Where Past Meets Present

Wanda Sloan

Wanda Sloan

Wanda Sloan is the retired HR Diversity/Staff Development Specialist at Blackhawk Technical College, former Student Advisor at Blackhawk Technical College, State Youth Advisor for the Wisconsin Chapter of the NAACP, former Board Member of League of Women Voters, one of the leaders in Preservation of The Fairbanks Flats, and a Civil Rights Activist.

Are you from the area?

Yes, I’m a Beloit native and have lived here nearly all my life.

What was it like for you growing up here?

Well, growing up, as with most young people, you don’t see all the negatives. You’re just playing games with your friends, your cousins, your family, the neighbors. You’re having a good time.

From elementary school through high school, I had a lot of friends. I enjoyed being with people. I had what I would call a pretty good experience growing up in the historic Fairbanks Flats. My mom, dad and four siblings and I lived there until my parents bought a home on Wisconsin Avenue.

The Fairbanks Flats Restored

The Fairbanks Flats Restored

There were 21 apartments and everyone had 4-5 children or more, so we had ready-made friends with whom we could play jump rope, marbles or baseball. It was a close-knit group of people. Even when someone moved out, it seemed a new family with children would come and replace them. In most families, both parents were working. Very seldom was there a woman who was able to stay at home.

When one or two of those moms could stay home, they became the mothers of the whole neighborhood. That meant we couldn’t get away with anything just because our mom was at work! The other mom was watching all the time. They’d settle disputes, put band-aids on the sores, play games with us. They helped to take the mother’s place.

It was a good community and I still have friends from there that I’ve kept all my life!

Where did you go to high school?

I attended Beloit Memorial and graduated from there in 1965.

What were your activities in high school?

I was in sports and ran track.

What were your ambitions for after high school?

I had always wanted to go cosmetology school. I did everybody’s hair in the neighborhood, either braiding or curling or giving friends a new style. I loved to do it and felt like I wanted to be a cosmetologist.

When I was coming up with this idea in 11th or 12th grade, my dad had said, “Okay, if that’s what you want to do, that’s what we’ll help you do.” I had an aunt in Rockford, Illinois, and at the time, there was a school for black cosmetology there called Nola’s School of Beauty. I wanted to go to Miss Nola’s school so badly, I could just see myself there! I just knew I’d have a wonderful career.

Well, lo and behold, by the time I thought about moving in with my aunt and getting a job there so I could go to school, my dad was reconsidering. As we got closer to graduation, my dad said, “Well, I think if you work for this, save your money and work …” I thought, “Why didn’t you tell me this in 10th grade? I would have done it!”

There were those of us who didn’t go to college right away. Admiral TV Corp in Illinois was where we all took a job. I thought I could work there, then save up for school. Well, I got used to the work and the money. Even though I saved, I didn’t go on to cosmetology school. I worked there in Rockford for a while.

Admiral TV Ad from 1966

Admiral TV Ad from 1966

What was your next career move?

We’d had excellent teachers in high school and a lot of the female students had taken office and clerical classes, shorthand and such. I was really good at shorthand. Eventually, the Admiral job became tiresome and office positions opened up for me. I took a job at the Rockford Credit Bureau. I did that for about a year, and then became pregnant.

That scared me. I was almost 20 years old, not doing exactly what I wanted to do, but I was working and enjoying it. That’s when I came back to Beloit, so my parents could help me.

When I came back to Beloit, it was the late 1960’s, early ‘70’s, and there was a lot of equal opportunity hiring going on because there weren’t a lot of black women or men in front office jobs. I’ve always been connected to people that were doing things.

So, when positions opened at various agencies and places, the people who knew me also knew my skills in typing and shorthand. I would get these calls, “Wanda, Wisconsin Power & Light is hiring! They need a stenographer.” I worked that job at WP&L for several years. One job always led to another, so I had a good run in office positions.

To the people who helped me out, I will always be grateful as long as I live. A number of them have passed on, but they helped me in my life and I’m very grateful for that.

What work did you do after your office jobs?

I kept working and living in Beloit. There was a group of black men, who I always thought of as brilliant. They formed an organization called Black Resources Personnel. They were very involved with Community Action, which is still in operation today. But at the time, the civil rights movement was in full swing. Again, my name came up. They said, “Wanda, we need an Executive Secretary.”

That was one of the best times in my life. They would write different grants and were organizing and training black youth. They were also very politically astute. They would have voting rallies and talk about where to vote, how to vote, the candidates and their platforms. I learned a lot. We were very connected to Beloit College.

Dr. Robert (Bob) Carter was one of the founders of Black Resources Personnel. He was one of those brilliant men, and I was so glad to have him in my life. He was such a wonderful mentor. He knew so much about the world.

At the time, we were working on trying to get civil rights in Beloit, working toward getting the city to do their part to include us in things. It was really a good experience.

What happened in your personal life around that time?

Meanwhile, I became engaged to the father of my child. But, there was something about marriage … it either frightened me or didn’t appeal to me. So, I broke off the engagement. We remained friends forever and he remained involved in my child’s life. He stayed in Rockford and I was here. I had two other children, and the jobs kept coming.

For a little while, I took classes at the University of Wisconsin-Rock County, but between work, raising my family and school, something had to give. So, I quit school at that time.

Blackhawk Technical College

Blackhawk Technical College

How did you end up working at Blackhawk Technical College?

Well, first I took a job with Community Development for Rock County. One day, while I was sitting at work, Sheriff Joe Black came to my office and asked me if I’d like to work at the jail as a clerk in the front office, writing reports, traffic reports, any kind of news documentation. So, I switched and stayed in that job for about two years.

Then, in 1982, another friend, who had worked at Blackhawk Technical College, came to me and said he was going into the ministry and leaving his position there. He wanted me to take his place. He said to me, “Of all the people I know, I would really want you to take this job.” There weren’t a lot of people of color at BTC then.

I knew he was working in management, so I had some self-doubt. I had always worked in clerical positions most of my life. I thought, “Can I really do this?” I was very hesitant and, at the time, I was content with my work and family. But, Reverend Clint Washington kept coming, and he was persistent.

So, I applied. I figured there would be people with PhD’s and degrees and that I wouldn’t make it in. But, I got the position! It was because of my work history, my connections and several things I had done up until then. I also had good recommendations, plus a trust factor. And I was what they called, “home grown”, having grown up around here and knowing people. That’s exactly what they wanted.

I stayed at BTC for 34 years and just retired a couple of years ago!

What were your various positions at Blackhawk Technical College?

I was in Student Services for 12 years. Then, the president wanted me to work in Administration as the Affirmative Action Officer. Once again, I thought, “I can’t do that!” Plus, I really loved working with the students, being able to go out, recruit students, watch them progress and achieve their goals.

There were so many students who didn’t have confidence in themselves. By the time I got them steered in the right direction, into the right program, they were like different people. Some of them went on to do really great things with their lives. I still hear from some of those students from time to time and how they’re very successful. That is really inspiring to me.

I did end up working in Affirmative Action, and then this term “Diversity” came on the scene, so my position was Affirmative Action and Diversity. I asked the president if I could still work with the students and he agreed. So, I was also a Student Advisor. It gave me a chance to learn and grow in another area, while allowing me to maintain that part of the job that I really loved, connecting with the students.

Later, I went into Human Resources and the position kept evolving. Eventually, I trained staff and conducted employee orientations.

Tell me about your own college career.

I took a year off and attended Rock Valley College for my Associate’s Degree in Public Administration. Then I went back to work, and Upper Iowa University had connected with Blackhawk Technical College. I finished my Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration through Upper Iowa.

Of course, once you start going to college, you say to yourself, “When do I stop?” I earned my Master’s Degree in Business Administration from Cardinal Stritch University.

When I had my Associate’s Degree, I had all my children. By the time I received my Master’s Degree, I lost two of my sons who were young, one was 32 and one was 39.

They passed about 4 years apart. And I didn’t grieve as I should have. Work meant a lot to me, but it always had. When my 32-year-old son passed, my oldest son had comforted me, he was my rock. I still had my job, and that was something to get out of bed for.

Losing a child is probably the most traumatic thing anyone can go through. I should have taken off more time, but I went back to work after a week and got back into my life. After my oldest son died…that was really hard. So hard.

Before he passed, I had become involved in saving the Fairbanks Flats.

(Story continues below)

Fairbanks Morse Company in Beloit Expanded with the Labor of a Large Percentage of African American Workers

Fairbanks Morse Company in Beloit Expanded with the Labor of a Large Percentage of African American Workers

The Great Migration, Fairbanks Morse, and a Brief History of “The Flats”

Thaddeus Fairbanks, 1880

Thaddeus Fairbanks, 1880

According to the Fairbanks Morse website, Thaddeus Fairbanks invented the first platform balance scale and opened a business with his brother, Erastus.

In Wisconsin, a former missionary named Leonard Wheeler designed a durable windmill for pumping water, the Eclipse windmill. Wheeler set up shop in Beloit just after the Civil War.

At about the same time, a Fairbanks & Company employee, Charles Hosmer Morse, opened a Fairbanks office in Chicago, from which he expanded the company’s territory of operation and widened its product line. As part of this expansion, Morse brought Wheeler and his Eclipse Windmill pumps into business with the Fairbanks company.

Morse became a partner in the Fairbanks Company in 1850, and by 1865, the first branch opened to be known as Fairbanks, Morse and Company, headquartered in Chicago.

Fairbanks Morse Engine was the first company to successfully market a gasoline engine in the United States in 1893.

Charles H. Morse

Charles H. Morse

Fairbanks, Morse and Co. went into The South to do mass recruiting because they needed more man power to complete their government contracts. In 1917, the Great Migration began, as African Americans made their way northward to leave oppression, lack of opportunity and poverty in the south to find jobs in the north.

When the trains rolled into Beloit, the citizens of Beloit were happy to welcome the new recruits until they got a look at the skin color. Many were put back on the trains and were told, “We will send for you when we find housing.” The landlords that promise housing to Fairbanks Morse would not allow “colored people” to live in their houses.

Col. Morse, went against the city council, who had plans to create park space along the river. Fairbanks, Morse and Co. proceeded to purchase the land along the west bank of the Rock River and built what was supposed to be temporary housing, cinder blocked buildings called the Fairbanks Flats, and sent for the recruits to come back to Beloit.

Additional sources:

The Grady Family, the First Black Family to Move Out of The Flats and Purchase a Home

The Grady Family, the First Black Family to Move Out of The Flats and Purchase a Home

How did you get involved in saving The Flats?

I knew about the Black Migration, and how my family got here, how my grandparents came up from The South. My daddy worked at Fairbanks. And The Flats still had families living there. People were moving in and moving out. It got to the point where the upkeep wasn’t good anymore.

There was an entire area in Beloit that was historically black. Maple Avenue and Poole Court neighborhood was the only area blacks could live when they came up from The South to work at Fairbanks Morse. There was serious housing discrimination, which is how The Flats came to be.

I caught wind of the city’s discussion about tearing them down. I thought, “Why would they tear down The Flats?” And that’s when I began to study historical preservation. I understood how things were happening in larger cities, like Chicago, Detroit, in places that had these concentrated communities of African Americans. These places were being destroyed. Either a highway was coming in, a big mall was coming in. So, eminent domain was pretty prominent.

All these neighborhoods were being destroyed, whose residents were low to moderate income. They weren’t economically able to buy homes, but they had to move, to find somewhere else to live. The city was going door to door to the homeowners in the black neighborhoods of Beloit, offering to purchase their homes at market rate. We lost Maple Avenue to some extent.

When I began to study that, I realized that it was about riverfront property. The discussion was that The Flats could be demolished to make way for townhouses or single-family homes. It would economically outpace the black people who would never be able to go back and buy any of that riverfront property.

A group of people who were concerned got together and we started having meetings at Wesley Methodist Church. One thing led to another, and soon we had a great group of activists and it was really quite powerful. The story got out about the meetings and people started showing up from other areas like Madison just to hear what it was about.

The Restored Historic Rosenwald Apartments in Bronzeville, IL. Photo credit DNAinfoSam Cholke.

The Restored Historic Rosenwald Apartments in Bronzeville, IL. Photo credit DNAinfoSam Cholke.

Tell me about the process of saving The Flats and what that was like.

We found out that the best way to save The Flats was to have them on the Register of Historic Places. We did that first step, and then it just got bigger and bigger. The historical societies became interested and gave us information, we attended City Council meetings and we went to the Rock County Board. We learned how to save these historical apartment units. In the end, after several years, we had to go to the council to tell them what we wanted to have done.

Some wanted The Flats made into a museum. Some wanted to save a portion of the apartments and have the rest made into a museum. That was going to be a challenging development. Through a democratic process, we ended up deciding to keep them as livable housing units.

We got to meet the people from the restored Bronzesville neighborhood in South Side Chicago, one of the most historic neighborhoods in Chicago. That was an amazing connection! They taught us how to do Charrettes, which is a workshop where you present your vision, and everyone in the group participates in creating the vision toward a resolution.

The New Fairbanks Flats

The New Fairbanks Flats

We had artists do renditions of what we wanted. Finally, we laid out our proposal. The next step was to find a developer. Just when we thought we had a couple of nibbles, they would take a look at it and realize it wasn’t going to be profitable.

A good friend of mine, Dr. Anthony Brown, attended one of the meetings. I’ll never forget that moment he turned around, looked at me and said, “Wanda, why didn’t you tell me about this?” He was so well-connected and knew everybody. He knew an architect named Gorman who specialized in historical preservation. They looked at it and said, “Yes, we can do this!”

New Interior of Fairbanks Flats

New Interior of Fairbanks Flats

They knocked out some walls and made two units into one, and they had one-and-a-half baths, three bedrooms, all new kitchen appliances. The basement coal rooms became larger storage rooms.

Wanda at the Remodeled Flats Open House

Wanda at the Remodeled Flats Open House

Tell me about The Flats open house.

When we had the open house in September of 2008, there were hundreds of people who came to see these apartments! We had some of the oldest residents who had lived there in attendance.

So many of those residents, and all but about four of us on the committee, have now passed. It would make me so sad every time I’d hear the news.

Through all those years of fighting for this, the Beloit City Manager, Larry Arft, was so supportive and promised to help us. He couldn’t promise the outcome but he worked hard to have the City Council support us.

Committee Chair Frances Vance, left, Grilling Brats at Open House

Committee Chair Frances Vance, left, Grilling Brats at Open House

That was a big chunk of my life. There were a lot of partnerships through it all, and it taught me a lot.

In 2012, a new marker was placed on the terrace of The Flats commemorating the historical housing complex on Beloit’s West Side.

Are you involved in other community activities?

I’ve done some work with Kelley Washburn at the Beloit Historical Society. I wrote a grant for a Beloit Youth project, which was awarded to the historical society. It was a Game Changer grant from Forward Community Investments to help “Bury the N Word.” The program was very successful and Kelly and I want to continue to work together.

I’ve always been a member of the NAACP, even as a young kid. I served as the Youth Advisor for the Beloit branch for about 20 years. Then one day, I received a phone call from the president of the Wisconsin chapter, and he asked me if I’d be the Youth Advisor for the state. So that’s how I serve now. My work helps advisors throughout the state to train youth for civil rights work. I do enjoy that.

I stayed on the League of Women Voters Board for over 20 years. About a year ago, I gave that up. In order for me to stay politically active in campaigns and such, I couldn’t also be on the LWV Board. However, I still stay involved in what they do.

There’s a national Affirmative Action group I’m a part of and I go to those conferences every year. There has to be a focus on equal opportunity in this country, especially the way things have turned lately.

I do try to attend programs in the community. Time is still precious, even though I am retired.

Janesville's Peace Park Built on the Site of the KKK Rally

Janesville’s Peace Park Built on the Site of the KKK Rally

Was there a historical event that impacted you in some way or that you were involved in?

After the KKK had visited Janesville in the early 90’s, they came back around a few years later and were in Beloit. Interestingly, the black community was divided on what to do. Some said, “Don’t go. Don’t give them any publicity or attention”. The other half said, “We have to go, we can’t let this happen in our community. We must stand up and protest.” Something propelled me to get up and go, just to see.

There was a line, like a fortress of law enforcement facing us, keeping the people who were not KKK out. I realize that they were trying to minimize violence. But, it gave me the feeling that they weren’t there to protect ME, but instead were there to protect the KKK.

It was as if they were waiting for one of us to throw a brick. I wanted to say, “We’re not the enemy here.” I had never seen men with hoods, other than on television. The sickening feeling was indescribable.

Thankfully, there was no trouble and eventually, they were gone. I wondered what their purpose was, really. I’ll never forget that. When I see protests today, I think of that sometimes, how we were made to feel like the aggressors.

Where do you see us going now?

Unfortunately, the hopes I had, that we could all be free, that we could all live together and be a prosperous city, a prosperous nation … that hope is dissipating very, very fast under this current environment we’re in.

I’ve always felt that people were reasonable, but now it seems you can’t reason with others. People won’t listen to each other. That’s frightening, because there’s no compromising, no coming together on anything.

On the surface, we appear to get along. However, I don’t see a deeper, sincere intent to change. There are some groups that do work well together. But there are so many dissenting voices that are louder, and the people who want to do good aren’t being heard.

What I feel right now, in the current state of affairs, if we don’t find a way soon to fix the things that ail us, we won’t get any better as a country. People are so empowered and emboldened to be rude, to express hate.

I believe phrases that are called “politically correct” are simply sensitive and thoughtful. If I tell you exactly what I think, something rude, then that is thoughtless. People don’t value others and respect them as they should. Unless we stop and think, and try to come together, I don’t see a lot of change coming.

For all the positive changes that technology brings, there’s still room for damage there. Education also needs to change to truly meet the needs of today’s students.

Do you plan to stay in this area?

Just when I start to think about going somewhere, something keeps me busy here. I love North Carolina. If I went anywhere, it would be North Carolina.

But, I’m not the kind of person that could go someplace and not get totally involved. I never understood how people can live in a community and not be a part of it! Some people go to work, church, shopping, but then don’t ever go to a school board meeting, or don’t register to vote, or go to a local play or to volunteer at a non-profit! I don’t understand that.

What do you enjoy about your community?

It’s the people. The people that I’ve met, worked with, the people that have shown me so much and allowed me to grow. My heart is filled with gratitude for the friendships I’ve established, for the work that I’ve done. And I feel like there’s still so much more to do!

As I get older, the body won’t play along with me anymore, it’s not in sync with the mind … it’s like they’re in two different worlds. I’m trying to really focus on what it is I need to be doing in this last phase of my life.

Last year, I went to a women’s march in Madison, and I sent my daughters a text, “Hey, look where I am!” And they said, “Why don’t you sit down? Please, go home and rest!” I said, “No, I’m having a blast!” My nieces told me, “You’ve done enough marching in your life, take it easy.”

I am so uncomfortable taking it easy. Don’t get me wrong, I get my rest, I take my naps, but I still have to do something!

“My heart is filled with gratitude for the friendships I’ve established, for the work that I’ve done. And I feel like there’s still so much more to do!” ~ Wanda Sloan

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