Story by VICTORIA B. TASHJIAN
Custis was one of a number of formerly-enslaved African Americans who made his way to Northeast Wisconsin during or immediately following the Civil War, joining the region’s small but steadily growing African American population of the nineteenth century.
Custis was born in the 1840s in Virginia, on James Custis’ plantation, and was a young man by the time of the Civil War.
The Confederacy impressed Custis, as it did many slaves, into wartime service on its behalf. He worked as an orderly at a Richmond, Virginia, hospital before being sent to Petersburg, Virginia, to build earthen defense works to protect Confederate troops.
In 1864, Union soldiers captured him. Reflecting widely-held beliefs among Northerners that even free black women and men should serve white people, Col. Warner of the 36th Wisconsin Infantry selected Custis to be his personal servant. At the war’s end, Custis came to Wisconsin and worked on Warner’s Dane County farm.
Many newly emancipated African Americans made attaining the literacy that had been denied them in slavery a high priority. Among them was Peter Custis, who attended school in Sun Prairie for a year, between stints spent with Warner.
But in 1869 he struck out on his own, making his way to Preble (now part of Green Bay). There he boarded with an African American family, the Smiths, and worked for the J.W. Woodruff and Co. lumberyard and Smith Bros Gardeners.
In 1884, he married Leonia Bell Perry in Green Bay; they welcomed their first child, George, a year later. Their second son, Louis, was born in 1887.
The 1885 Wisconsin census shows that Custis resided near another African American Civil War veteran, Henry Sink. Sink had also fought at the Battle of Petersburg, although in his case, on the Union side—after he escaped enslavement in Arkansas. Living in close proximity at a time when Green Bay’s black population totaled well under 100 people, and both working as sailors in the 1880s, they almost certainly knew one other.
Custis’s work as a wheelsman, watchman and deckhand on Lake Michigan ships introduced him to Sturgeon Bay. He and his young family moved to the city in the late 1880s, which remained his home for the rest of his life.
Custis held a variety of jobs in Sturgeon Bay; he was a stone quarryman and fireman at the Hagen and English Quarry, later the Green Quarry; at times he continued to work as a sailor; and he served as night watchman at the J. M. Ellenbecker factory.
In his later years, in his 70s and 80s, he worked for the city of Sturgeon Bay—doing many odd jobs such as painting the Sawyer fire engine house, shoveling snow, turning on the street lights on the west side, working as street cleaner for the Fourth Ward and running the bath house at Sawyer beach.
Later in his life, he purchased a home in Sturgeon Bay’s Sawyer neighborhood, fulfilling a long-standing desire to own land.
But profound sorrows marked Custis’s family life. In 1889, Leonia died shortly after delivering a stillborn son, leaving Peter the widowed father of two young boys.
Custis had close ties to Sturgeon Bay’s Quaker assembly on the West Side of the city. Leonia’s funeral was held there in 1889, as was his own in 1932, and both he and his daughter Hannah sang at events and Christmas services held at the assembly over the years. Members of the Quaker meeting assisted Peter and his sons following Leonia’s death.
Eleven years after Leonia’s death, Peter married again, to Julia VanDoozer, a white woman who had grown up in Algoma. Interracial marriages occurred regularly in Northeast Wisconsin in the decades following statehood, though the racism of the time meant that they often garnered highly sensationalist newspaper coverage. Notice of their marriage in the local paper avoided that extreme but it did highlight Peter’s race, referring to him as a Negro and, pejoratively, “darkey.”
Tragedy marked this marriage too.
Peter and Julia welcomed their daughter Hannah in 1901, followed by Melissa Irene in 1902, Arthur in 1903, Melissa Luella in 1905, and an unnamed infant in 1906. Yet loss followed loss. Arthur did not survive infancy, dying in May 1903, followed by Melissa Irene’s death just two months later, and the death of George, the oldest child of Peter’s first marriage, a mere six weeks after that.
Two and a half years later, Melissa Luella died in 1906. In the fall of that year, Julia and Peter’s last child, born prematurely, died shortly after birth, followed by Julia herself four days later. In only three years, Peter lost four children and his wife.
During hard times, Peter Custis received support from Sturgeon Bay residents. Just as the Quakers helped him following Leonia’s death, other community members raised money for Peter and his family as he tended full-time to a desperately ill Julia suffering from tuberculosis and asthma during the last months of her life.
Looking back at history, the question today remains—how was Peter Custis received in predominantly white Door County?
It is impossible to fully understand his experience from surviving records. Custis appeared regularly in Door County newspapers, which depicted him in a mainly positive, but occasionally patronizing, light. And, on the one occasion he was referred to with an explicitly derogatory term.
It was also the case that newspaper articles paid prominent attention to his race; regularly they made the point that Peter was “the only colored man residing within the boundaries of Door County,” “our lone colored resident,” and “a negro, the only one residing hereabouts.”
When considering the environment in which Custis lived, it is important to recognize that in both the North and the South heightened racism followed Emancipation and Reconstruction.
In addition to the Jim Crow laws of the South, the Ku Klux Klan experienced a surge of popularity across the country in the early 1920s. Northeast Wisconsin was a hotbed of Klan activity, and in 1924, members of the Klan burned a large cross in Sturgeon Bay’s Sawyer neighborhood, where Custis lived and worked. The location of the cross burning may well have been planned so that, as the Sawyer city street cleaner and sole African American resident of the county, Custis was the person to clean up the charred remains of the cross the next day.
Klan members also burned crosses in Appleton, De Pere, Fond du Lac, Green Bay and Oshkosh. At this time, at least one lynching occurred in the Upper Midwest—the John Robinson Circus came to Sturgeon Bay in June 1920. A week later, at a stop in Duluth, a white mob brutally lynched three black workers from the Robinson Circus.
Some white homeowners in Northeast Wisconsin communities embraced racially restrictive real estate covenants barring African American home ownership in the 1930s and 1940s, and even extended these covenants to the lots in some cemeteries. In Door County, as elsewhere in Northeast Wisconsin, as Custis’s life moved towards its close, the increasing numbers of migrant farm workers of color faced profound, racially-based discrimination from white members of area communities.
Yet in the face of institutionalized racism, Peter Custis asserted his voice.
His son, Louis, was committed after suffering permanent incapacitation as a result of drinking moonshine. When his family became the subject of critical commentary following this tragedy, Custis responded forcefully via the Door County Advocate of March 4, 1921:
Peter Custis wishes the Advocate to state, that those parties who have been circulating derogatory remarks about his family had better be careful or they may be brought into court to testify as to the truthfulness thereof. He also states that the doctors at the asylum where his son was recently taken, claim that his health was undermined by drinking moonshine, which should be a warning to, many of our local citizens who insist on partaking of this poisonous beverage.
Custis’s civic engagement included signing petitions regarding judgeships and temperance work. He taught Sunday school at the Friends church and spoke about his experiences of slavery at Sturgeon Bay’s Sawyer School and elsewhere.
His years in Northeast Wisconsin coincided with the expansion and then decline of the region’s African American population. Though racism in Northeast Wisconsin took many forms during his lifetime—for example, consigning disproportionate numbers of African Americans to low-income and low-status work—in growing numbers from the 1840s through the 1890s African Americans constructed lives for themselves here.
Some, like Peter Custis, purchased homes; others owned farms and businesses. Many worked not only for themselves, but also contributed in significant ways to the rural communities, towns and cities in which they lived.
By the early decades of the 20th century, however, life here had become difficult to untenable for African Americans. In the face of increased police harassment, decreased job opportunities, racially restrictive covenants, and the heightened racism of the white community that these actions reflected, by the time of Custis’s death in 1932, almost all African American residents of Northeast Wisconsin had moved away.
Peter’s daughter Hannah was part of this exodus, in 1925 marrying and moving to Niagara Falls, New York. It has taken a century and more for the numbers of African Americans residing in various Northeast Wisconsin to match and exceed the population of African Americans living here in the late 1800s.