In 2021, the Curator of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project (Michail Takach) had the idea of commemorating the Brawl by holding a press conference on the 60th anniversary of the event. The idea was to increase community knowledge of the event and what it meant for the future of the LGBTQ rights movement in Wisconsin.
The anniversary was ultimately recognized in several ways:
Takach and the Founder of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project, Don Schwamb, worked with Bjorn Nasett and others in the community to pull together the anniversary commemoration event. Part of the impetus was that, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and 2021, there had been no Milwaukee Pride celebration in either 2020 or 2021, so this was seen as a way to bolster LGBT Pride. The first problem was funding: there would be costs associated with having the Hoan Bridge lit up. A "GoFundMe" campaign was set up to raise the money needed to light the bridge.
Takach had previously written a book "LGBT Milwaukee" and was already writing articles for local web sites as well as Madison's LGBT magazine, 'Our Lives'. He proceeded to write several articles for the media to remind the community of what the Black Nite bar was and its significance. (The story had almost been lost to history and had only been rediscovered from oral interviews done in 2011 and since.)
Then it was time to approach the political leaders of the time. Luckily, the anniversary was seen by politicians as an opportunity to recognize what the Brawl had meant to Wisconsin's early LGBTQ movement.
With Proclamations and Resolutions in hand, a Press Conference was organized for the date. Late on the morning of Thursday, August 5, 2021, Schwamb, Joshua Sukkert, and Takach arrived on the site and began setting up a podium and display boards for the presentation and press conference. Pink surveyor flags were placed along the approximate outline of where the building housing the Black Nite Bar had stood 60 years before. (The site had been a vacant lot for the past 55 years.)
Speakers at the press conference included: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett; Milwaukee Common Council Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa; a representative from the County Board; Dr. Brice Smith, coordinator of the Wisconsin Transgender Oral History Project; Elle Halo, transgender rights activist; Don Schwamb, founder of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project; and Michail Takach, the Project's curator. The event was covered by camera crews from WITI-TV6, WISN-TV12, and Spectrum News One.
At dusk that evening, the city's Hoan Bridge was illuminated in the colors of the LGBTQ+ Pride Flag and the Transexual Pride flag, alternating every hour until 2 a.m.
Historical Context: What was being commemorated?
On Saturday night, Aug. 5, 1961, four troublemakers got more trouble than they bargained for at the Black Nite (400 N. Plankinton Ave.,) one of Milwaukee's most popular gay bars of the time.
After partying at a Kane Place tavern, four 20-year-old servicemen decided to check out the Black Nite on a dare. Despite being asked several times, they refused to show any identification to the bouncer and wound up being forcibly removed. One of the servicemen would later claim that he was grabbed, punched and hit on the head with a bottle for no reason. But that's not exactly what happened.
The servicemen fled the bar, took their injured friend to the County Emergency Hospital and went back to the Kane Place tavern. They rounded up a dozen men and decided to go back Downtown and "clean up the Black Nite."
Bar owner Wally Whetham later reported that "this gang came in and started tearing the bar apart, and the bar fought back." Earlier that night, the servicemen had found a nearly empty bar and a 4-1 fight against the bouncer. This time, they found a packed bar of 75 patrons ready and willing to defend their turf by any means necessary.
The battle didn't last long, but it was intense: One patron suffered extreme lacerations when he was thrown through a broken window; another patron experienced a brain concussion when he was hit in the head with a barstool. He would remain in critical condition for weeks after the brawl. In the end, over $2,000 in damages were reported, including the bar's entire bottled liquor inventory, an electric organ, a jukebox and all the bar's windows.
While Whetham and his patrons cleaned up the carnage, the four servicemen were charged with disorderly conduct. Unfortunately, the notoriously homophobic Judge Christ T. Seraphim later dismissed their charges due to "lack of evidence."
View more details about the Black Nite Brawl.
View the Black Nite bar web page.
Credits: Web site concept, design and content by Don Schwamb.
Information and photos from UWM Interview, and historian Michail Takach
Press Conference photos by Joshua Sukkert.
Last updated: August-2021.
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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.