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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Remembering the legacy of Carson Gulley

‘Top Chef’ episode honors UW chef
Maria Brunetta
Carson Gulley Center on the University of Wisconsin campus. May 1, 2024.

The University of Wisconsin’s Lakeshore neighborhood is a sleepy enclave of freshman dormitories, often written off as boring compared to its boisterous east campus counterpart, the Southeast neighborhood. But residents of Lakeshore, many of whom once saw living in Kronshage rather than Witte as the equivalent of the world ending, have grown fond of the neighborhood’s quirks — getting lost in its maze of identical residence halls, walking through a blizzard to do laundry in a separate building and spending countless minutes waiting for the 80 to arrive (it never will). If you have the right mindset, Lakeshore can be heaven for a freshman. But speaking as a former resident, the uphill walks to class never did get easier.

Most of Lakeshore’s inhabitants flock to Dejope’s Four Lakes for meals, but there’s another dining hall in the neighborhood that tends to fly under the radar, Carson’s Market. Located in the Carson Gulley Center, tucked between Slichter, Adams and Tripp, the building has a quaint stone edifice with a red-shingled roof that serves the standard dining hall fare, featuring a dilapidated salad bar and a wall of dry cereal dispensers. It’s frequented by residents who live in that awkward stretch of dorms that are equidistant from Liz Waters and Four Lakes, five-minute walks that can feel much longer on an empty stomach. Carson’s is certainly no Four Lakes or Gordon Avenue Market, but it does its job.

Many students aren’t aware of the dining hall’s existence and even fewer know anything about the man it was named after. Most would likely assume it’s just another university building dedicated to some stuffy professor or wealthy alum, but the Carson Gulley Center’s namesake is neither. He was much more than that.


Carson Gulley, born in 1897, was an accomplished chef, a local celebrity and a civil rights pioneer whose legacy lives on in Wisconsin and beyond. Recently, Gulley crept back into the public eye when his cooking inspired a “Top Chef” challenge, raising several questions — who exactly was Carson Gulley and how does he fit into UW’s Black history?

Gulley’s life is not particularly well-documented by many, but Scott Seyforth, Assistant Director of Residence Life at UW, has devoted extensive research to learning all he could about Gulley’s life and compiling it into an article for the Wisconsin Magazine of History.

According to Seyforth, Gulley’s career at UW began in December 1926, when he was 29 years old.

Originally from Arkansas, Gulley bounced around the Midwest as he developed his cooking skills, working in restaurants and at resorts. In the summer of 1926, the director of University Housing at UW passed through a lodge in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, where Gulley was working. The director, impressed by Gulley’s cooking, offered him a job as the head chef at the university.

In 1936, Gulley would take a short-term leave from the university to develop a two-year chef training course at the Tuskegee Institute, which, Seyforth said, is one of the most important centers of African American identity, culture and community in the United States. Gulley was beginning to make a name for himself and word was spreading.

Gulley developed into something of a local celebrity. In the late 1940s, Gulley was one of the few African Americans in Wisconsin to be broadcast on the radio. He appeared on Wisconsin radio programs to talk about cooking and he was eventually offered his own cooking program on WISC radio in Madison. The radio show was a hit, with Gulley receiving hundreds of letters from listeners requesting recipes.

His success didn’t end there. He published a cookbook in 1949 and in 1953, “What’s Cooking,” a cooking show hosted by Gulley and his wife, Beatrice, premiered on WMTV in Madison. It was nothing short of revolutionary, one of the only known television programs of the 1950s to feature an African American couple. The public’s range of reactions to “What’s Cooking” was indicative of Gulley’s perseverance — he and WMTV received an excess of hate mail, but the program continued to air for 10 years.

As incredible as Gulley’s cooking was said to be, it wasn’t what earned him a building at UW. Gulley may have been an extraordinary chef, but more importantly, he was a vocal civil rights advocate even before the movement began to gain traction in the United States.

The belief the Midwest was a haven compared to the South in the early-to-mid 20th century is poorly founded.

“When Gulley moved up here from the South trying to find a better life for himself, he found an environment very similar to that which he came from,” Seyforth said. “He couldn’t eat in restaurants on State Street, he couldn’t even rent a house where he worked on campus.”

Gulley faced similar treatment throughout the Midwest. As his fame mounted, cities would often invite Gulley to give lectures, but denied him admission to hotels, forcing him to drive back to Madison late at night. Known as sundown towns, these cities made it quite clear African Americans were unwelcome and Gulley’s celebrity status did not render him immune to this racism.

Gulley struggled to make Madison his home — both figuratively and literally. He and his wife faced a unique set of challenges, particularly while searching for housing. African Americans weren’t wanted in many neighborhoods, leaving the couple in limbo as they combed the city for a place to live. Sometimes, their realtor would send a white couple to arrange a purchase on the Gulleys’ behalf, only for the sale to fall through once their race was discovered. But Gulley didn’t take racism sitting down.

He publicly fought the restrictive covenants that barred him and Beatrice from purchasing property, testifying to the city council in 1950 about the discrimination he faced as a Black man in Madison. Before Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. entered the public eye, before the Civil Rights movement began to unfold rapidly, Gulley was a vocal advocate for social justice.

 “It’s important to pay tribute to the people that laid the groundwork that the movement was built on,” Seyforth said.

Gulley was, in short, a trailblazer.

In December 1954, the Gulleys were finally approved to move into a Madison neighborhood, where they were met by hate mail and even a burning cross in their front yard. The passage of a Fair Housing Act in Madison wouldn’t happen until 1963, Seyforth wrote, but the Gulleys’ move was an imperative step for the movement.

Gulley would retire from the university in 1954.

“The only way that I could do that job was to swallow the bitter pill of prejudice, opposition and hatred,” Gulley wrote.

He passed away in 1962. Three years after his death, the Board of Regents renamed the Van Hise Refectory where Gulley worked at to the UW to the Carson Gulley Center, making it the first UW building named after an African American.

The struggles Gulley faced as a Black man — one of high status at that — are reminders of Madison’s history of racism that’s so often swept under the rug in favor of the city’s squeaky-clean image it upholds today. At the peak of his fame, Gulley had devoted fans who held him in high esteem, but those same admirers would bar him and his wife from their gated, all-white neighborhoods.

Gulley was a chef and a pioneer of civil rights whose legacy serves as a reminder of our city’s less-than-perfect history. He’s remembered both for his fudge-bottom pie and his commitment to social justice, making his legacy one, on the whole, less bitter than sweet.

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