Milwaukee's Black Nite tavern set to become the first LGBTQ landmark in county history

The Black Nite tavern on Plankinton Avenue was torn down in 1966 to make room for freeway expansion.
The Black Nite tavern on Plankinton Avenue was torn down in 1966 to make room for freeway expansion.

For the first time in Milwaukee County history there will be a LGBTQ official landmark. And that landmark will belong to the old Black Nite tavern, home to Wisconsin's LGBTQ uprising.

Although the board of directors for the Milwaukee County Historical Society hasn't made an official decision, the chairman of the Milwaukee County Landmarks Committee, Randy Bryant, told the Journal Sentinel "it's going to happen."

The historical society held a public hearing Wednesday in front of the old bank vault at its regal building located at 910 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive downtown.

Milwaukee County Historical Society held an event Wednesday, where it announced that the old Black Nite tavern will become an official landmark.
Milwaukee County Historical Society held an event Wednesday, where it announced that the old Black Nite tavern will become an official landmark.

At the event, Bryant announced that four nominations, each located in Milwaukee, will be discussed for landmark ratification in November:

  • Black Nite Uprising. 400 N. Plankinton Ave. (tavern building no longer there)

  • St. Hyacinth Roman Catholic Church, 1414 W. Becher St.

  • St. John’s Lutheran Church (St. John’s on the Hillside), 804 W. Vliet St.

  • Union Cemetery, 3175 N. Teutonia Ave.

A large contingent of LGBTQ advocates and supporters were in attendance. The Black Nite's nomination was placed by historian Michail Takach. The presenter of the Black Nite's story was author Diane Buck.

On Aug. 5, 1961, four servicemen went to the Black Nite, which used to stand near the Milwaukee River on the southeastern edge of Westown near the Third Ward. Rather than show identification and sign a log, the men fought the bouncer.

"A group of Navy trainees went to the Black Nite on a dare, they knew it was a gay bar. ... The Black Nite was targeted because it was a gay bar," Buck said.

Josie Carter, a Black trans woman, intervened and forced the men away from one of the few gay-friendly establishments in Milwaukee. Prior to leaving, the men vowed to return later that night to "clean up the Black Nite," according to Takach.

Throughout the day, Carter rallied the LGBTQ community to come defend the Black Nite against the servicemen. When the men returned with friends that evening they were met by more than 70 members of the LGBTQ community.

A brawl ensued, resulting in a number of arrests and hospitalizations.

"The brawl that resulted happened because the gay patrons were fighting back against the constant oppression that they faced in this community," Buck said.

The Milwaukee Journal wrote that nearly a dozen men were being sought by police after an "invasion of the Black Nite."

The event became the first LGBTQ uprising in Wisconsin history and happened roughly eight years prior to New York's Stonewall riots of 1969.

"Most people in the United States accept the 1969 Stonewall riots, or uprising that happened in Greenwich Village, New York City, as the catalyst of the gay rights movement. Although it's little known beyond Milwaukee, the catalyst for this gay rights movement happened right here in Milwaukee eight years before Stonewall," Buck said.

A number of people spoke in favor of the Black Nite's ratification as an official county landmark. Historian Brice Smith spoke to how history can uplift people, particularly the LGBTQ community.

Brice Smith, project director for "lgbt milWALKee," stands at the former site of the Black Nite, a gay bar that used to sit at 400 N. Plankinton Ave., with a photo of the Black Nite bar in Milwaukee on March 9. Smith and his group created a mobile app that Milwaukee residents and visitors can use to watch videos while standing outside historical LGBT locations throughout the city.
Brice Smith, project director for "lgbt milWALKee," stands at the former site of the Black Nite, a gay bar that used to sit at 400 N. Plankinton Ave., with a photo of the Black Nite bar in Milwaukee on March 9. Smith and his group created a mobile app that Milwaukee residents and visitors can use to watch videos while standing outside historical LGBT locations throughout the city.

"Ever since we started diving into the Black Nite Uprising and sharing the story, beyond our community, and also within our community, it's been incredible to see how this story continues to inspire people today. And to see what ... just acknowledging an important historical event, can do for people in their daily lives," Smith said.

Smith launched an self-guided walking tour app in June showcasing local LGBTQ history.

UW-Milwaukee professor Andrew Larson said acknowledgments of LGBTQ history is important because many queer people don't know their own history.

"One of the things that make the LGBT community different from other minority groups is that queer people do not typically grow up raised by queer people," Larson said.

"We are typically raised by straight people, by cisgendered people, who even if they are sympathetic to LGBT causes, often know very little about ours, our culture, our history, our needs, our struggles. And the result of that is that most queer people grow up almost entirely unaware of their history."

Milwaukee County Supervisor Peter Burgelis also spoke at the event. He said some members of the board have been calling for a LGBTQ landmark designation. "We believe it's imperative that Milwaukee County has at least one historically designated LGBTQ+ landmark. Today, unfortunately, there are zero."

The group that submitted the nomination of the Black Nite received letters of support from U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, Mayor Cavalier Johnson and County Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson.

"Organizations have also sent supportive emails, including Historic Milwaukee Inc., VISIT Milwaukee, Milwaukee Turners, Cream City Foundation and Voces de la Frontera," Smith said.

Bryant said there might be an issue with placing a plaque near the site of Black Nite on Plankinton Avenue, because someone would need to "grant the land." The actual building was torn down in 1966 to make way for the freeway.

The Black Nite Uprising and the three other historical nominations are expected to officially ratified at an event set tentatively for Nov. 14.

Contact Drake Bentley at (414) 391-5647 or DBentley1@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DrakeBentleyMJS

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee's Black Nite Uprising to be made LGBTQ landmark