Johnnie C. Milton, Sr. is someone you meet wishing you had been introduced to him sooner. At 90, he is quick witted and full of wisdom and charm. And his barbecuing skills are legendary around southeastern Wisconsin and back where he grew up in Bonita, Louisiana.
Milton took time out to chat with UMOJA Magazine while taking a breather from cooking over 100 slabs of ribs and chicken to help his son launch a fundraiser for the La Follette Black Student Union. Proceeds help pay for the high schoolers’ trips to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) around the country.
Each year, roughly 25 students gear up for an annual college bus tour to HBCUs from Atlanta, to Washington, D.C. They meet with college admissions counselors and visit other student brand ambassadors at the top learning institutions such as Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, and Morehouse College.
“The normal cost for each student is about $350 to $400 and that doesn’t cover all of the costs,” said Milton’s son, Johnnie Milton Jr., who is the school’s Multicultural Services Coordinator.
That’s when students got the idea to hold the BSU ribs and chicken sale. Faculty, staff and community organizations like 100 Black Men of Madison, Inc., all pitched in. But their secret weapon for making the event a wonderful success is barbecuing extraordinaire, Johnnie C. Milton, Sr.
He makes ribs so tender that the meat falls off the bone on the first bite. And the flavor is so tasty that you can skip barbecue sauce. With his hand extended, followed by a firm handshake, the elder Milton welcomes visitors with a greeting, “To God be the glory.”
Behind that gentle smile is a man who won’t give up his grilling secrets. But, he’s happy to share how his love for cooking began on his family’s Louisiana farm ̶ a plot of land, roughly 200 acres, divvied up among nine of his maternal grandfather’s children.
“We lived off the farm,” he said. “We raised everything we ate except sugar and flour. We raised hogs, cows, chickens, and goats. We had horses for riding and mules for tilling the soil. … Owning land is so important. Once you get it, hang on to it.”
Back then the number of Black farmers in America were at their peak in 1920, with 949,889 represented. Today, of the country’s 3.4 million total farmers, only 1.3%, or 45,508, are Black, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They own a mere 0.52% of America’s farmland. By comparison, 95% of U.S. farmers are white.
When Milton’s family grilled meat, they would dig a hole in the ground, build a fire, and skewer the meat on a spit and mesh wire.
“We’d cook goat on a spit,” he said. “Then they’d use a big ol’ rag on a stick to mop the meat. Then every 45 minutes they’d turn the goat or half a hog. And, they would do this all night long while sitting out there laughing, talking and drinking coffee. Some of the older folks would have a little moonshine.”
Milton said he misses those days when people weren’t in such a hurry and family meant everything. Lantern lit horse-and-buggy rides were used for courting a sweetie. Since the population in Bonita was just over 400, the young men crossed the state line into Arkansas to find eligible young ladies to date.
“There were so many kin folk around there I had to leave town to find girls to date,” Milton laughed. “We would end up in fist fights with boy over girls. Boy I tell you.”
Milton is the only surviving child to his parents eight children. The others died at childbirth and buried in shoeboxes behind their home. He graduated from high school in Bastrop, Louisiana before his mother encouraged him to leave home to find a good job that pays well. He eventually followed an uncle to Milwaukee and landed a job as a foundry worker at the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company.
There, he found the love of his life, Dorothy Milton, and together they had two daughters and a son.
“I went to Milwaukee to look for money,” he recalled. “The money was good, but the wife was better than the money.
Family trips were spent going back home, where friends and neighbors near and far traveled just to have a taste of his BBQ. Milton continued to grill. He graduated from using No. 3 wash tubs with mesh wire for barbecuing to an oil drum barrel.
“Barbecuing is relaxing for me,” he said. “I’m in a new world when I get around my cooker. Smelling the smoke and seeing the smiles on people’s face makes me want to do these.”
During the Dec. 7 fundraiser at La Follette, Milton and volunteers grilled 90 half chickens, 60 baby backs, 48 slabs of St. Louis-style ribs and 45 whole chickens. The efforts garnered $3,000.
Kiesha Duncan is a junior at La Follette High School with aspirations of becoming a pediatrician. Traveling to HBCUs allows her the opportunity to research the medical schools best suited for obtaining her medical degree. Although she admits she has her sights set on the University of Georgia.
“This fundraiser really means a lot,” Duncan said. “There’s so many wrong things going on around the world. It’s nice to see people wanting to give back to the community. It’s something positive we can be proud of.”