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A small Wisconsin town is honored as the state's first Black-founded community

Peter Baker walks near the clubhouse at Lake Ivanhoe on Saturday, April 16, 2022.
Angela Major/WPR
Peter Baker walks near the clubhouse at Lake Ivanhoe on Saturday, April 16, 2022.

LAKE IVANHOE ,Wis. -- Peter Baker says he will never forget his first visit to Lake Ivanhoe. It was 1966. He was 9 years old and his friend brought him up from Chicago on a fishing trip. They caught dozens of fish, mostly bluegills and crappies.

"We went home and I ran in the house with all these fish and I showed my mother, 'We were up there at Lake Ivanhoe, and it was all Black!' " said Baker, now 66. "And the first thing she said is, to my father, 'Ernest, we're going up there next week.' "

The tiny subdivision of Lake Ivanhoe is nestled beside a quiet lake, just six miles east of Lake Geneva. The Bakers bought a house on Tuskegee Drive and moved the family up from Chicago. Peter spent his days fishing, swimming and running through the woods. During the era of sundown towns, where African Americans were not welcome after dark, Baker said Lake Ivanhoe was a refuge.

"We literally could sit in the middle of the roads at night time and watch the stars and talk and play," Baker said. "The freedom was unbelievable."

Musicians play on a truck bed at Lake Ivanhoe.
/ Courtesy of Peter Baker and the Lake Ivanhoe Property Owners Association
Courtesy of Peter Baker and the Lake Ivanhoe Property Owners Association
Musicians play on a truck bed at Lake Ivanhoe.

It wasn't until decades later that Baker learned that feeling was the whole idea when the community was dreamed up a century ago as the first Black-founded community in Wisconsin. Now, a small group of local residents is working to ensure this history is recognized after nearly being lost.

Recent years have brought a national reckoning over whose history is preserved in our statues and monuments. Of Wisconsin's 600 historical markers, just seven commemorate the history of the state's Black residents. And none recognize the history of Hmong, Hispanic or LGBTQ communities.

Like several states, Wisconsin is trying to confront this legacy of racism by adding nearly 40 historical markers to recognize the history of marginalized communities.

Lake Ivanhoe will be among the first.

The dream of Lake Ivanhoe

Lake Ivanhoe was the vision of three prominent Black men from Chicago — Jeremiah Brumfield, Frank Anglin and Bradford Watson.

The trio recognized growing racial tension as a result of the Great Migration that brought millions of African Americans north. As communities merged, Black families faced restrictive covenants and redlining that barred African Americans from certain neighborhoods, and even violence from white people intent on keeping them out.

In 1919, riots broke out in Chicago when a Black boy was killed by white attackers on a beach and the police wouldn't make an arrest.

Amid this racial unrest, Brumfield, Anglin and Watson wanted a safe place to take their families on vacation. White Realtors had popularized Idlewild, Michigan as a resort for Black families, but it was too far a drive from Chicago. So they decided to build their own.

They drew up plans and sought financial backing from both white and Black investors. In 1926, they purchased an 83-acre farm on Ryan Lake in Walworth County. A white real estate agent named Ivan Bell agreed to broker the deal, and the lake was later renamed in his honor.

They carved out lots, named the streets after famous Black figures — Dunbar Boulevard, Phyllis Wheatley Drive, Douglass Avenue — and placed ads in Chicago newspapers.

On a hill overlooking the lake, they built a large pavilion where jazz great Cab Calloway performed on their opening night in 1927.

Historical photos of Lake Ivanhoe, a Black-founded community 6 miles east of Lake Geneva, Wis.
/ Angela Major/WPR
Angela Major/WPR
Historical photos of Lake Ivanhoe, a Black-founded community 6 miles east of Lake Geneva, Wis.

The resort was an immediate hit, drawing families from across the region to purchase lots and enjoy the outdoors. There were fishing contests, concerts, prize fights and beauty pageants.

But sales plummeted when the stock market crashed in 1929. The pavilion was dismantled and the unsold lots went into foreclosure.

In 1934, Edward Sternaman, a white football player for the Chicago Bears, purchased the unsold property at Lake Ivanhoe. Intending to turn the area into a white resort, he put up fences blocking residents from accessing the park and beach.

Founder Brumfield, an attorney, helped file a civil lawsuit. And in 1934, a Walworth County judge sided with the community, saying the beach and parks of Lake Ivanhoe were to be held collectively and kept open to everyone. Sternaman's fences came down and he left the area for good.

Following World War II, families like the Bakers rediscovered Lake Ivanhoe and slowly made it a year-round community.

Preserving Black towns as historical places

Andrew Kahrl teaches history and African American studies at the University of Virginia. Recently he has been working with the National Parks Service documenting sites of African American outdoor recreation. He said Lake Ivanhoe is one of many towns across the country that provided a safe haven for African Americans.

"They were not just a byproduct of exclusion, but were also an assertion of freedom by African Americans seeking not just to find places of recreation for themselves, but places where they could form community," Kahrl said.

Over the years, the demographics of Lake Ivanhoe have shifted and now it has mostly white and Hispanic residents. African Americans are only 9 percent of the population.

And the story is similar for many historically Black towns across the country. But as they disappear, so do their histories.

Atiya Martin, co-founder of a diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm and former Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Boston, has said Black settlements existed in present-day sites like the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery and even Plymouth, Massachusetts.

"Elementary school kids go there in period costumes and people are kind of reliving what life was like during those times. But no one ever talks about the fact that there was a Black town there as well," Martin said.

That's why Peter Baker has been working with the state to get a historical marker placed there. The process requires an extensive application with supporting historical documentation that can often take years to compile.

Peter Baker, left, and Katie Green, right, look at photos of Lake Ivanhoe at Peter's home in the area.
/ Angela Major/WPR
Angela Major/WPR
Peter Baker, left, and Katie Green, right, look at photos of Lake Ivanhoe at Peter's home in the area.

Recently, he has been getting help from Katie Green, whose family has owned a home 6 miles away in Lake Geneva since the 1970s. But Green had never heard of Lake Ivanhoe until a few years ago, when a friend's grandmother mentioned it.

"I had asked all my friends that I grew up with in Lake Geneva. I asked all my current neighbors, 'Have you heard of Ivanhoe?' 'Nope. Nope.' Nobody that I knew," Green said. "So I started to dig into it."

That's how she met Baker. Now they often spend their Saturdays combing through old documents and newspapers, trying to find past residents. They've started Facebook and Instagram accounts to help spread the word.

One of the people they found was Janet Alexander Davis. She and her family came to Lake Ivanhoe in the 1950s on fishing trips.

"We would sometimes rent a cabin," Alexander Davis said. "I remember one time I caught what they call a dogfish. That was the ugliest fish I've ever seen — ugly and big! But I was so proud of that fish,"

Alexander Davis hasn't been back to Lake Ivanhoe since childhood, but she's excited about the marker.

"It's proof that we were treated differently in this society and continue to be — that we had to find our own way and have our own things because we couldn't just go where we wanted to go, to shop, to live," she said. "So what I felt there was free."

Looking toward the future

Towns like this are a reminder of racism's reach outside of the South. Wisconsin is among the most inequitable places for African Americans. Recognizing Black towns as historical places is one way to confront this legacy.

As the former town manager of Tullahassee, Oklahoma's oldest surviving all-Black town, Cymone Davis is invested in preserving places like Lake Ivanhoe.

She has been working with Atiya Martin to map Black towns and settlements across the country. But she said preserving them as historic places can overlook their potential as vibrant, contemporary places.

Through her group Black Towns Municipal Management she works to strengthen and invest in towns like Lake Ivanhoe, with an eye toward the future.

Janet Alexander Davis and her cousin Michael on Lake Ivanhoe. She said her and her family went to Lake Ivanhoe in the 1950s on fishing trips.
/ Courtesy of Janet Alexander Davis
Courtesy of Janet Alexander Davis
Janet Alexander Davis and her cousin Michael on Lake Ivanhoe. She said her and her family went to Lake Ivanhoe in the 1950s on fishing trips.

"How do you reconcile the past? And then how do you include for the future? What does that even look like if it is a possibility to continue to rebuild a predominantly black community?" said Davis.

For Peter Baker, the marker is a good start. He's planning a dedication ceremony. He wants to invite past residents, have a pig roast and big band music, like the old days.

He said recognizing this community now is the best way to ensure future generations find refuge, too.

"I plan on being here for a long time, hopefully for the rest of my life. And I just hope it's always a place that African Americans can feel safe in," Baker said. "I literally am at peace here. There's nowhere else I'd like to be."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diane Bezucha

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