How Does a City Choose to Remember its Past?
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Scholar-Griots: Maria Cunningham and Jordan Davis
Many are unfamiliar with the 1854 abolitionist rescue of Joshua Glover, an African American who escaped slavery and found sanctuary in Wisconsin. On March 11, 1854, Joshua Glover was broken out of Milwaukee’s jail by a large crowd in resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Far fewer know about the horrific racial lynching of George Marshall Clark, a free black man, that happened only seven years later in Milwaukee. On September 8th, 1861, Marshall Clark was lynched by an angry white crowd in the Milwaukee’s Third Ward--after being broken out of the same jail that Joshua Glover was freed from. What was their story, and how have we remembered these two men?
The Capture and Rescue of Joshua Glover
In 1854, Milwaukee abolitionists defied the law to rescue Joshua Glover. Glover, a former enslaved African American from Missouri, found sanctuary in the State of Wisconsin in 1852, less than ten years before the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War.
From 1830 and 1860, at least 1,000 African Americans would escape southern slavery per year, risking their lives and often leaving loved ones and families. Documenting the narratives of the Underground Railroad, however, is extremely difficult for historians. Due in part to the secrecy of the practice, a limited material record was left by abolitionists and formerly enslaved African Americans able to reach freedom. The rescue of Joshua Glover, however, drew the City of Milwaukee into a national debate over slavery, race, and the rights of African Americans both enslaved and free.
Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which gave slaveholders a legal right to capture runaway African Americans residing in the North and return them south of the Mason-Dixon line--a law compelling every citizen to aid in their arrest. When Bennami Garland of St. Louis (Glover’s alleged owner) made his case in February, 1854, he received a court order and a warrant for Glover’s arrest. After learning about Glover’s residence in nearby Racine, Wisconsin, Glover was apprehended and brought to the Milwaukee courthouse and jail originally located at the present-day site of Cathedral Square Park.
Rescue and Freedom
Gathering at the footsteps of the courthouse, Wisconsin abolitionists and other opponents to the Fugitive Slave Act actively resisted a federal law which they considered to be unconstitutional. While the primary avenue for challenging Glover’s arrest and the Fugitive Slave Act was undertaken by lawyers and judges, the several thousand gathered outside the Milwaukee courthouse and jail would mount a different kind of resistance to Glover’s plight.
On the eve of March 11th, 1854, a crowd of close to 5000 would break into Milwaukee’s jail, rescue the captured Glover, and help him escape to Canada through the Underground Railroad. And while Sherman Booth (Milwaukee’s most prominent abolitionist) would be brought to court for his participation in Glover’s rescue, Glover’s story set in motion a profound change in the political landscape: in 1855, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court became the first and only high legal body to declare the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 unconstitutional--a ruling later overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet what occurred in Wisconsin in 1854 was not entirely unique. Black and white northerners across the nation defied the Fugitive Slave Act in myriad ways, and often at considerable risk and without the support the majority of the populace. Joshua Glover would spend the next 34 years in Canada and freedom until his death in 1888.
The Capture and Murder of Marshall Clark
The lynching of George Marshall Clark (his full name) was one of sixteen lynchings in Wisconsin history. Clark was the only African American to have been lynched in the state and the only lynching to happen in the city of Milwaukee. George Marshall Clark, who went by Marshall Clark, was 22 years old and an apprentice barber under his father George H. Clark. His father was a leading figure in the black community and was described as a “very respectable man.”
The trouble began the evening of Friday, September 6th, 1861 Marshall Clark and his friend James Shelton were walking in downtown Milwaukee escorting two white women. Shelton, 28, was a waiter at a nearby ice cream establishment. He was described as a man with “a quiet, orderly disposition” who “hardly ever drinks anything.” Clark and Shelton lived together near 5th and State.
Two Irishmen, Dabney Carney and John Brady, seeing the young men with the women made a remark about white women with “damned niggers” to which the men took offense. A fight began between the four men ending when Shelton pulled a knife and stabbed Carney in the abdomen and slashed Brady. Clark and Shelton ran but were later captured and placed in the county jail. Dabney Carney died from his wounds on Saturday evening. Before Carney died, he identified Shelton as the man who had stabbed him.
Capture and Murder
News about Carney’s death spread fast and the city’s Irish population set out for revenge. A fire alarm sounded as a signal and within an hour, a mob had gathered and headed for the jail.
Police Chief William Beck and two other patrolmen tried to disperse the crowd but were unsuccessful. The Chief was received a blow to the head which knocked him unconscious. Seeing what happened to the Chief, the jailer, William Kendrick, locked the main door to the cells. The mob grabbed some heavy timber and after eighteen barges, was able to break down the iron door.
Clark and Shelton were housed at the back of the jail in a room next to two adjoining cells. When Shelton heard the crowd coming, he slipped into one of the adjoining cells, closed the door, and hid leaving Clark alone with the crowd. The violent crowd beat and dragged Clark out of the cell and into the street.
The mob dragged Clark down toward Engine Company No. 9 near the Milwaukee River pausing once under a gas light to make sure they had the right person. Despite Clark’s pleas that he was not Shelton and had nothing to do with the murder, the mob convinced they had the right man, dragged the victim into the firehouse where they conducted a “fair and lawful trial”. Shortly after, the mob re-emerged from the firehouse with Clark, who had a rope around his neck. When the crowd reached Buffalo St., they found a pile driver that would suit their needs. The end of the rope was secured to the top and at 2:30 A.M. Marshall Clark was shoved off the ladder and left to swing. His body was not removed for another two hours.
Despite Milwaukee being an abolitionist stronghold, during the early 1800s, the black community experienced an ever growing hostility from the city’s ethnic groups, particularly the Irish. One year earlier, on exactly the same date and time that Clark was lynched, Milwaukee’s Irish community lost a large portion of their community in one of the worst marine wrecks to occur in the Great Lakes. The Lady Elgin, a steamer ship on its way back from a Democratic rally in Chicago, was hit by the schooner Augusta of Oswego and sank off the coast of Hubbard Woods. Over 300 passengers lost their lives and many bodies were never recovered. The majority of the ship’s passengers were members or family members of the Irish Union Guard of Milwaukee's Third Ward. The Irish population felt this loss acutely as many of its most prominent citizens were gone all at once. The death of Dabney Carney was the spark that inflamed the already agitated community.
James Shelton, who had escaped the jail and fled the city, was captured in Waukesha and rearrested the following Tuesday. He was returned to Milwaukee for trial. Shelton’s trial lasted nine days and the jury returned a verdict of not-guilty claiming Shelton had acted in self-defense. After the trail, Shelton was snuck out of town and established residence in Chicago.
The State of Wisconsin charged six men with the lynching of Marshall Clark. They were John McCormick, Patt McLaughlin, Dennis Delury, John Devine, James O’Brien, and a man named Nichols. When the trial began on November 14, 1861, Nichols had fled the city. After three days of testimony, the case was turned over to the jurors. After two and a half days of deliberation, they were unable to reach a final verdict. The trial for the only lynching in Milwaukee history resulted in a “hung jury”.
A Community Remembers?
In 2001, the Wisconsin Historical Society installed a historical marker commemorating the rescue of Joshua Glover in Cathedral Square Park. In 2005, a mural of Glover’s rescue and escape was installed downtown on Fond Du Lac Avenue under the I-43 overpass, a former route of the Underground Railroad. Both the rescue of Joshua Glover and the racial lynching of Marshall Clark had a dramatic impact on the city and Milwaukee’s emerging African American community—yet only one is commemorated. How does a society select what events are commemorated? Should we only remember stories that support our sense of interracial cooperation or progressive values, or should we also commemorate the horrific events of racial trauma that complicate our uplifting stories of the past? As a city, we have chosen to remember Joshua Glover. Should we remember Clark?
Jordan Davis serves as the Public Programming Administrative Assistant for America's Black Holocaust Museum. Mr. Davis is a Distinguished Graduate Student Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the Master of Sustainable Peacebuilding program. His research interests center on public and local history, heritage resource management, and the museology of Africa and the African Diaspora.
Maria Cunningham is an active volunteer with America's Black Holocaust Museum as serves as Vice-President of the Dr. James Cameron Legacy Foundation. Ms. Cunningham works as a Rare Books Librarian, and led the project to digitize the self-published pamphlets of Dr. James Cameron. She also created and manages a traveling exhibit about Dr. Cameron's life and writings for the museum.
Ancestry.com. 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.
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