The University of Wisconsin–Madison has stood as the flagship university of the state since Wisconsin was founded in 1848. For nearly two centuries, there have been thousands of people who have attended or worked at this institution — some carrying on a family tradition and others simply excited to embark on a new educational journey. Through its history, UW–Madison has marketed itself not only as a school, but also as a community that is invested in the cultivation of well-rounded scholars, cutting-edge researchers, and strong leaders. The marketing tactics change, but are always implemented with the same goal: to foster a sense of belonging at UW. Whether or not people at UW–Madison feel as if they belong within the bounds of this institution, though, is another thing completely.
The UW–Madison Public History Project began as a temporary initiative in 2019 with a mandate to uncover and give voice to the histories of discrimination and resistance on campus. Following the successful delivery of the project’s final public history products, the project is being replaced by the permanent Rebecca M. Blank Center for Campus History. The Public History Project’s final report showcases the work accomplished over the past four calendar years. It acts as a synopsis of the project in its entirety — covering the project’s budget and staffing, highlighting research and community engagement processes, laying out challenges faced by project staff, and providing insights for those wishing to undertake similar work.
In April 1990, students crowded around UW–Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala’s office demanding the expulsion of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) from campus. Student activists sought to ban the ROTC because of the U.S. military’s discriminatory policies against gays and lesbians. This protest was the culmination of years of activism on the part of students and faculty who argued that the military’s exclusion of gay and lesbian service members contradicted laws against discrimination in the state of Wisconsin as well as the university’s avowed commitment to diversity and equality. Though the ROTC remained on campus, the student protests at UW inspired a surge of anti-ROTC activism at campuses across the country.
Adela Kalvary Owen arrived at UW–Madison in the summer of 1950. After having survived the horrors of the Holocaust, Adela, with her guiding motto “Seize the Day” decided to do just that. She had seen and experienced more than many of her peers could imagine. But once Adela arrived at the Groves Housing Cooperative, in her own words, she “had come home.” In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we remember Adela.
Since its launch in August of 2019, the UW–Madison Public History Project and its researchers have worked tirelessly to uncover and give voice to the histories of discrimination and resistance on campus. The project’s annual report for 2020–2021 showcases the work accomplished over the past calendar year including synopses of research completed by students, ways to engage with the project and its work, and a vision for the project’s final outcomes.
Graduate student Zada Ballew spent the summer of 2021 conducting oral history interviews with Native alumni. In this blog post, she reflects on the power of listening and the opportunities for UW–Madison to begin writing and telling a Native history of UW–Madison.
The Black fraternal system at UW–Madison has built a legacy of community, resistance, and perseverance. BGLOs became a crucial part of the Black Student community at the university, creating the first formally Black spaces on an otherwise white campus. UW–Madison has been home to eight of the nation’s nine historically Black Greek-letter organizations, known as the Divine Nine. These organizations established themselves at UW–Madison as the first Black-community oriented spaces, finding a home on campus despite—and in some ways because of—its predominantly white student body. This is a history of their formation and a discussion of their enduring legacy at UW–Madison.
Hmong American students began matriculating into colleges and universities across Wisconsin in the mid-1980s, with their numbers slowly increasing into the 1990s. Within the UW system, over 3,132 Hmong American students have attended UW–Madison from 2008–2018 (second to UW–Milwaukee, 6,494), with the majority of them coming from Wisconsin. Chong Moua set out to document their stories through oral history interviews and to “claim institutional space” for Hmong American students, past, present, and future. Shared for the first time here are their experiences at UW–Madison in their own words.
In the 1940s, Japanese American students — together with Asian international students and a few other Asian American students — formed the small Asian population on UW’s majority white campus. This could be lonely and isolating at times, but many also found ways to flourish and enjoy their years at UW, developing deep friendships with classmates and advisors. These are some of their stories.
When Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, they did more than provoke the United States to enter WWII. They also triggered an era of uncertainty and hardship for Japanese in the U.S., including college-aged Japanese Americans across the country. A nation-wide, anti-Japanese atmosphere quickly took hold as Japanese Americans were forced into internment campus. Universities across the country, including The University of Wisconsin, responded to WWII by retooling to meet wartime needs for education. As one of the nation’s large Midwestern institutions, UW played a role in relocating Nisei college students from the West Coast and internment camps and disbursing them to other campuses across the country. Only a handful of Nisei students attended UW prior to WWII, preferring to attend West Coast institutions closer to their families, but by the end of WWII UW’s Japanese American population had greatly expanded. Japanese American UW stories reveal both the value and the limits of UW’s liberal racial values and policies at the time.