Sister: An African American Life in Search of Justice (Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography) (Hardcover)
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Raised with twelve brothers in a part of the segregated South that provided no school for African American children through the 1940s, 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 by both her gender and color from employment in the city’s factories, Sylvia scrubbed floors, worked as a nurse’s aide, and took adult education courses. When a Milwaukee police officer killed her younger brother Daniel Bell in 1958, the Bell family suspected a racial murder but could do nothing to prove it—until twenty years later, when one of the two officers involved in the incident unexpectedly came forward. Daniel’s siblings filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city and ultimately won that four-year legal battle. Sylvia was the driving force behind their quest for justice. Telling her whole life story in these pages, Sylvia emerges as a buoyant spirit, a sparkling narrator, and, above all, a powerful witness to racial injustice. Jody LePage’s chapter introductions frame the narrative in a historical span that reaches from Sylvia’s own enslaved grandparents to the nation’s first African American president. Giving depth to that wide sweep, this oral history brings us into the presence of an extraordinary individual. Rarely does such a voice receive a hearing.
Winner, Wisconsin Historical Society Book Award of Merit
About the Author
Sylvia Bell White was born in Milwaukee in 1930 and raised in Louisiana. She migrated to Milwaukee at seventeen and now lives near Milwaukee. Jody LePage met White in 1973 when both were selling vegetables at a farmers' market in Madison, Wisconsin. She is an independent historian with a PhD from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She lives and works in the Madison area.
"A fascinating biography, adding important insight into the African American experience in Wisconsin as well as the broader histories of migration, race, and employment in the twentieth-century United States."—William P. Jones, author of The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber Workers in the Jim Crow South
"A vivid and moving story, Sylvia Bell White's life tracks the roots and routes of many working-class black people of her generation. But she also shows her vibrant individuality, her refusal to be the typical or the representative woman, her determination to be herself."—William L. Andrews, series editor and coeditor of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature
“If you’re looking for something that’s different, powerful, and sometimes delightful, then you’re going to love this book.”—The Washington Informer
“White’s story . . . is a powerful and moving one told in the voice of the remarkable woman who lived it.”—OnMilwaukee.com
“LePage intersperses richly researched historical context on the twentieth-century African American experience . . . . [and] helps convey and lend context to Bell White’s deep convictions about family, education and racism.”—Madison Magazine