Before Stonewall, Milwaukee had Black Nite; Wis. finally commemorates brawl

Wed. August 4, 2021 6:40 PM by Gerald Farinas

black transgender activist josie carter

photo credit // wisconsin lgbtq history project

Violence helped Wisconsin LGBTQ community come out of the shadows in 1961

Eight years before the famous Stonewall uprising in New York, Milwaukee was the site of a hate crime that led to the buildup of what became the Gay Rights Movement and the LGBTQ movements that followed. Governor Tony Evers (D-Wis.) has proclaimed "Black Nite Remembrance Day" throughout Wisconsin on the anniversary of that August 5, 1961 night.

It is the first official recognition of the historic event by any civic entity.

Partnering to make the remembrance day happen are Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, first out city councilmember Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa, the county board of supervisors, and the city council. But the commemoration was a long time coming, with the advocacy of Wisconsin LGBTQ historians and activists Michail Takach and Don Schwamb of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project.

Ceremony will commemorate the brawl

Mayor Barrett, Ald. Zamarripa, Takach, and Schwamb will be joined Thursday, August 5 at 2 p.m. by Dr. Brice Smith of the Wisconsin Transgender Oral History Project for a ceremony.

They will be at the site of that early gay district of 1961 where the brawl happened. At 400 N. Plankinton Ave., it is about a block away from the famous Milwaukee Public Market.

Later, the Hoan Bridge on the Milwaukee lakefront "will be illuminated in Pride and transgender flag colors from dusk until 2 a.m. to honor the unsung heroes of the Black Nite Brawl," the History Project announced. "All lighting costs will be covered by the Black Nite 60 fundraiser."

Black transgender woman Josie Carter is a hero

At the center of the story is the Black Nite bar and its hero, a Black transgender woman named Josie Carter. At her side were Black Nite's owner Wally Whetham and Carter's husband, the bouncer.

Takach shares the story with the ebullience of an adventure story but also notes that it comes from the pain of an entire community marked for ages, as undesirable, and societal filth worthy of hatred and abuse.

Four twenty-year old U.S. Navy servicemen, Kenneth Kensche, John Cianciolo, Bruce Pulkkila and Edward Flynn, were having fun in town when they decided to top the night off with drunken antics. They headed to what was already known to be a gay hangout, the Black Nite, to taunt its patrons. As soon as they showed up at the door, they refused to show their IDs. They attacked the bouncer.

There were about three people at the bar hearing the commotion outside.

At that point, Carter grabbed beer bottles and raced to the door to defend her husband. She ended up sending two to the emergency room.

The other two servicemen went back to the bar where they first started the revelry, and rallied other men for support. They wanted to exact retribution against the gays for the honor of their stricken comrades.

They arrived thinking they could beat up a couple gay guys and the Black transgender woman they encountered. Inside, the bar had swelled to capacity. There were about 70 people crammed in there for the night. Carter had already told them about the earlier scene.

"Come on you sick faggots," they yelled, according to Takach.


It's been called a brawl but it was really a full-on battle. "Everything was destroyed," Takach said. Including the piano and the windows.

$2,000 in damage was reported. That is equivalent to $18,174 in damage today.

Milwaukee Police Department arrived and arrested the sailors and their posse, and even told Carter those men had no right to do what they did against the bar and its patrons.

Were the sailors punished?

A judge dropped the case against them for lack of evidence that they started it all.

Whetham was forced by the city council to stop catering to gay and transgender people. The bar was eventually closed and torn down.

Takach and Dr. Smith note that the Black Nite Brawl was the birth of Milwaukee's LGBTQ awareness and a specifically Wisconsin sense of Pride.