taught” go the lyrics from a song in the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1949 musical South Pacific – taught to “hate all the people your relatives hate”, taught to “hate and fear” anyone who doesn’t look like you, specifically anyone of another race. During this time of great change and unrest in our country, many of us need to think about what we’ve been taught, and what new lessons we need to learn.
The museum’s collection contains some objects that are a witness to our country’s deeply-ingrained racism. While the items are repellent, they can be useful in a museum setting, where they can be used to help educate others on this topic.
The objects include old postcards, stereopticon images, and sheet music, all with racist depictions of African Americans of a century or more ago. The museum’s collection also includes a set of apparently homemade knit dolls, one representing a child of European ancestry, one of Asian ancestry, and one of African ancestry, with increasingly caricatured facial features. And we have a bound reproduction copy of the Stars and Stripes newspapers of World War I, in whose pages you can see many racist drawings of black American soldiers, as well as a few more sensitively-drawn images.
Our archives contain items and information related to the Ku Klux Klan, which was active all across the nation, including in Vernon County, in the mid-1920’s. A.E. Smith, who served as the first principal of the Vernon County Normal School, and later as mayor of Viroqua and as our state assemblyman, was a leader of the local KKK.
We also have books and articles about a local man who rose to national prominence, Gerald L.K. Smith, who is widely considered a bigot. Two books on the museum’s shelves offer opposing viewpoints just with their titles: Gerald L.K. Smith: Minister of Hate, by Glen Jeansonne, and Besieged Patriot, a book of Smith’s writings edited by his wife after his death.
The museum’s large collection of information about the rural African-American community of Cheyenne Valley, centered around the Town of Forest in eastern Vernon County, has a few references to the racism that members of the community endured here: snubs on the street, threats from the Klan, and even a suggestion of a lynching (about which we have almost no information). When we talk about Cheyenne Valley, we usually focus on people of different races living together in relative harmony, but that wasn’t always the case.
“You’ve got to be carefully taught” – what do these museum objects and archival materials teach us? How not to be. What some “nice” people have considered “normal”. A more complete history of our region. While it’s unsettling to see the racism in our community’s past, it does nobody any good to deny it.