Celebrating the Black Nite Brawl

The Stonewall uprising in New York City in June 1969 was undeniably the start of a national LGBTQ awareness.  But even before that event, gay people in cities around the country were beginning to push back against homophobic attitudes.  Perhaps one of the most notable, but most underrated, is the Black Nite bar brawl in Milwaukee, Wisconsin-- the first 'gay rights' state.

Celebrate the revolutionary spirit of our brave elders -- who on August 5, 1961, ignited the first LGBTQ uprising in Wisconsin history.  We are asking for your donations to commemorate the 60th anniversary by:

- Lighting the Hoan Bridge in LGBTQ colors;
- Installing a historical marker at the scene of the uprising; and
- Petitioning the City of Milwaukee for formal recognition of this historic event.

Your donation  -- in any amount -- supports this cause and helps raise awareness, voice and visibility for not only LGBTQ history and heritage, but the critical challenges that gender non-conforming and transgender people of color continue to face sixty years later. 

The Story
On a hot and foggy August night, four sailors went to a Milwaukee gay bar on a dare.  After starting a fight with the bouncer, they were chased off by a bar patron in a bath robe.  Embarassed to be beaten up by a homosexual, they vowed to come back and "clean up" the bar and "teach those sick faggots a lesson."  And, later that night, they did.

But these sailors didn't know who they were dealing with.

Josie Carter, a gender non-conforming black queen, had already given their friend a concussion.  As Saturday night customers rolled in, she "riled up" the crowd with the story, encouraging them to stay and defend the bar if the sailors came back.  The owner wanted to lock up the bar and send everyone home, but people were sick and tired of being sick and tired. Only a year before, a police raid in Juneau Park resulted in a gay man being beaten to death. Gay men were hassled with sting operations everywhere they went.  And now, violence was coming to their doorstep.

"We do not run from a fight," Josie told the crowd. "We do not run from anything." 

On August 5, 1961, Milwaukee learned how true this was.  When the sailors returned, they weren't just fighting Josie and the bouncer anymore. They were fighting an army of angry queens, lesbians and gay men who had reached their breaking point, with nothing left to lose.

The Black Nite Brawl at 400 N. Plankinton was the first LGBTQ uprising in Wisconsin history.  Six years before Stonewall,  five years before Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco, and four years before the Dewey's protests in Philadelphia, our elders took an early stand against homophobia and started to fight back.

Local news coverage sought to scandalize the event.  Instead, the news stories changed history.  For the first time, Milwaukee knew that gay people existed here, in large enough numbers to have their own spaces, and that they would fight back if provoked. For the first time, isolated LGBTQ people learned that they were not alone in the world, but that they had a local community.  For the first time, Milwaukee's LGBTQ people felt "pride" after a lifetime of shame, guilt, rejection and scorn. 

The sailors were cleared of all charges.  The bar was ordered to close.  And, in the end, this event was hidden by history and remembered only by a small and ever-shrinking group of survivors.  

We seek to make this historical event known to all Milwaukeeans.  In a second year without a PrideFest, we cannot allow the 60th anniversary of LGBTQ pride to "go dark."  We owe it to these warriors -- and, especially, to the "Mother of Gay Milwaukee" -- to keep their stories and spirit alive, and to give them the proper respect they were denied while they were alive.

The Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project  is an independent, self-funded, all-volunteer organization founded in 1995. Over the past 25 years, the project has become the state's largest digital collection of LGBTQ historical content.  

For more about the Black Nite Brawl, visit OnMilwaukee .

  • Anonymous 
    • $100 
    • 7 mos
  • Meghan Marsden 
    • $25 
    • 8 mos
  • Diane Gregory 
    • $20 
    • 8 mos
  • Anonymous 
    • $80 
    • 8 mos
  • Ronni Nivala 
    • $25 
    • 8 mos
See all

Fundraising team: Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project (2)

Raised $628 from 12 donations
Los Angeles, CA
Don Schwamb 
Team member