Green Bay’s first permanent, Black resident, “Smokey” Dawson

GREEN BAY, WI (WBAY) – February 1st marks the beginning of Black History Month. Every Wednesday at 10am through February, Action 2 News honors people who have helped make this area and nation what it is today.

According to local historian Mary Jane Herber, the history of African Americans in northeastern Wisconsin can be traced back to the 18th century. Blacks moved to Green Bay as both freedmen and slaves over the next century, but only one man and his family from this period made history.

Green Bay’s black population is fairly small compared to other cities across the country. Just over 4% of the people currently living here are black. To begin our Black History Month series, we introduce William “Smokey” Dawson, Green Bay’s first permanent black resident.

On the corner of Forest Street and Morrow Street on the east side of town, near the East River, there are homes as far as the eye can see. What you don’t see is a hidden story.

On this corner lived and worked Smokey Dawson, Green Bay’s first black resident.

Dawson came to Green Bay from Pennsylvania as a child in 1857 and lived on Morrow St.

He owned four lots on the block – what are now the first four houses. An 1886 map drawn by one of Dawson’s bosses shows his holdings.

You must remember that 1886 was a time when most mentions of blacks and property in other states would have shown slave housing.

Herber, local history and genealogy librarian at Brown County Library, says Dawson lived here as a free man during a period of slavery elsewhere in America, thanks to the annexation of the Northwest Territory, which included Wisconsin, which gained statehood in 1848 .

“The Northwest Ordinance states that the states that emerge from the Northwest Territory must be free states, they must not be slave states,” Herber said.

Dawson was a wagon delivery driver for the Smith family and he was held in very high esteem.

“Obviously the Smiths thought, I would say, very much about that [Dawson], because the property he owned was adjacent to the Smith family in terms of where their truck farms were located. And even where her house was, they were only a block apart.”

This particular Smith family was, so to speak, the kings of Green Bay.

The man who employed Dawson was the grandfather of Walter Wellesley Smith, aka “Red,” who won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for sportswriting and has a school in Green Bay named in his honor.

Another neighbor of Dawson in the early 1900s was Marcelin Lambeau, father of Earl “Curly” Lambeau.

After decades of jumping on and off delivery trucks, Dawson found a new venture and continued to thrive.

“Later in his life he is listed in the city register as a broom maker. So he had other means of production, so there were certainly people in town who would buy his brooms, or he’d sell them to grocery stores or the general store, in terms of income,” Herber said.

Dawson had five sons and one daughter. While much of the family later went to Chicago, the Dawsons who stayed were a lasting presence in the community.

“There’s a stability in the fact that he’s been here all along,” Herber said. “His mother stayed here – I mean, his mother died here. His stepfather died here. One of his sons stayed here and died here.”

Dawson died in 1929 at the age of 80, having lived in Green Bay for 72 years.

We asked the historian if Red Smith might have known Dawson. She said Smith graduated from East High School in 1923 and lived in the family home across from Dawson.

She thinks the two men, with their own unique places in Green Bay history, probably knew each other quite well.

Our first report on this first day of Black History Month is about another first by the name of William “Smokey” Dawson

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