Madison made civil rights historical past in 1963 by adopting the primary truthful housing ordinance within the state

Marshall Colston (second from bottom right with his family – wife Eva and children Marty, Laura and Jacqueline, picture left to right) took up the fight. Not everyone agreed, including the Board of Realtors, which circulated an anti-fair housing ad. (Courtesy Capital Newspapers)

Thanks to a conservative white mayor, two staunch black leaders, two pioneers, a helpful city attorney, strong support from both city newspapers, and a vast community support network, Madison made civil rights history in 1963 by passing the state’s first open housing ordinance.

Since Wisconsin has no laws at any level that prohibits racial, religious, or other forms of discrimination, housing separation has been a real problem. Only about 27% of the city’s rental units and 12% of the houses for sale were available to non-whites.

The city didn’t even have a significant board or commission that advocated civil rights. Instead, there was the Mayor’s Human Rights Commission (MCHR), established by the Madison Joint Council in 1952 as a powerless consolation prize for activists after their proposed fair housing ordinance was finally defeated.

In February 1962, Attorney Lloyd Barbee, president of NAACP in Wisconsin and chairman of the MCHR, published a draft strict human rights ordinance outlawing bias around housing, employment, and public housing. It wasn’t going anywhere, and Barbee soon moved to Milwaukee to embark on a successful 16-year battle against segregation in public schools and get elected to the state assembly.

Lloyd Barbee in front of the capital

Lawyer Lloyd Barbee served as president of the NAACP in Wisconsin and chaired the mayor’s human rights commission. In 1962 he published a draft of a human rights ordinance that forbids bias in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodation. (WHS 26539)

In 1963, Marshall Colston, chairman of the local NAACP and vice chairman of the MCHR, took up the battle and urged Mayor Henry Reynolds to move the matter forward.

Not everyone agreed. “Colston and others like him are making a big hullabaloo about a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Darwin Scoon, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Realtors Association. Homeowners should be able to sell or not sell to anyone they choose, he said.

Even as Scoon campaigned for private property rights, racist unrest simmered in the Middle East when it became known that a second black family might be moving into a neighborhood. Several months of anonymous threats resulted in increased police surveillance.

Fair housing opponents suggested that the city had no legal authority for such an ordinance until prosecutor Edwin Conrad issued a legal opinion that “the importance of the civil war and the cause of the death of the union” could promote equality and therefore regulate the city Private property and issue fair housing ordinance. He began drafting an ordinance and worked closely with a young attorney serving on the Human Rights Commission – the future Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Shirley S. Abrahamson.

Edwin Conrad

In 1963, the prosecutor Edwin Conrad, in close collaboration with Shirley S. Abrahamson, drafted an ordinance that provided for fair living. Photo by Arthur M. Vinje, WHS 137633)

Though largely toothless, the Mayor’s Human Rights Commission had some very active members, notably Chairman John McGrath and Secretary Betty MacDonald. They formed a group they called the Tuesday Night Committee to coordinate public support. Several hundred people were actively involved.

Such citizen activism was key. Mayor Reynolds would be a major supporter, but he did not initiate the effort; Neither does Alder. Without Barbee and Colston of the NAACP, the MCHR, and the Tuesday Night Committee, Madison would not have acted if it had been – if at all.

This broad base was necessary because the real estate industry – which was so supportive of segregated apartments that realtors selling homes in white neighborhoods to black buyers had been disciplined – mobilized to fight local fair housing law, just like them later federal efforts.

December 10, 1963 was United Nations Human Rights Day, but it was not a good night for human rights in Madison.

At that time, the Council met on Tuesdays as a full committee for public hearings, debates and a preliminary vote, with the final votes being held on Thursdays.

Committee of the entire meeting during one meeting

The comprehensive equality ordinance was held on December 10, 1963 in front of the full committee for a six-hour public hearing. While the tentative vote on housing failed that Tuesday, amendments and an upside-down vote two nights later resulted in an historic fair housing victory. (Photo by David Sandell, WHS 136614)

More than 400 people packed the council chambers that evening for a six-hour meeting of the full committee, which was devoted exclusively to the equality ordinance. The proponents were far superior to the opponents – except in the real estate industry.

The only agent there supported was future governor Patrick J. Lucey, owner of Madison’s largest real estate company. “Negroes here are the victims of a vicious and effective conspiracy, a shame we must all share the blame for,” he said.

The south-facing alder Harold “Babe” Rohr could not be influenced. Calling the NAACP “a malevolent force” even though his district comprised more than 55% of Madison’s black population, he stated, “Let’s face it, the world is built on prejudice and discrimination.”

Rohr, also the head of the powerful painters’ association, won. After nearly two hours of debate, the alders voted 12-10 in favor of removing all fair housing supply, while maintaining sections reflecting the existing state ban on discrimination in employment and public housing. Fair Housing advocates had 42 hours to change at least one vote for Mayor Reynolds to break an 11:11 tie.

It was the first and only female member of the council, Alder Ethel Brown of the 10th district, who formulated the critical compromise – the exemption of rooms in private houses and condominiums with four or fewer units.

Shirley Abramson is walking her dogs

Shirley S. Abrahamson was a young attorney serving on the Mayor’s Human Rights Commission when she helped draft the historic equality ordinance in 1963. Abrahamson, who died in December 2020, became the first woman to serve as judge and chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She is pictured above walking with her Irish typesetters Betsy-B and Briscoe. (Photo by Edwin Stein WHS 137633

West Side Alder William Bradford Smith later said Brown’s idea was not only tactical but intended to “reflect the attitudes of their constituents” in University Heights. Many of them rented rooms to students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Smith noted, but “did not want to open their homes to people of all races and colors who would have to share the same bathroom.”

Brown’s amendment was quickly adopted. However, further changes were then passed that excluded all apartments for absent landlords and all single-family homes from coverage. There were so many exceptions that proponents considered pulling the whole thing through.

Then an unexpected savior appeared. A fair housing enemy, Alder Bruce Davidson limited the exemptions to condominiums only – he more than doubled the number of units covered and increased the number of houses and apartments non-whites could live in in Madison by more than 9,000. His amendment contained 20-2 without debate. Still, he voted against the regulation.

Alder Robert Guerin, who voted no on Tuesday, now voted in favor and created an 11:11 tie, which Mayor Reynolds broke with an emphatic “yes”. Madison made history with the passage of the state’s first fair living ordinance.

The ordinance made it illegal to refuse to sell, rent, lease, or finance homes based on race, color, creed, or ancestry, with three exceptions for certain condos – single-family homes, homes with no more than four rooms, and apartment buildings with four units or less.

As the new ordinance still released more than 23,000 residential units – around 60% of the city’s housing stock – those in favor of open-plan apartments were held back in their celebration that night. But privately they were enthusiastic.

Alder Rohr, the fiercest opponent of fair living, thought Thursday night was an overwhelming success, but Friday brought an uncomfortable understanding of what had happened. When he read the full account of what had finally passed, he was appalled.

“My God!” he exclaimed. “I had no idea what we voted for last night.”

Two weeks later, Mayor Reynolds named the founding members of the Equality Commission, including MCHR holdover members: McGrath, MacDonald, and Rev. James C. Wright. He did not appoint Abrahamson or Colston.

Stu Levitan is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist and has been a mainstay of the Madison media and government since 1975. As a member of the Board of Directors of Dane County, he authored the 1987 National Fair Housing Ordinance. This piece was adapted from his book Madison in the Sixties (Wisconsin Historical Society Press 2018).Magazine footer that says

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