Latino Chamber of Commerce’s ¡Comparta Su Voz Madison!
Reflecting Wisconsin’s Diverse Grassroots
|Tanika Apaloo, WHS coordinator of adult education (l-r), Jessica Cavazos,
Latino Chamber president/CEO and Christian Overland, director of the
Wisconsin Historical Society
By Jonathan Gramling
Since its inception in 1846 — two years before Wisconsin became a state — the
Wisconsin Historical Society has been forward thinking in its mission to
preserve Wisconsin’s past. As history happens in real time in the present, the
WHS seems to be there collecting the evidence and artifacts as history unfolds.
While one might think that the world’s largest collection of African American
newspapers, including a copy of Frederick Douglass’ North Star, would be
housed in the Smithsonian or perhaps in a historical society in Atlanta, it actually
is housed at WHS.
“We have lots of newspapers from all over the United States representing multi-
ethnic cultures,” said Christian Overland, director of the Wisconsin Historical
Society. “We actually have the first newspaper that was published by Native
Americans in their own language, the Cherokee Phoenix. That ran from 1828 to
1838. It’s a substantial collection. It gives voice to Americans of all colors, race
and creeds. For us, the museum is taking that wonderful collection that we have
on state, regional and national history and democratizing it so that people can
access it through multiple experiences inside the new museum. We’re going
around the state right now talking to people about their stories to make sure that we capture everybody’s story in the new museum.”
About a year ago, the State Archive Preservation Facility was completed near the Yahara River. WHS shares the facility with the Wisconsin Veterans Museum
and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Instead of artifacts being placed in deep storage and brought out perhaps every few decades or
when a special showing is planned, the materials will almost be instantaneously accessible due to the facility’s state-of-the-art technology.
“The nice thing now is we moved everything to the new State Archive Preservation Facility,” Overland said. “We used to have two off-site areas as well as
the headquarters library. Now everything is much more accessible than it’s ever been. You can actually go to the headquarters down on State Street in the
Library Research Center and order anything that we have and it can be delivered within an hour. You think of the Amazon delivery service with barcoding
inside the facility and then they unwrap it, put it in a tray, put it in the delivery area and it then goes to the research center where it is accessible to you. You
can get anything that way. It’s much faster than it ever was before.”
WHS’s modus operandi is not to wait for history to come to it. Rather, it actively goes out and fetches history. Years and years ago, WHS decided to build a
collection on the Freedom Rides that occurred in the early 1960s. It hired researchers who went down South and visited activists and others at their homes
and gathered artifacts for safe keeping. The result is the largest collection of historical artifacts on the Freedom Rides in the U.S. WHS is now training its eye
“When we are going around the state talking with people, we’re hearing about new stories that we should be collecting too,” Overland said. “It allows us
rather than just thinking about it from a procuratorial archivist or librarian’s point of view of what should be in the collection, it allows us to find out what the
people want. This is a museum for the people designed by the people. Talking about the Latinx, Hmong, African American and all of the communities inside of
Wisconsin, we want to give them a voice in a way that they haven’t gotten before. I think that’s not past, especially for American Indians, our 11 Nations
inside Wisconsin. It’s not just looking at the far past, but also at what has happened since then. All of us life within thriving cultures and communities of
thriving cultures. How do we tell that story of the past that connects to today?”
In addition to getting new stories and artifacts, the Wisconsin Historical Museum will have renovated facilities on the Capitol Square to exhibit the work.
“The new museum will have live artifacts too in the sense
that we’re going to have multiple artifacts that are in the
space,” Overland said. “We’re also going to have a 3,500 sq.
ft. gallery that will be a changing gallery. Right now, we have
about 900 sq. ft. That’s actually the same space as a kids’
lunchroom. It’s hard to do an exhibit there. For us, it allows
us to get the collection out and rotate it as well too. We’ll be
bringing in stories and making sure that we connect
the past to the present and hopefully inspiring the future with
all of it.”
On May 8, the Latino Chamber of Commerce hosted the
Wisconsin Historical Society at its offices so that WHS could
learn more about the Latino community. Jessica Cavazos, the
CEO of the Latino Chamber feels that it is important for the
Latino community to be involved.
“They’re reaching out to us so that we can have input and a
voice as to what we would like to see, the experiences that
we would like to feel,” Cavazos said. “It’s been too long
since the communities of color have had a voice in any
project that has to do with telling our history. I’m excited to
be a part of it. Part of leaving a legacy to our future is for
them to understand what our past and history were. I
comment the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Museum
for reaching out and wanting to bring it to their constituents.”
And it is important to have that past so that the Latino
community can know where it wants to go in the future.
“Our forefathers were actually testing the system, testing
policy, testing what at that time was unknown,” Cavazos
emphasized. “Moving forward, if we understand what they
went through and how they strategized, we can actually win
the fight. I’m really excited to be able to bring this to the
Latino Chamber and to develop a relationship with the
Wisconsin Historical Society so that we can have a greater
impact as a community as well, not just the Chamber, but
also all of the members of the Latino Action Consortium and
agencies that should have a voice in how they want to be
depicted as well.”
WHS looks to the future to capture the past. The Latino
community looks at the past to see where to go in the future.
Both add up to a more informed community.