BELOIT —Sharing meaningful stories and bringing attention to less often told history is at the core of Beloit native Cheryl Caldwell’s mission.
Last year she launched her own website, the African American Historical Society of Beloit. Her efforts have brought more attention to the importance of African American community members in Beloit and have helped record pieces of local history.
“With Facebook and my interactions, I’m just blown away by how many people my stories have reached. I’m quite pleased with how everything has turned out,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell said while doing research, she couldn’t locate detailed records on the local Black community and felt more needed to be done to share those missing links.
She became inspired to launch a website and social media page, and did so on March 18, 2020. In the year since, Caldwell said she has been able to reach a wide audience to share stories with and get in touch with others to tell their stories and show photos.
Many stories and historical records featured on Caldwell’s website focus on the journey of African Americans who traveled north during the Great Migration around the early 1920s.
For more information on the African American Historical Society of Beloit, visit www.aahsb.com, or see the Facebook page.
Cheryl Caldwell, 65, is married to Jim Caldwell, 66, a retired NFL coach for multiple teams including the Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts.
Both are proud graduates from Beloit Memorial High School’s Class of 1973. They currently live in Clemmons, North Carolina.
Cheryl and Jim Caldwell are also the creators of a documentary titled “Through Their Eyes: The History of African Americans in Beloit, Wisconsin from 1836 to 1970.”
“We still hold Beloit very near and dear to our hearts,” Caldwell said.” Beloit is still home to us.”
Caldwell’s own ancestors migrated north from Mississippi and built a life in Beloit.
During Black History Month this February, Caldwell has been posting about every day to share one story or another.
One story that carries great significance for Caldwell involves her relative, Frank Clarke, who was the first American American man from Beloit to play in the NFL.
She also grew up next door to Jerry Kenney, who went on to play for the New York Yankees.
“That was pretty neat; they were like family to us,” Caldwell said. “I have a lot of personal stories that are near and dear to me.”
Caldwell’s website also features stories about many African Americans who served in the U.S. military, including retired Army General Marcia Anderson, a Beloit native who was the first Black woman to earn the rank of major general. Caldwell said trailblazers like Anderson are an inspiration to others.
Ellen Joyce, Associate Professor and Chair of History at Beloit College, applauds Caldwell’s efforts to document local history.
“It became clear to me that this is really such a rich history, that it makes me glad that she’s made it her mission to make it accessible for people,” Joyce said. “I’m just delighted that she’s doing this.”
In 2018, Joyce said she was inspired by fellow professor and U.S. historian Beatrice McKenzie to organize a History Harvest event for her students.
That year’s History Harvest program involved community members bringing in photos, artifacts and stories to share with students for their research.
Joyce said her class took photos of the items and met with visitors to learn all they could about the lived experiences of African Americans in Beloit. Her students then cultivated their research into a website to share those stories.
“It was a really great experience for the students who were involved in it,” Joyce said.
Joyce recalled that Caldwell was in town at the time and had stopped by to share a wealth of information. She brought in items such as her grandfather’s badge from Fairbanks Morse and some pay stubs. The badge still had traces of soot on it.
“What she’s doing is really important,” Joyce said. “It’s a story of all of Beloit.”
When the influx of African Americans migrated to Beloit, they faced racism and descrimination.
“In a sort they had to create their own community, their own businesses,” Caldwell said. “Beloit didn’t always welcome them in certain arenas with open arms. That was real.”
Through her online engagements, Caldwell said some readers are surprised to learn how extensively African Americans were discriminated against in Beloit, with many aspects of life closed off to them.
Caldwell said some realtors would not sell homes to African Americans in the 1930s. Her grandmother participated in a sit-in at a local restaurant to protest segregation. Black community leaders had to form their own Boy Scout troop. A local swimming pool did not allow Black citizens to visit. One gentleman could not order food or drinks at a bowling alley.
She described many stories as “lightning rods” of history and a show of perseverance to overcome barriers.
“I say to myself, ‘we cannot rewrite history, we cannot change that, but we can bring it to the forefront and let people know that it exists,’” Caldwell said.
Caldwell said Black migrants paved the way for future generations to live in a more equal society and continue to stand up against injustices.
When the pandemic is over, Caldwell said she plans to visit Beloit and hold seminars to spread the word among local community members.
“I just want them to know that there were people before them and what they did,” Caldwell said. “This is just my way of helping out.”