Raised in a part of the segregated South that provided school for African American children, Sylvia Bell White went North as a teenager, dreaming of a nursing career and a freedom defined in part by wartime rhetoric about American ideals. In Milwaukee she and her brothers persevered through racial rebuffs and discrimination to find work. Barred from the city's factories, Sylvia took adult education courses, scrubbed floors, worked as a nurse's aide. When a Milwaukee police officer killed her younger brother Daniel Bell in 1958, the Bell family suspected a racial murder but could do thing to prove it -until twenty years later, when one of the two officers involved in the incident unexpectedly came forward. Daniel's siblings, led by Sylvia, filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city and ultimately won a four-year battle that played out in both courtroom and media. Telling her story in these pages, Sylvia emerges as a powerful witness, buoyant spirit, and sparkling narrator. Jody LePage's chapter introductions frame Sylvia's words in a historical span that reaches from her own enslaved grandparents to the nation's first African American president. Brimming with joy and yet profoundly serious, this oral history brings us into the presence of an extraordinary African American woman. Rarely do we hear such an authentic and engaging voice from among the ranks of the disadvantaged.
Sylvia Bell White was born in Louisiana in 1930 and moved to Milwaukee at seventeen. After a five-year sojourn in California, she returned to Wisconsin and now lives near Milwaukee. Jody LePage has a PhD in history and lives in Madison, Wisconsin.