Book Describes Family's Loss Shrouded in Discrimination

Jul 12, 2013

A Madison writer helps a remarkable Milwaukee woman tell her story of a lifetime’s search for justice.

Sylvia Bell White with her son, Douglas Lamont Bell, at the opening of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's play on her brother, Daniel Bell.
Sylvia Bell White with her son, Douglas Lamont Bell, at the opening of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's play on her brother, Daniel Bell.
Credit jsonline.org

On a February night in 1958, Milwaukee police tried to pull over an African-American motorist on the city’s north side.

Police at the scene said after trying to evade them, the driver jumped out of the car and lunged at officers with a knife.  They shot and killed Daniel Bell at the scene.

Family members believed a cover-up shielded what really happened that night, and a startling admission by a police officer two decades later confirmed their fears, and resulted in a significant financial settlement with Bell’s survivors.

The case is an important one for Milwaukee, one that is referred to when other racial court hearings take place. It is a case where what really happened came out.

But for Bell’s sister, Sylvia Bell White, her brother’s injustice at the hands of police was just one part of a lifetime in which inequality swirled around her.  But her life has also been marked by resilience, even as racial injustice remains prominent in America.

Bell White and LePage's new book "Sister: An African American Life in Search of Justice."
Bell White and LePage's new book "Sister: An African American Life in Search of Justice."
Credit bibliovault.org

Bell White’s family story is told in Sister: An African American Life in Search of Justice, a new book by Madison writer and historian Jody LePage, who used hours of oral history interviews from 1998.  Each chapter is divided between LePage’s historical analysis and Sylvia’s stories, told in her own words.

Bell White met Jody LePage in 1973 while selling vegetables in Madison. When the Milwaukee Repertory Theater produced a play about the Daniel Bell case, Bell White went to LePage, a recent History PhD recipient, to tell her story.

Growing up in the segregated south during the Depression and World War II, Bell White saw discrimination in the school children. Her community did not have a school for African-American children. So their parents put together a one-room school for all grades and hired a teacher. The children could go to school only if their parents could spare them from the field. Only a handful could read and write by adulthood. The inequality of opportunity led some African American families to leave for the north.

"People came from the segregated south, expecting the north to be a place where the kinds of situations they encountered in the south would not confront them, and instead they found that they encountered job discrimination, housing discrimination," LePage says.

LePage stressed that Bell White wanted to include her grandparents’ story, who were slaves in the South, up through today, seeing an African-American president.

“She became increasingly interested in telling a story that reached beyond herself and her own family and her brothers to that larger pictures of what life is like African-Americans in this own country,” LePage says.

Sister: An African American Life in Search of Justice is published by the University of Wisconsin Press. LePage will talk about the book tomorrow afternoon at the Wisconsin African American Women's Center in Milwaukee.

You can hear more of the interview below.