In 1960, Wally Whetham reopened what had been known as "Mary’s Tavern" (and before that the "Old Mill Inn") as "the Black Nite" to celebrate its gay customers. Patrons remember a more protective police presence than at other bars.
On a Saturday night, August 5, 1961, Black Nite was the scene of a sensational bar brawl. When a serviceman was thrown out of the bar, he returned with friends, looking for a fight. They found 74 customers ready and willing to defend their turf. "My boyfriend was a bouncer," said Josie Carter, "and we did not run from a fight. We didn’t start anything, but we sure as hell finished it. I could fight an Army off in a bathrobe."
That 'bar brawl' is documented in an article by Michail Takach in OnMilwaukee. A general summary of the facts reads as follows:
The Black Nite wasn’t just a tavern that tolerated homosexuals; it was, from the start, a tavern that embraced and welcomed them. Wally Whetham, a twice-married man with children, became well-known for creating a safe and generous space for his customers. All sexual and gender expressions were welcome– something extremely rare to find in mid-century Milwaukee– and customers were fiercely protective of their turf.
That fierceness made itself known on Saturday, Aug. 5, 1961.
After partying at a Kane Place tavern, four 20-year-old 'straight' servicemen decided to check out the Black Nite on a dare. Despite being asked several times, they refused to show any identification to the bouncer and wound up being forcibly removed. One of the servicemen would later claim that he was grabbed, punched and hit on the head with a bottle for no reason. But that’s not exactly what happened.
"We didn’t start anything, but we sure as hell finished it," said Josie Carter in 2011. "Those guys only came down there to cause trouble. When (the bouncer) tried to kick them out, they all tried to fight him. And I thought, 'Oh no, you’re not going to hurt MY husband.' I went out there with a beer bottle in each hand, ready to knock some heads.
"This man turned on me. I thought, I can’t let him put his hands on me. He was big, and he kept coming at me. I thought he would kill me. In that moment, I could fight off an army in a bathrobe. I let him have everything that was in that bottle. He went down."
The servicemen fled the bar, took their injured friend to the County Emergency Hospital and went back to the Kane Place tavern. They rounded up a dozen men and decided to go back Downtown and "clean up the Black Nite."
Wally Whetham later reported that "this gang came in and started tearing the bar apart, and the bar fought back." Earlier that night, the servicemen had found a nearly empty bar and a 4-1 fight against the bouncer. This time, they found a packed bar of 75 patrons ready and willing to defend their turf by any means necessary.
The battle didn’t last long, but it was intense: One patron suffered extreme lacerations when he was thrown through a broken window; another patron experienced a brain concussion when he was hit in the head with a barstool. He would remain in critical condition for weeks after the brawl. In the end, over $2,000 in losses were reported, including the bar’s entire bottled liquor inventory, an electric organ, a jukebox and all windows.
While Whetham and his patrons cleaned up the carnage, the four servicemen were charged with disorderly conduct. Unfortunately, homophobic Judge Christ T. Seraphim later dismissed their charges due to "lack of evidence."
To view more details of the Black Nite incident, Click Here.
The Black Nite Brawl was commemorated on the 60th anniversary of the event. A press conference was held in the vacant lot formerly the site of the Black Nite, with speakers Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett; Milwaukee Common Council Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa; a representative from the County Board; Dr. Brice Smith, coordinator of the Wisconsin Transgender Oral History Project; Elle Halo, transgender rights activist; Don Schwamb, founder of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project; and Michail Takach, the Project's curator. The event was covered by camera crews from WITI-TV6, WISN-TV12, and Spectrum News One. Proclamations commemorating 'Black Nite Brawl' day were displayed from Governor Tony Evers, Milwaukee Mayor Barrett, and County Executive David Crowley, and resolutions from the Common Council and County Board. That night, the Hoan Bridge was lit in Pride colors in recognition.
Access and listen to the full interview of Josie with Dr. Brice Smith of the Transgender Oral History Project in 2011 by Clicking Here.
Many of Milwaukee's earliest gay rights activists spoke about how the Black Nite Brawl inspired them. It was a call to arms for many community leaders, including Eldon Murray and Alyn Hess, founders of Gay People's Union. It was also the first time they saw a Milwaukee gay bar mentioned in the newspaper. Like many men of their generation, they sought out news stories mentioning gay people and places throughout their childhoods, only to find negative indictments of gay people as "criminals," "perverts" or "sexual deviates." For the gay rights generation, the Black Nite offered a glimmer of hope and a spark of revolution. View the Eldon Murray Papers online at UWM by Clicking Here.
The Black Nite brawl haunted the property for months, affecting the bar’s business and reputation, and Whetham was urged by the Common Council to change the business name in order to keep his liquor license. The Black Nite relaunched as Bourbon Beat from late in 1961 to 1966, when the building was torn down for the extension of St. Paul Avenue. (The same owner also later opened Captain's Cabin gay bar, which closed amid a scandal.)
(A book, "LGBT Milwaukee" by Michail Takach, seeks to make the story of LGBT Milwaukee accessible, visible, and portable for future generations--before it is too late. The Black Nite is one of many early LGBT landmarks documented in the book.)
Web site concept, design, arrangement and overall content by Don Schwamb.
Historical research and references on the Black Nite by Michail Takach.
Last updated: April-2021.
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