Dr. Richard Harris and His Book ‘Growing Up Black in South Madison": The Great Madison Migration (Part 1 of 2)

Cover - Dr Richard Harris copy

Dr. Richard Harris with photos of his mom and dad who were “pioneers” in South Madison.

By Jonathan Gramling

For over 100 years, the area known as the Greenbush or the Triangle was a place where new arrivals to Madison settled down and started to develop roots. It was the area bounded by Regent Street, Park Street and W. Washington Ave., but also extended into parts of the Vilas Neighborhood before the growth of the medical community there caused thruways like Mound Street to be interrupted.

Neighborhood House was a community institution, a place where the
new arrivals could find services and assistance in integrating into Madison.

It was composed of owner-occupied and rental units primarily occupied by African American, Jewish and Italian families. It also contained a number of neighborhood businesses including restaurants, taverns and hair salons. It was a tight knit, relatively low-income community.

According to Dr. Richard Harris, the long-time Madison resident and author of “Growing Up Black in South Madison,” there were three areas that Blacks were allowed to live.

“There was a program called redlining going on,” Harris said. “Back in those days, we didn’t know what redlining was. Through redlining, Black people could only live in three areas in the city of Madison. One area was on the near east side on Mifflin Street where the first Black church was, St. Paul AME Church. Area number two was the W. Washington Ave. area. And area number three was South Madison.”

While the city of Madison prided itself as an egalitarian city, perhaps it was the relatively low number of people of color at the time that allowed it to pretend that it was different as it related to race relations.

“I describe a city where some White inhabitants have treated their Black brothers and sisters in a most discriminatory and racist fashion,” Harris said in the foreword of his book. “I feel that most Whites whom I knew or had contact with were fair-minded people. I further state, however, there were some Whites that I know personally or had heard of who are some of the most brutally racist White people I knew.”

In Harris’s view, things started to change for the people living in the Triangle after World War II.

“Around 1947, the alderman talked about how ‘those people’ had the good life down there,” Harris said. “‘They have a beautiful park,’ he said. ‘And the thing that I

don’t like about it is when you come into Madison from out-of-town