Are Black Women Safe at the University of Wisconsin–Madison?

By Angelica Euseary

The research in this blog post was completed as a part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Public History Project. The three-year project aims to reckon with the university’s history of racism, exclusion, and discrimination. The project will culminate in an exhibit in the fall of 2021, an interactive online website, and curricular tools. By sharing research before the opening of the exhibit, we hope to begin conversations about the history of UW–Madison and discuss how we can all work towards building a more equitable campus community. The nature of historical research is that it will always be incomplete. It is impossible for us to know everything that happened in the past. Therefore, the research in this post is imperfect, as all history is. Our student researchers have completed the research below with all of the historical documents available to them at the time of publication. There will be alternative perspectives to those detailed below. We believe that the discussions that arise out of these differing perspectives are an integral part of the process of reckoning with our history. We welcome responses and discussion. Responses submitted by email will be posted in a response and discussion post within one week after the original publication date. Responses with vulgar or offensive language will not be posted.


Content Warning: The UW–Madison Public History Project blog aims to provide a space where our community can begin the difficult work of reckoning with our history. Some of the content and language in this blog post is offensive and disturbing. In this post, you will encounter an uncensored racial slur. As historians, we felt it was important to use the word, uncensored, for two reasons. One, the word was used during the time period and is quoted directly from newspaper publications which also use the word in full. Quoting primary sources as they originally appear is part of sound historical practice. Two, hiding the word, or censoring the word, only serves to hide racist actions perpetrated by people in the past. Lessening their violence by hiding their language makes their action seem less violent. At the same time, it protects our modern audiences from dealing with the serious violence and dehumanization that occurred “back then” but that continues to occur now. We believe in the historical accuracy of using the word but also in the power of making audiences see the word, process it, and sit with its heavy emotional weight.


On April 11, 1988, a Black female University of Wisconsin–Madison student athlete was attacked by Gordon L. Chapman, a 45-year-old white, male Madison resident. The student was called a “fucking nigger” as she was beaten, strangled and thrown to the ground on the 1400 block of University Avenue.[1] Initially, it was reported that a crowd stood and watched as the woman was attacked. Chapman, who attacked her, screamed repeatedly that he was going to kill (her) and all the other n*****s. The survivor, who chose to remain anonymous, said she wasn’t going to report it at first because she didn’t think it would matter much since she was Black. She said she just wanted to graduate and go home.

Newspaper article from the The Daily Cardinal: “Black woman attacked as bystanders do nothing”, dated April 13, 1988.
News clipping from The Daily Cardinal, April 13th, 1988. The headline story reads “Black woman attacked as bystanders do nothing.”

The student had a Black belt in karate and tried to defend herself. “I’ve been through all the racial stuff before,” she said, “the looks, the comments, but never anything like this. He can say whatever he wants, but when he tried to touch me that got me mad.”[2] The assaulter continuously choked her and she kept falling to the ground. “The police told me he was probably crazy,” she said. “He wasn’t crazy, he was prejudiced and wanted to kill me.”[3] The day after the attack, she filed a police report with the Madison Police Department (MPD) and received a call from then acting Dean of Students, Mary Rouse. She thought she was going to get suspended because she was an athlete, and she knew they weren’t supposed to get in trouble. The student was pleasantly surprised when Dean Rouse sympathized with her plight. “But Mary made me feel like she really cares,” the survivor said. “I would have just tried just to forget about the whole thing, but maybe reporting it will help other people out.”[4]

Chapman was charged with battery and disorderly conduct.[5] He admitted to the crime in a counseling session and claimed that he forgot to take medication. However, MPD authorities denied racism as the motive in the brutal attack. “Mental illness plays an enormous part of the whole incident,” Madison police expeditor Mary Anne Thurber said. “And now this man has taken responsibility for his actions.”[6] The survivor, religious leaders and Madison civil rights leaders, and Black UW students responded to this statement. “They told me the stuff about forgetting to take his medicine,” the survivor said. “No, no, no. Is his sickness prejudice? I just don’t buy it. If it was due to mental illness why didn’t he boil up at the white girl standing nearby?” [7] The Madison community was outraged by the incident and worked with leaders and organizations to raise awareness about it.

Newspaper article from the The Daily Cardinal: “Police blame attack on mental illness”, dated April 14, 1988.
News clipping from The Daily Cardinal, April 14th, 1988. The headline story reads “Police blame attack on mental illness.”

Eugene Parks, then Madison Affirmative Action Offer, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation also investigated the attack.[8] Parks, a civil rights leader in the Madison, made it his duty to protect and uplift the lives of African American people in the city. Parks’ involvement in this case proves how important it was to the Black community and emphasizes the community’s distrust of the MPD.  Parks said that their campus was invaded and stressed that an attempted murder took place on this street. He disregarded MPD’s claims about the attack occurring solely because of Chapman’s mental health issues and forgetting to take his medicine.

In a show of solidarity, the Minority Coalition called for two rallies to be held for both community and campus groups to unite in efforts against Madison-area racism.[9]  The rallies were both held on Monday, April 18, 1988, and Parks and other activists spoke to nearly 100 protestors who intended to raise awareness about what had happened. [10] Protestors rallied on the 1400 block of University Avenue, the same place where the incident occurred. “The illness is racism,” Reverend Amy Morrison, moderator of the rally, said. “Our whole society is sick with racism.”[11] Morrison said that this particular man was sane enough to direct his aggression to a particular group—Black women. The second rally, the Community’s Rally Against Racism, was held later that Monday at the Library Mall at 7 p.m.[12] Students organizations, allies and protestors marched down Langdon street to raise awareness about the incident and the racism in the Madison community. The students made three demands that evening, including “full accountability from both University and city officials regarding the extent of racist attacks and racial incidents.”[13]

The attack received attention from Black students at UW–Madison as well. “If the University wants to increase the number of minority students, it must concentrate on looking after their physical and psychological well-being,” Black Student Union member, Judylyn Ryan said.[14] The MPD compiled reports of at least five witnesses saying they attempted to aid the Black student who was attacked.[15] Students observed the incident from the Army and Air Force ROTC Building and went to intervene, but when they got there the fight had ended. After reviewing the incident as part of the 11-page police report, MPD Officer Andy Garcia stated, “A short time later the crowd understood what was happening and some of them indicated that they would call the police but apparently no one did.”[16]

Members of the Madison community were disappointed that the survivor wasn’t helped during the attack, and that they watched the assault happen. It is important to note that most of the bystanders were just that—bystanders. Members of the Minority Coalition said the observers added insult to injury by ignoring this deplorable act and continuing on their way as if someone had just dropped a book, and that in their collective silence, they shouted “FUCKING NIGGER”, too.[17] The support and voices of white allies was helpful because it spread awareness about the incident outside of Black and brown communities. The students who watched the survivor get attacked needed to understand that there was power in helping her. They could’ve made a more positive statement and combatted the racist attack by doing anything but being bystanders.

Newspaper article from the The Daily Cardinal: “Groups say racism rally requires White role”, dated April 18, 1988.
News clipping from The Daily Cardinal, April 18th, 1988. The headline story reads “Groups say racism rally requires White role.”

Nestor J. Rodriguez, then acting president of Union Puertorriquena and Coalition member said white people needed to get involved in large numbers because otherwise their efforts to combat racism in Madison won’t work.[18] Alliance and support from the white community of Madison was important to spreading awareness about this incident. The support from white students could have changed the course of events after the incident. The narrative of the story would have been different if the white student bystanders had supported the survivor as she was attacked.  “I never thought it would happen to me; it is something I will never forget,” the survivor said.[19]

As a Black female graduate student at UW–Madison, I was shocked, but not surprised to learn about this case. The racially motivated attack of a Black female UW student is an important moment in the history of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. This incident is one of the examples of why Black students feel unsafe, unwelcome and marginalized on UW’s campus. Black students continue to endure racism and discrimination at the UW. This brutal incident depicts the dangers of being a Black woman at a public, primarily white institution.

This attack raised awareness about how Black students, Black women specifically, are not safe on campus. Yet, this is not the only time a Black women has been harassed, attacked, or degraded. Incidents of negative racial attitudes and violence against Black women at the UW and in Madison date back to the mid-1930s to July 2020. Below are only a few examples:

  • Starting in 1935, three Black women, Frances Murphy and her two older sisters Ida and Carlita came to UW–Madison from Baltimore. In an oral history interview, Frances Murphy remembered hostility from the house mother at Barnard Hall, a student dormitory on campus. [20] The house mother, Miss Ross, “had a fit every time she looked at us Black kids coming down the steps to dinner,” Murphy recalled.[21] Murphy didn’t remember Wisconsin too fondly and it was a chore, something she had to do.[22] She remembered being resentful of her high school friends who attended HBCUs and joined clubs like the Drum and Bugle Corps. “I don’t recall being too welcomed in any of those things at Wisconsin,” she said. [23]
  • Liberty Rashad, a Black woman, first arrived at UW–Madison in 1966. She recalls that the girls in her freshman year dormitory “didn’t really have any intention of accepting me because I was quite unique, from New York, African American, very progressive politically”.[24] Rashad was heavily involved in the Black Student strikes and protests of 1968–1969. “I remember being confronted by the guards, literally having a physical fight with a national guardsman and almost getting my behind whooped, but luckily there was ice,” she said[25]. Rashad recalls slipping and the (national) guardsman raising his baton to come down on her, then someone snatched her and she slid across the ice out of the way[26].
  • On March 16, 2012, members of UW–Madison fraternity Delta Upsilon used racial slurs and threw a glass bottle at two Black female students. The women became the target of “racial slurs and class-oriented taunts”.[27] This incident took place while the women were walking past the fraternity’s house on Lake Mendota.[28]
  • On June 25, 2020, Althea Bernstein’s face and neck were set on fire when four white men sprayed a liquid through her rolled down car window and threw a flaming lighter at her. Bernstein, an 18-year-old Black woman, was stopped at red light in her car on West Gorham Street near State Street.[29]
  • On July 9, 2020, a Black woman and her family were attacked by a white man in a Woodman’s parking lot on Milwaukee Street. The man told officers he was upset with the woman because her car blocked him from pulling out of a parking stall.[30]

These incidents are proof that Black women are not safe in Madison, Wisconsin. They have not been welcomed or protected in this city or on the UW–Madison campus for over 70 years. If Black women are not safe in Madison, the beloved Badger City, then they are not safe UW–Madison’s campus, and vice versa. The two are not separate entities. Black women in Madison, Wisconsin are in danger of racially motived violence, attitudes, and hateful slurs, when they’re driving their cars, leaving the grocery store or walking near or on campus. If the University of Wisconsin–Madison intends to continue recruiting Black female students, accountability must be held for University administration and city officials to protect them as students on campus and as Madison residents.

The following response was provided by Student Affairs:

As a community, UW–Madison is committed to creating a community where individuals are treated with dignity and respect; where Black lives matter; and where all underrepresented students feel welcome, supported, and safe. Hate is not tolerated on our campus and we know from recent incidents of hate on campus, and across the world, there is still work to be done.

Hate or bias should never be part of the Wisconsin Experience and we reinforce the process that if you or someone you know is hurting, there are resources to provide support.

We will not be perfect in our work. As a collective staff within Student Affairs, working diligently with partners from across campus, we embrace the tough and imperfect conversations and actions we need to take in order to collectively move forward to truly build an inclusive campus where all people are set up for success and can thrive.

 


Individuals are not often taught to think of themselves as sources of historical knowledge, but they are. Individuals hold intimate knowledge of their campus, their neighborhoods, and their communities. That is why we want to hear from you. We believe that this project will be the most successful when it deeply engages all of those in our community. If you have a story to share, an event you think should be researched, or a person you think has been overlooked, please contact us. publichistoryproject@wisc.edu

[1] Ann Powers, “Black woman attacked as bystanders do nothing,” Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), April 13, 1988.

[2] Ibid, Powers

[3] Ibid, Powers

[4] Ibid, Powers

[5] Ann Powers, “Police blame attack on mental illness,” Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), April 14, 1988.

[6] Ibid, Powers

[7] Ibid, Powers

[8] Jennie Anderson, “FBI to investigate attack,” Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), April 19, 1988.

[9] Anthony Shadid, “Group says racism rally requires White role,” Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), April 18, 1988.

[10] Ibid, Anderson

[11] Ibid, Anderson

[12] Ibid, Shadid

[13] Anthony Shadid, “Coalition lists demands at rally,” Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), April 19, 1988.

[14] Ibid, Anderson

[15] Ann Powers, “Witnesses claim they tried to assist attack victim,” Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), April 21,1988.

[16] Ibid, Powers

[17] Eduardo Bonilla and Jose Padin (of the Minority Coalition), “Accomplices to racism”, Daily Cardinal (Madison, WI), April 18, 1988.

[18] Ibid, Shadid, “Groups say racism…”

[19] Ibid, Powers, “Black woman attacked…”

[20] David Tenenbaum, “Recovering the history of UW’s first African-American students”, University of Wisconsin–Madison News, (Madison, WI) July 12, 2016.

[21] Frances L. Murphy, interview by Fern Ingersoll, October 25, 1991, Interview #1 pp. 1-38, transcript, Washington Press Club Foundation, Washington, D.C.

[22] Ibid, Frances L. Murphy

[23] Ibid, “Frances L. Murphy: Interview #1”Frances L. Murphy

[24] Transcript, Oral History Interview with Liberty Rashad, 2018. University of Wisconsin–Madison Communications.

[25] Transcript, Oral History Interview with Liberty Rashad, 2018. University of Wisconsin–Madison Communications.

[26] Ibid.

[27] State Journal Staff, “UW fraternity Delta Upsilon suspended over alleged racial slurs,” Wisconsin State Journal, (Madison, WI) March, 22, 2012.

[28] State Journal Staff, “UW fraternity…”

[29] Stephanie Fryer and Tabatha Wethal, “Black woman says men threw lighter fluid on her, lit her on fire; MPD investigating incident as hate crime”, Channel 3000, (Madison, WI) June 25, 2020.

[30] Maija Inveiss, “Woman struck in the face in Woodman’s parking lot, police say”, Channel 3000, (Madison, WI) July 13, 2020.