History of Gay and Lesbian Life in Wisconsin - Events

Black Nite Brawl Incident
and Josie Carter






An interview with Josie Carter in 2011 revealed just one of Josie's most colorful 'adventures', which was to become a landmark event in Milwaukee LGBT history.

The site of that event, which occurred 8 years before the Stonewall Riots in New York City, has now been designated a Landmark by the Milwaukee County Historical Society, as explained in an article in JSOnline.

That adventure is detailed by LGBT historian Michail Takach in his article in OnMilwaukee. Highlights from that article:

As the greatest generation continues to leave us, the actual course of these events has been slowly evaporating into hidden history. As a result, many people today believe that LGBTQ history began with New York's Stonewall Riots of 1969.

But eight years before Stonewall, Milwaukee was the scene of an early uprising unlike anything local police had ever seen before.

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.

The Black Nite wasn't just a tavern that tolerated homosexuals; it was, from the start, a tavern that embraced and welcomed them. Whetham, a twice-married man with children, became well-known for creating a safe and generous space for his customers. All sexual and gender expressions were welcome– something extremely rare to find in mid-century Milwaukee– and customers were fiercely protective of their turf.

That fierceness made itself known on Saturday, Aug. 5, 1961.

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.

"We didn't start anything, but we sure as hell finished it," said Josie. "Those guys only came down there to cause trouble. When (the bouncer, Josie's boyfriend) tried to kick them out, they all tried to fight him. And I thought, 'Oh no, you're not going to hurt MY husband.' I went out there with a beer bottle in each hand, ready to knock some heads.

"This man turned on me. I thought, I can't let him put his hands on me. He was big, and he kept coming at me. I thought he would kill me. In that moment, I could fight off an army in a bathrobe. I let him have everything that was in that bottle. He went down."

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."

According to Josie, after the men left, "Wally said, 'OK, you guys have to get out of here, because God knows what is about to happen.' But we did not run from a fight. We did not run from nothing," said Josie. "And, wouldn't you know it, those big ass mothers came back and just tore apart that bar, looking for little old me and my husband, because their buddy got beat up."

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 losses were reported, including the bar's entire bottled liquor inventory, an electric organ, a jukebox and all windows.

"One of the guys came at me and said, 'OK you sick faggot, come on.' I popped him right there, and the blood sprayed and he fell to the ground. I'll never forget that as long as I live. He started it, but I stopped it. I may be a 'faggot,' but I'm the one who stopped it."

"And then the cops came down, and put them all in a paddy wagon, and took them to jail," said Josie Carter. "They said, 'You have no business coming down here and harassing these people. The police were good to me back then; they took care of me and taught me how to stay out of trouble. I never had no problem with the police, as long as I didn't make problems."

It's especially interesting that Josie, a self-described "queen" who did not consider herself transgender despite living a full and proud female life, would make that statement. Laws prohibiting "cross-dressing" had been on the books since pioneer times, and even in the 1960s, police were empowered to apprehend, inspect and arrest any individual not wearing three pieces of biological gender-appropriate clothing. Today, we can't even imagine the bravery and boldness that was required to live a transgender life in midcentury Milwaukee.

"Oh, I was so proud of myself, but when I went back to the bar and grabbed the door handle … I realized my whole finger was pushed all the way backwards. I didn't even notice that during the fight. I just kept fighting. We all did."

While Whetham and his patrons cleaned up the carnage, the four servicemen were charged with disorderly conduct. Unfortunately, Judge Christ T. Seraphim later dismissed their charges due to "lack of evidence."

And what about the person who threw the first bottle that started the brawl? Josie Carter recalls: "I have never lived in fear. All someone can do is beat me up, but believe me, if I see them again, anywhere, I will walk up to them and tap them on the shoulder," said Josie. "'Remember me?' I'll say. And they'll remember me. I promise you that."

As anyone who had the privilege of meeting Josie will tell you, she was damn right.

Webmaster's note: Josie was very shy and modest about her contributions. She shunned the spotlight, and resisted the thought of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Black Nite incident in 2011. (While the transcript of the above interview spells the location as the 'Black Knight', the bar where the incident occurred was actually spelled the 'Black Nite'.)

Many of Milwaukee's earliest gay rights activists spoke about how the Black Nite Brawl inspired them. It was a call to arms for many community leaders, including Eldon Murray and Alyn Hess, founders of Gay People's Union. It was also the first time they saw a Milwaukee gay bar mentioned in the newspaper. Like many men of their generation, they sought out news stories mentioning gay people and places throughout their childhoods, only to find negative indictments of gay people as "criminals," "perverts" or "sexual deviates." For the gay rights generation, the Black Nite offered a glimmer of hope and a spark of revolution. View the Eldon Murray Papers online at UWM by Clicking Here.

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 anniversary was the opportunity for the political leaders of the time to recognize what the Brawl had meant to Wisconsin's early LGBTQ movement, and was recognized with proclamations and resolutions from the Governor, Mayor, and County Executive.

As a result of applications filed in June 2021, in November 2022 the site of the Black Nite bar (demolished some 50 years prior) was recognized by the Milwaukee County Landmarks Committee with an historic landmark designation. Work continues to get state landmark designation, and markers of these designations posted on-site.

  • View the Black Nite 60th Anniversary web page.

  • View the Black Nite tavern web page.
  • View the Josie Carter biography page.

  • View the Library of Congress recognition of Milwaukee's Black Nite uprising on their website.
  • View article in Milwaukee Magazine, June 2022.
  • View History.com article on LGBTQ uprisings prior to Stonewall.

    Cases continued to Friday
    (Milwaukee Sentinel, August 8, 1961)
    Charges against two suspects dropped
    (Milwaukee Sentinel, August 12, 1961)
    Second charge for aggravated assault
    (Milwaukee Sentinel, August 14, 1961)

    Josie Carter


    Wally, Owner of the Black Nite,
    with Josie Carter, 1966
    (photo courtesy of Josie Carter)

    Full story next day in Milwaukee Sentinel
    (Milwaukee Sentinel, August 7, 1961)


    Full story next day in Milwaukee Journal
    (Milwaukee Journal, August 7, 1961)


    Credits: Web site concept, design and content by Don Schwamb.
    Information and photos from UWM Interview, and historian Michail Takach
    Last updated: December-2022.

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