During Artspire weekend Saturday we joined other community members in the Weber Performing Arts Center’s Veteran Studio Theatre to learn more about La Crosse’s early Black community. I have written in the past about some of our more well known citizens like Olympian medal winner Charles C. Poage* and George Taylor. The Enduring Families Project re-enactors introduced some new stories about these men and other black residents of the 600 who came to La Crosse, the 3rd largest Mississippi trading post in the mid 1800’s during the logging boom, creating jobs for barbers, brewers, entrepreneurs, cooks, and maids.
If one was black and married/ had a family lodging could be found but one wasn’t so lucky as a single black man. Pennsylvania born Elizabeth Burt (b.1833 ) perceived this need and since her husband Albert had real estate holdings besides working on the River, decided to put her efforts into a boarding house on Vine Street. Mrs. Burt would be the cook and provide 2 meals/day for this single male population. One such special lodger was an orphaned 8 year old George Taylor, who unfortunately would get in trouble with the law and would need new lodging but wouldn’t forget Burt’s kindness. The Burts would sell the boarding house and move to St. Louis for more opportunities.
The next resident Nathan Smith ( b 1820-1905) married Sara ( 1830-1899) and would make his way from Tennessee via the underground railroad ending up in Wisconsin in 1864 because Sara, a freed slave had to leave Arkansas due to the Fugitive Slave Law ( 1859) to remain free although Nathan was still a slave. In West Salem outside of La Crosse they would purchase a parcel of 44 acres. Mr. Smith would serve as a valet to an important citizen Major General Cadwallader C. Washburn, businessman, Congressman and governor of Wisconsin who founded a mill that later became General Mills.
The Smiths would never have children of their own but would take in the elderly and youth. They even taught 3 of 4 children of a deaf couple to talk since the children didn’t have schooling. Among the other youth living with them, the same young man who had lived with the Burts was George Edwin Taylor, who would help work the farm. George Edwin Taylor was greatly influenced by Nathan Smith. Smith would send 4 foster children including Taylor on to university. The Smiths endured and are buried in West Salem.
George Edwin Taylor would become a journalist and labor/political activist eventually owning and editing newspapers in La Crosse,Wisconsin, Oskaloosa, Iowa and Florida. He was a democrat but since populism wasn’t in favor, Mr. Taylor ran on the National Negro Liberty Party ticket as a presidential candidate in 1904. After not winning, he returned to the Democratic party. He did endure until he died in Florida in 1925.
Zacharies Louis Moss, (b. 1866, W. Va.) and wife Emma (b.1860) would become patriarch and matriarch to one of the oldest Black families to still reside in La Crosse for 6 generations, housed their north side barbershops in their homes as many black barbers did. This way they could serve white clientele during the day with black clientele coming in the back door at night. There were 3 chairs with one being available for surgery and another for dentistry. Zacharies Louis Moss (Zach) had an apprentice, Ashley Shivers (b 1862) and his wife Ella hailed from N.C. traveling up through Tennessee. Ashley’s brother, Thomas, lived in Sheyenne Valley ( Viroqua) in what is now Vernon County and had a hand in building all the round barns in the area.
Zacharies Louis Moss’s son, Zacharies Henry had his own barbershop and took over his Dad’s business when he died in 1901. Zacharies Henry’s son also became a barber. The Moss family did endure although La Crosse did not offer its black community social mobility nor economic advancement.
One may ask what happened to this once vibrant Black community. Well, once the pine forests were spent, most of its workers migrated elsewhere to bigger cities to seek larger black communities and job opportunities. But they did endure as to the contributions they made to their communities…
Stories of endurance continued as I shared Charles C. Poage’s sister’s account* see links below.
Link to Umpteenth entry https://chaseburg.blogspot.com/2018/09/umpteenth.html
More on Poage’s greatness recognized:
And: You can’t make this stuff up: https://chaseburg.blogspot.com/2018/06/tbt-you-cant-make-this-stuff-up.html