About 88 percent of the state’s population is Caucasian and 6.5 percent is African American, compared to 13 percent nationwide. The U.S. Census stats were even more lopsided during my childhood, and I recall meeting only one black person – at a church camp – before entering college in the 1970s.
Maybe that’s just the way it is in much of the northern Midwest, but the Rev. Richard Keil wasn’t satisfied with accepting circumstances. His Wisconsin roots set him on a lifelong path to serve the Roman Catholic Church, but his heart went 900 miles out of the way to learn and do more as a minister.
The Sheboygan boy attended St. Dominic Parish until his family moved to Racine and its St. Edward Parish in the 1940s. Then came a stint in the Army and enrollment in seminary. Keil studied black history on the side, first with curiosity, then conviction.
By the summer of 1956, the young man sought farm work in rural Alabama because “I wanted to be in a place conducive to being a priest” who better understood the world, “and this also introduced me to the South and the African-American community,” he recalls.
What Keil found was a culture fraught with oppression and “downright terrorism – we were treating these people like trash.” That firsthand realization changed his life.
Church ministry took him to Kiln, Miss., and rural Alabama before moving in the 1970s to Macon, Ga., where 68 percent of residents are black.
“All during this time, I started to study Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and more black history,” Keil explains. “The more I learned, the more I was entrenched.”
By the mid 1980s, the priest at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church also was founder of the Tubman African American Museum, devoted to history, culture, art and many other unsung contributions to society.
That means golf tees and barn-shaped dinner pails in the Inventors Gallery, spirit jugs and a “white’s only” bubbler in the local history archives.
“So much of who we are is tied up with dignity and self-image,” the retired priest notes. “I was a white man in an African-American community” who wanted to make a difference.
Keil in 1981 spent $36,500 on a rundown and 8,500-square-foot warehouse, slated for demolition. He named the museum after Harriet Tubman, the “Black Moses” whose Underground Railroad work helped free hundreds of slaves, because she epitomized the “strength and goodness” that he saw in African Americans.
In spring 2015, the original museum will be replaced with a $22 million building that is five times bigger. The museum founder is keeping his distance.
“I’m not a black artist, a black historian or a museum professional,” Keil notes, “so I decided to leave the museum’s board” and let younger generations take over.
What has grown would not have begun if the Sheboygan boy, now 80 years old, hadn’t let curiosity and compassion get the best of him.
The Tubman African American Museum is closed Sundays and Mondays. The new museum adds exhibit and event space, especially for civil rights discussions. tubmanmuseum.com, 478-743-8544
Here’s another Wisconsin connection to Macon, Ga.: The music-rich city counts soul singer Otis Redding among its own, and a life-sized statue faces the Ocmulgee River at Gateway Park. The “Sittin’ on the Dock of Bay” songwriter died when his plane crashed into Madison’s Lake Monona on a stormy December day in 1967.
The city also is home to The Big House, an Allman Brothers Band museum. thebighousemuseum.com, 478-741-5551
These musicians and many more – including Little Richard, Ray Charles, Lena Horne and Gladys Knight – also are inductees in the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, whose Macon-based museum closed in 2011, after a cut in state funding.
The historic Douglass Theatre, where Otis Redding was discovered during a talent show (he got $5 for winning it), remains open for events. douglasstheatre.org, 478-742-2000
Also worth a stop: H&H Restaurant, for soul food in modest confines where “Mama Louise” Hudson used to serve the Allman Brothers and other hungry musicians for free, before they hit it big.
“They always wanted something to eat before going on a tour,” Mama Louise told me in 2009. “Sometimes they’d pay, and sometimes they wouldn’t. We became friends, and if they could only afford two plates to split between five of them, I’d give them five because you if can help somebody, you do it.”
The second “H,” Inez Hill, died in 2007 at age 94. The restaurant opened in a black neighborhood and one block from the original Capricorn Records music studio. A meat and three sides costs around $10. facebook.com/MamaLouise, 478-742-9810
For more about Macon: maconga.org, 800-768-3401