‘What I felt there was free’: Small Wisconsin town was state’s first black-founded community

Peter Baker will never forget his first visit to Lake Ivanhoe. It was 1966. He was 9 years old and his friend brought him over from Chicago for a fishing trip. They caught dozens of fish, mostly bluegills and crappie.

“We came home and I ran around the house with all these fish and showed my mom, ‘We were up there at Lake Ivanhoe, and it was all black! ‘” Baker, now 66, said. “And the first thing she said was, to my dad, ‘Ernest, we’re going there next week.'”

The small subdivision of Lake Ivanhoe is nestled on the edge of a tranquil lake, just 6 miles east of Lake Geneva. The Bakers bought a house on Tuskegee Drive and moved the family from Chicago. Peter spent his days fishing, swimming and running in the woods. In the days of sunset cities, when African Americans were not welcome after dark, Baker said Lake Ivanhoe was a haven.

It was about as safe as life could get up here, because we could literally sit in the middle of the roads at night and watch the stars and talk and play“, Baker said. “The freedom was amazing.”

It wasn’t until decades later that Baker learned the sentiment was the very idea when the community was envisioned a century ago as the first and only black-founded community in Wisconsin. Now a small group of local residents are working to ensure the story is recognized after it was nearly lost.

In recent years, the nation struggled with whose history is preserved in our statues and monuments. Of Wisconsin’s 600 historic monuments, only seven commemorate the history of the state’s black residents. And no one recognizes the history of the Hmong, Latino, or LGBTQ communities.

The Wisconsin Historical Society is trying to change that, said Fitzie Heimdahl, who coordinates the state historic marker program.

Thanks to a grant from The William G. Pomeroy Foundationthey are partnering with organizations from black communities and other marginalized communities to add nearly 40 new markers over the next three years.

“A big part of the marker program review process is to make sure that diverse stories are told and that the stories of the peoples and cultures of our state are told by those groups themselves,” Heimdahl said.

Ivanhoe Lake will be one of their first new markers.

The Dream of Ivanhoe Lake

Lake Ivanhoe was the vision of three prominent black men from Chicago – Jeremiah Brumfield, Frank Anglin and Bradford Watson.

The trio acknowledged the growing racial tension following the Great Migration that brought millions of African Americans north. As communities merged, black families faced covenants and red lines that barred black families from certain neighborhoods, and even violence from white people wanting to keep them out. .

In 1919, riots broke out in Chicago when a black boy was killed by a white man on a beach and the police were unwilling to make an arrest.

The three men made plans and sought financial support from white and black investors. In 1926 they purchased an 83-acre farm on Ryan Lake in Walworth County. A white realtor named Ivan Bell agreed to broker the deal, and the lake was later renamed in his honor.

They carved up land, named streets after famous black people – Dunbar Boulevard, Phyllis Wheatley Drive, Douglass Avenue – and placed ads in Chicago newspapers.

On a hill overlooking the lake, they built a large pavilion where jazz great Cab Calloway performed on their opening night in 1927.

The station was an immediate success. Black families arrived in droves to buy land and enjoy the outdoors. There were fishing contests, concerts, prizes and beauty contests.

But sales plummeted when the stock market crashed in 1929. The pavilion was dismantled and unsold lots seized.

In 1934 Edward Sternaman, a white Chicago Bears football player, purchased the unsold Ivanhoe Lake property. Intending to turn the area into a white resort, he erected fences preventing residents from accessing the park and the beach.

Founder Brumfield, an attorney, helped file a civil lawsuit. And in 1934, the judge sided with the community, saying the beach and parks at Lake Ivanhoe should be collectively owned and remain open to all. The fence fell and Sternaman left the area for good.

After World War II and in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, families like the Bakers rediscovered Lake Ivanhoe and slowly made it a year-round community.

“A little-known story that needs to be told to the world”

Baker still lives in Lake Ivanhoe. He bought his parents’ house, ended up building his own and raised his family there. He is now president of the Lake Ivanhoe Homeowners Association.

But he says things have changed. A housing program in the 1990s brought in new families. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, the community is predominantly white and Hispanic. African Americans make up only 9% of the population.

The lake needs to be dredged and the road to the beach needs repair. The original families are long gone and with them the history of Lake Ivanhoe fades. That’s why Baker has been working for years to get a historical marker.

“It’s really, really hard to ignore that when you have pictures and a community that (has) been here with the street names as they are and everything,” Baker said. “There is no other place like this.”

Recently, Baker received help from Katie Green, whose family has owned a house 10 km from Lake Geneva since the 1970s.

But Green had never heard of Ivanhoe Lake until a few years ago when a friend’s grandmother mentioned it.

“I had asked all my friends who I grew up with in Lake Geneva,” Green said. “I asked all my current neighbors, ‘Have you heard of Ivanhoe?’ ‘No no.’ Nobody I knew. So I started digging into it.

That’s how she met Baker.

“I called Peter one day. He answered the phone…and we literally talked for an hour,” Green said.

Baker shared what he knows about the history of Lake Ivanhoe and Green said she was blown away.

“Just the vision of these men and their women, their families, coming here in the ’20s, to a place that didn’t welcome them. And they had the vision to create this community,” Green said. “It feels like some sort of neglected story that needs to be told to the world.”

“So proud of this fish”

There is not much written about the history of Lake Ivanhoe. Most of what is known comes from a master’s thesis written in 1972 by Samuel L. Gonzalez, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. But Gonzalez died in 2013, and the people he interviewed are long gone.

Baker and Green therefore often spend their Saturdays rummaging through old documents and journals. They try to collect artifacts and connect with former residents. They started Facebook and instagram accounts to help spread the word.

One of the people they found was Janet Alexander Davis. She and her family came to Lake Ivanhoe in the 1950s on fishing trips.

Alexander Davis hasn’t been back to Lake Ivanhoe since she was a kid, but she’s excited about the marker.

“I’m so glad they’re doing this. It’s proof that we’ve been treated differently in this society and continue to be – that we’ve had to find our own way and have our own stuff because we couldn’t just go where we wanted to go, shop, live,” she said. “So what I felt there was free.”

“There’s nowhere else I’d like to be”

Later this summer, the historic two-sided sign will be installed next to the Homeowners Association Pavilion, where the original pavilion once stood. Baker envisions the kids coming to visit when they learn about Lake Ivanhoe at school.

Listen to Peter Baker read from the Ivanhoe Lake Historic Marker.

“There will be pictures of this pavilion, there will be pictures of the kids riding bikes and going down to the lake, and they can go for a walk there and actually see it and say, ‘Wow, that’s got here'” Baker said.

He is already planning an inauguration ceremony. He wants to invite old residents, have a pig roast and big band music, just like the good old days.

And he believes acknowledging community is the best way to start rebuilding it.

“I plan to be here for a long time, hopefully for the rest of my life. And I just hope it’s still going to be a place where African Americans can feel safe,” Baker said. “I am literally at peace here. There is nowhere else I would like to be.”

Christy J. Olson