“If it happened in Milwaukee between 1968 and 2007, Clayborn Benson probably captured pictures of it,” writes Laura L. Hunt in a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee periodical writing “Telling Milwaukee stories both vintage and modern.”
“A videographer in television news for a whopping 39 years,” she adds, “Benson was only the second African American in the profession in Milwaukee when he began. Today, he’s focused on events far more vintage.”
This current day focus as we all know and love in our support of him is the Wisconsin Black Historical Society/Museum (WBHS/M) which he founded 24 years ago in 1987. Located at 2620 West Center Street, the WBHS/M will sponsor its “Open House” this Saturday, July 30 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Events will include arts and craft projects, tours, guest speakers and presentations on the rich historical legacy of African Americans in Wisconsin, African traditions, the Civil Rights Movement, the Underground Railroad and related reclaimed presentations highlighting African contributions and Black achievement.
While working for WTMJ-TV (NBC Affiliate) in 1983, Benson began working on a project exploring the history of African Americans in the State of Wisconsin. Taking more than three years to complete, the effort was titled “Black Communities in Wisconsin.”
Benson discovered while working on this project that the records and documents on the history and roots of Black people in Wisconsin “were widely scattered and poorly preserved.”
“Wisconsin’s African American history was found spread out all over the entire state, from cardboard boxes in basements, to individual’s home and garages, to information only to be found in the minds of individuals who lived through history making times,” notes the WBHS founder.
He further discovered in his attempt to uncover our history that in many cases, “important archival documents were sitting in the dark of historical societies, buried under boxes and files of other papers or set aside for lack of knowledge as to their importance or usage of the information.
These documents did not seem to be of value to some of the established historical societies while other institutions refused to share their information,” he adds.
Once released, the video generated so much interest that Benson, along with other community leaders established the Wisconsin Black Historical Society/Museum. The WBHS/M first announced its opening in February 1987 at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Finlayson. The Society has since been accepted as an affiliated member of the State Historical Society.
The WBHS/M features themed exhibits on “Work’n In The Promised Land: The African American Labor Experience in Wisconsin,” “The NAACP Civil Rights Tribute Bus Exhibit” depiction of local and national civil rights pioneers, and the artist George Gist’s mural “Ancient Egypt to Modern Milwaukee”:
“This exhibit tells of the hard work, the labors of our forefathers and foremothers,” says Benson. “So, we ask the greatest of our greatest grandmothers and the greatest of our greatest grandfathers, and all of the ancestors who have gone before us for help in telling this story about the work we have done.”
He adds that, “We must see ourselves through our own eyes and reflect the true nature that is our heritage. Our legacy for future generations is at stake.”
The WBHS/M Online exhibit listing includes such themes as “African American Firefighters: Our Brothers Under Fire,” “40th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement: March on Milwaukee 2007,” “The Black Heritage in Milwaukee Project,” and “The Charles Warren Exhibit.”
Lesson plans and worksheets on Wisconsin’s African American history for elementary and secondary levels and biographies of significant Wisconsin African American historical stakeholders are additionally a feature of the WBHS/M offerings.
The WBHS/M founder earned his undergrad degree from UWM in 1987 while still working at WTMJ. On October 2, 2010, he was inducted into the prestigious Silver Circle as a member of the 2010 Milwaukee Silver Circle Honors.
Sponsored by The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the Silver Circle recognizes outstanding individuals who have devoted a quarter of a century or more to the television industry and have made a significant contribution to local broadcasting.
Benson is one of five nominees for the media category in the coming Academy of Legions Recognition Awards Ceremony Saturday, August 6 at the Italian Community Center.
The mission of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society/Museum is to document and preserve the historical heritage of African descent in Wisconsin.
The museum exhibits, collects and disseminates material depicting this heritage and serves as a resource center for persons interested in Wisconsin’s rich African American heritage.
For additional information on the WBHS/M July 30 Open House or on programs offered, please call (414) 372-7677 or visit their website at www.wbhsm.org.