Native Madisonian Richard Harris thought he would never return to the city after experiencing racial job discrimination, but said he returned to fight the problems that turned him away.
The author of “Growing Up Black in South Madison,” Harris was invited to speak at a Rotary Club meeting Wednesday.
Harris said he never noticed racial discrimination growing up. He said it was in the background in the form of what he called “mother’s watch,” a group of women including his mother who would go to department stores to fight the rule that blacks could not try on shoes or clothes. The rule was based on the view that whites would not purchase the items if a black person had worn them.
Harris said he had an enjoyable time at Madison Central High School and then went to the University of Wisconsin, where he graduated in 1961.
“When I started here, Abe Lincoln was standing. Now, he’s sitting,” Harris joked.
Harris said his first real experience with racial discrimination was in 1961, when he was looking for a job following his graduation from UW. He had gone in for an interview and after receiving a cool greeting, a Dane County Sheriff came in and escorted him out.
“They made an awful mistake. I can’t interview. My staff would never want to work with a colored person,” the interviewer said to Harris.
Harris said he then applied to jobs in Chicago, which immediately reached back to him with offers, and he said he did some social work involving Chicago gangs. It was after the job discrimination in Madison that he and his wife swore they would never return to the city.
The most disturbing part of his book was in relation to blacks and Italian families that had been cheated on their properties in the Triangle Neighborhood, he said.
Harris said he has initiated a race discrimination complaint against Mayor Paul Soglin that then went to the state U.S. Department of Justice and is now at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
A second race discrimination complaint Harris initiated was with the Madison School District after it was brought to his attention that only 2 percent of Madison teachers are black.
Harris said when a black teacher was interviewed in 1958 for a teaching job, a psychiatrist was brought in on the basis that she must have been crazy to think the district would hire her, knowing parents would not want their children to be taught by a black woman.
“I feel that most whites I know and are in contact with in the city are fair-minded people, but there is a small group of what I call redneck loose canons who are extremely racist and will do whatever they can to stop a black person from gaining economically,” Harris said.
Kaleen Caire, Urban League of Greater Madison president, said the discrimination that black residents face today is a result of generations of oppression that is just beginning to change with the post-Civil Rights era generations.
Caire said the generations of his children and his grandchildren will be those who face greater opportunities in society and will be able to see the benefits that whites had following the World War II generations through the 1950s and 1960s. He said their prosperity was delayed, which should be anticipated.
“I ask you not to give up on us, but invest in us,” Caire said.