Madison Washington was a man born into slavery in Virginia who managed to escape, but risked his own freedom to help free his beloved Susan. Washington was described as having extraordinary African features, superb leadership qualities and a fierce spirit. He was considered a fugitive for escaping slavery and heading north to Canada, eventually finding work with a farmer named Mr. Dickenson. Even as a small child he would rebel against the inhumane treatment of him and his people; but rebellion is what eventually earned Washington his place in history. Around the age of twenty Washington would meet the love of his life, the beautiful Susan who he would make his wife. His plan was to escape from slavery freeing himself and his wife, but his plans didn’t quite work out. His plans to escape were found out, and to prevent himself from being sold away from his wife, he escaped from the farm and hid into the woods for months. While in hiding he was able to keep an eye on his wife and he also began planning to lead a rebellion. His plans once again failed and he eventually traveled north to Canada to live in free lands.
While in Canada Washington’s plan was to get a job and save enough money to buy the freedom of his wife Susan. He was becoming discouraged in carrying out his plans because he realized it would take five years to raise the money needed to free his wife. Washington had made his mind up that he would return back into the grasp of slavery, if it meant the freedom his Susan. Mr. Dickenson the farmer tried his best to persuade Washington to take another course of action. He eventually left Canada with his wages and his freedom papers heading south to Virginia. He was able to reach an area close to the farm where his wife was held, but had to conceal his identity to prevent being captured. Washington was still considered a fugitive and anyone who recognized his would have blown his cover. Being a man of tact and organization, Washington carried miniature files and saws within the lining of his coat; these would help him break out of any chains used to restrain him. “Liberty is worth nothing to me while my wife is a slave;” uttered Washington as he held conversations with fellow travelers who tried to convince him to abandon up his plans.
As he traveled closer and closer to the farm that held his wife, he was forced to travel at night for fear of being recognized by someone. Washington would find temporary shelter in the woods near the farm where his wife was held; he would often try to gain information about her but was unsuccessful. One night while in hiding, he heard singing off in the distant woods and the singing was coming closer and closer to where he was hiding. As he investigated the singing he eventually became a part of the singing, there he learned that he stumbled upon a “corn shucking.” A corn shucking was a mass gathering of slaves who pealed loads of corn, and after pealing the corn they were able to have a huge dinner with whiskey and dancing, which was provided by the owner of the plantation where the corn shucking took place. Washington refused to eat the food for fear of being discovered, he also was very careful to ask only a few questions and remain in the shadows. At the corn shucking he did manage to learn that his wife had not been sold and was still on the old farm.
Being too eager to see his wife, Washington entered the parameter of the farm but was spotted by an overseer, the overseer alerted other white men on the farm. The first three men to approach Washington were struck in the face and knocked to the ground unconscious. Eventually Washington was subdued, shipped to Richmond, Virginia and sold to the slave owners Johnson and Eperson. New Orleans was the destination for The Creole, a ship controlled by Captain Enson and owned by Johnson and Eperson. Washington and one-hundred and forty four other slaves were loaded upon The Creole along with other cargo the men were carrying to New Orleans. As the slaves were loaded upon The Creole the men were placed in one cabin and the women were placed in another. For fear of rebellion the men were heavily chained; Washington particularly was chained to the floor of the cabin, the women were not chained and able to roam the cabin freely.
As Washington lay chained to the floor his attitude was rather jovial than the expected gloom the other slaves displayed. The overseers didn’t know that while Washington was displaying a docile and cooperative attitude, he was secretly picking the men he would use to overthrow The Creole. They also didn’t know that Washington concealed mini saws and files within the lining on his coat to use when the time was right. In 1841, on the ninth day of the voyage, The Creole encountered rough seas which made a number of the slaves very sick. Because a number of the slaves were sick the overseers did not watch them properly, this created the perfect opportunity for Washington and his men to attack. Washington used his mini saw and file to free himself and at least eighteen other men. Once free, the slaves found weapons and made their way to the deck where the ship’s crew was stationed. When the slaves attacked the ship’s crew it was unexpected as well as startling to the crew, the men barley moved making them easy targets for the slaves.
Hewell the Negro slave driver and others from the crew drew their guns and begin shooting some of the slaves. Washington spotted Hewell wielding his gun, approached Hewell from behind, and struck him in the head wounding him severely. Washington led his men into battle with iconic flair, fueling his men to earn their victory; the slaves then dominated the crew and gained control of The Creole. Washington’s men wanted to kill the remaining crew members who were still alive but Washington did not allow any more killing. For some reason Washington was not very interested in killing the men, only gaining the freedom of his people, and his wife. The next morning Madison Washington was named “Captain Washington” the commander of The Creole, by his men. That same morning, Washington requested that the cook prepare a wonderful meal for the men and women who were once captives on the ship. This meal would be the first time the men and women would see each other. Little did Washington know his beautiful wife Susan was one of the women held in the cabin on The Creole. As the meal ensued and the men and women mingled, while Washington and Susan shared a tearful reunion. After years of being separated because of slavery, Madison and Susan Washington were once again husband and wife.
Once Washington and his men defeated the crew of the Creole, he ordered that the men not be killed and their wounds treated. Once the wounds of the white men healed they tried to regain control of the ship but were defeated once more. Because of the bravery and brilliance of Washington one-hundred and forty four people were able to gain their freedom upon The Creole. The Creole didn’t make it to New Orleans, Washington and his men landed in Nassau, Bahamas because they learned it was a free island. Washington was able to use the love he had for his wife, to free his wife, as well as free others who he did not know. The Story of Madison Washington and The Creole is a story many of us have never heard before; a man of African lineage who embraced freedom was able to not only change history, but literally change the lives of others. This story is important because it shows that once organized black people can gain their freedom, it also showed the commitment of a black man to his black wife, which is counter to the normal narrative which usually degrades the black family. If we unite and trust each other was can make the impossible, possible. Mr. Madison Washington, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
On February 18th, 1924, Velvalea Rodgers was born on the South Side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She attended North Davidson High School; she was an excellent student so she graduated earning a scholarship to attend Howard University. She would graduate from Howard University with a bachelor’s of arts degree in 1946. In 1947 Phillips would meet Mr. Dale Phillips, the man she would eventually marry before they both enrolled into Wisconsin–Madison Law School. Vel Phillips would graduate from Wisconsin-Madison Law School in 1951 making her the first African-American woman to earn a law degree from that institution. Both Dale and Vel Phillips would move to Milwaukee and become the first husband and wife to be admitted to the Wisconsin Bar. Vel Phillips would try her hand at becoming an elected official; she ran for a seat on the school board of the Milwaukee public schools in 1953 and made it past the non-partisan citywide primary election. She would lose in the run-off but she was beginning to make her mark.
Vel and Dale Phillips both joined the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP and also became active in their community. At the time there had been no African-Americans to serve on the Common Counsel in Milwaukee. History was made once again when Vel Phillips became the first woman and the first African-American to serve on the Common Counsel in Milwaukee. Her new title was Madame Alderman Vel Phillips; even though she was a pioneer it would be many years to come before another African-American would serve on the Common Counsel. Vel Phillips became a voice for the district of Milwaukee she represented which was called the “Inner Core.” The inner core was the African-American part of town that endured failing schools, poor living conditions, little to no representation, no jobs, and blacks could barely gain housing outside of the inner core. Vel became active in the non-violent civil rights protest during the 1960’s, and in 1962 she used her elected position to propose a Fair Housing Law to outlaw housing discrimination. In 1968 after a federal anti-discrimination law was passed Phillips’ Fair Housing Law was passed making any form of housing discrimination illegal.
In 1967 a riot broke out in Milwaukee where black houses and establishments were fire bombed by white rioters, the aftermath of the riot revealed four people were dead and Vel Phillips was arrested. The summer of 1967 was labeled the “long hot summer nationally because of the racism the African-Americans were facing. Also in 1967, Phillips began marching in protest for the rights of African-Americans with Father James Groppi. They would lead up to 200 people marching from the Inner Core to South Milwaukee as angry whites spewed racial slurs and threw objects at them. Phillips would serve on the Common Counsel from 1956 until 1971 when she resigned to yet again make history by becoming the first woman and African-American to be appointed to the judiciary of Wisconsin. She did not serve a second term due to her opponent using her activism as a means to say she was not judicial material.
She would go on to become a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and she would also serve as a law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. In 1978 Phillips became the first woman and first non-white person to be elected as the Secretary of State in Wisconsin. She would briefly serve as the acting Governor of Wisconsin during the absence of the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor. Phillips also became the highest ranking woman to hold an office in the state of Wisconsin in the 20th century. Phillips has served on the boards of both the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and America’s Black Holocaust Museum. Marquette University’s School of Law named her “Distinguished Professor of Law.” She was the chair of the campaign which produced Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s first African-American and first female member of the United States House of Representatives, Gwen Moore. In 2006 she founded the Vel Phillis Foundation to help African-Americans gain social and civil justice. It has been stated that Phillips is currently in the production stages of a first-person memoir of the civil rights movement in Milwaukee. She used her talents and relentlessness to help change the landscape for African-Americans in Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin. Miss. Vel Phillips, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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