The house was located at 405 Bram St. on the southside of Madison. Dust swirled above the unpaved streets and kids crawled through the sewers for fun. The home belonged to Willie Lou Harris, the first licensed Black practical nurse in Madison, and her husband, George. The couple, especially Mrs. Harris, is herald for being instrumental in the development of the Bram’s Addition neighborhood.
This summer, in that same neighborhood where she devoted her life to making life better for Black residents, the city of Madison unveiled an honorary street sign as a tribute to her historic contributions, at the corner of Baird and Bram streets. Members of the community, elected officials, the media, and Harris’ heirs gathered at the corner of Baird and Bram streets for the momentous celebration.
“My mother was the straw that really stirred the milk in the family,” said Dr. Richard Harris. “My parents paid $1,800 dollars for that lot in 1934. They got the money from a national bank in Chicago because they couldn’t get a loan from any banks in Madison.”
According to historical records, the Harris family later purchased eight lots in South Madison. Owning that amount of land, nearly a generation removed from slavery, was unheard of in those times. The intention from that time on was to develop the lots into homes for their families. During the late 1940s, Willie Lou Harris led an effort to construct several Minimal Traditional style houses along the 400 block of Bram Street. The building material used were taken from wrecked military barracks from Truax Field, which were disassembled, moved, and reconstructed in Harris’ neighborhood.
She also petitioned city leaders for electricity, hot and cold running water, indoor toilets, streetlights, snow plowing, curbs, gutters and sidewalks in an area that was once known as “Hell’s Half-Acre.” The expression denotes a small patch of land or a place that’s otherwise undesirable and/or “a place more desperate than Skid Row with its ramshackle houses.”
As kids, our heads were small enough in those days to fit between the corner sewer tops,” said James Elvord, Harris’ eldest grandson. “My brothers, our friends and I spent many wonderful hours crawling on all fours through those sewers from Bram Street to Baird Street to Fisher Street. How South Madison has grown into this beautiful neighborhood. … South Madison is where a vibrant neighborhood culture nurtured its’ contribution to the Madison DNA.”
Willie Lou Harris was also remembered for offering her home to neighborhood children so they could study and play games after school. She hosted UW-Madison students who volunteered with local children. She later transformed that initiative into the South Madison Neighborhood Center. The center is now the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County, and the building has served Madison’s children for more than 70 years.
At the ceremony, Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club, announced initiatives the organization will pursue to honor the memory Harris, including the establishment of a $100,000 endowed fund to keep Harris’ legacy alive.
“We are going to rename the Boys & Girls Club Welcome Center after Willie Lou Harris,” Johnson said. “This will include images of your mother and the family.”
The Harris family moved to Madison from Georgia. They had five children: Calvin, Richard, Donald, Charles, and Georgia. They became active members of Mt. Zion Baptist Church and the NAACP.
“The salt of the Earth is someone who is reliable, respectable, dependable, and always reaching out,” said Ald. Sheri Carter, who represents the area. “She wanted south Madison to thrive, and today that’s what we’re doing, we’re thriving.”
State Rep. Shelia Stubbs, who spoke at the honorary street sign dedication, says that the initial neighborhood center was so important for south Madison.
“I truly believe that Ms. Harris is a symbol of Black excellence in Madison,” said Stubbs. “As the first Black licensed nurse practitioner, she demonstrated that women who looked like me can strive for professional exceptionalism, no matter the odds.”