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Celebrating Black History Month in La Crosse: The Enduring Families Project

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LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) - When it comes to learning about the tremendous impact African-Americans have made in America, many can agree our systems fall short. One local organization called the Enduring Families Project is changing that.

Since 2019, the Enduring Families Project has given presentations at various school and justice groups. The project created historic educational skits on African-Americans who made huge impacts in La Crosse.

The list of African-Americans who made an impact on La Crosse is long.

Lillian Davenport: Was born on Dec. 8, 1894, in La Crosse. Lillian grew up in La Crosse and graduated from La Crosse High School in 1913. She began her vaudeville career in the 1920s. It was said she played nearly every instrument in the orchestra. Not only was she a performer, but she also was an activist. While visiting her mother in 1941, she noticed many La Crosse businesses — including bars and restaurants — had Jim Crow signs posted. She notified Wisconsin’s NAACP, which led to the removal of the signs. Later in her life, Lillian taught music at a public school in Chicago. She died in Chicago on Sept. 28, 1964. She was buried in La Crosse alongside her family.

George Poage: George Poage grew up in homes of the Pettibone and Easton families of La Crosse in the late 1880s. His mother, Anna Poage, was much sought after as a culinary artist. The Poage family lived outside the African American community, yet when George graduated from La Crosse High School, he gave “voice” to the community in his salutatory speech. Poage Park was dedicated to his achievements in 2015.

Nathan Smith: Nathan Smith was very active in La Crosse politics. Many men and women of all races sought his counsel. Nathan Smith and his wife, Sarah, took in many orphaned and abandoned children over the years on their farm in West Salem. The courts sent several unruly young people to his farm, instead of a prison, for rehabilitation.

George Edwin Taylor: George Edwin Taylor was an orphan stowaway who arrived in La Crosse, in 1865 at the age of 8. Nathan Smith takes in the unruly young man and helps him become the man who runs for President of the U.S. in 1904. He owned and operated his own newspaper publishing business with 2000 subscribers at $1.50 per year. Payment in advance, please! His newspaper was the voice for laborers and farmers in southwestern Wisconsin.

Elizabeth Burt: Elizabeth Burt was born in Pennsylvania and arrived in La Crosse in 1857. Her husband, Albert, was a riverboat cook and steward. His work kept him on the river for weeks-on-end, so Elizabeth was left to raise their three children and support the household. She was a brilliant businesswoman and investor. Her boarding house at 1114 Vine Street became a favorite place for newcomers and travelers to La Crosse. Many single men and people of color could not find places to stay when they arrived in La Crosse, but they were welcome at the Burt Boarding House.

Denise Christy and Rebecca Mormann-Krieger, are founders of the Enduring Families Project. Christy is the producer, and Mormann-Kreiger is the historian and writer.

“When I researched these people, the stories became real, the people became real, whenever I take a drive through downtown, or I drive up over Nathan Hill, I think about these people,” Mormann- Krieger said. “I love history. It’s become an everyday part of my life.”

Christy said the goal of the projects is to be a reference for future generations.

“The point is we’re not going to live forever. These projects are for public knowledge,” Christy said. “Enduring Families wants to be a resource of La Crosse African-American history to local organizations who want to learn about this history after we’re done when we’re older, can’t make the videos.”

Lynnetta Kopp, one of the actresses for the Enduring Families Project, said she is happy to be a part of a project that shares African-American History to the Coulee Region.

“History is magical. It depends on how you look at it and how that magic flows,” Kopp said. “I want people to see how deep-rooted Black History is in La Crosse and the important people of color made in La Crosse. Without Black history, the City of La Crosse would not be where it is today. Black people are part of the fabric of this region.”

Darrell Ferguson, another actor for the Enduring Families skits, said African-American History doesn’t just start and stop with the well-known historical black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, or Rosa Parks.

“I will be direct and say a vast majority of white people do not know a lot about the history of African Americans, or let alone the history of people who came long before them and the impact they had, and continue to have on our culture and future today,” Ferguson said. “We need to have more than just that one frame of history that out there.”

Financial supports and donors for the Enduring Families Project are Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Coulee Bank, Gundersen Health System, Mayo Clinic Health System, La Crosse Community Foundation, First Presbyterian Church.

The La Crosse County Historical Society is the fiscal sponsor for the project.

Juneteenth Celebrated in La Crosse with Black History Audio Tour

The project is constantly working on and researching historical African-Americans in the Coulee Region.

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Lindsey Ford

Lindsey Ford is a multimedia journalist.

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