Barbee’s Mirror

A UW Law School alum’s pursuit of justice reemerges in a long-lost film, now found.

By Jenny Price

lloyd barbee in front of the state capitolLloyd Barbee ’56 was just a few years out of law school and the president of the local NAACP branch when he and two friends hatched a plan to use hidden cameras to document and expose housing discrimination in Madison.

It would be more than sixty years before an audience would see the footage.

Their film, banned and locked away in the archives by university officials who initially approved its production, captured thirteen incidents of clear-cut discrimination as they played out in real time. In many cases, landlords told prospective Black renters that housing wasn’t available and then later agreed to rent to white tenants. Some were more direct. “I’m sorry but I can’t let you have it — not in this neighborhood. … I don’t want to have trouble with my neighbors,” one landlord said.

The film — finally shown last April during an online event sponsored by PBS Wisconsin, the UW–Madison Public History Project, and the UW Archives — is a powerful piece of history that could have been made in any Midwestern city, but a few familiar buildings from some Madison neighborhoods that remain primarily white today stand out and reinforce the longstanding effects of housing discrimination. For today’s audiences, it was a somewhat hidden chapter in the life of Barbee — an attorney, activist, and legislator who frequently held a mirror up to society to reflect injustices and push for change.

Barbee was still a teenager when he first joined the NAACP in his native Tennessee, participating in marches for fair housing in the South. Throughout his life, up until his death in 2002, he challenged laws and practices that were discriminatory or unfair, and urged leaders to create new ones that allowed for a version of the world he believed could and should exist in the present, not decades into the future.

“A picture is worth 1,000 words,” says Barbee’s daughter, attorney Daphne Barbee-Wooten, of the housing film. “Because you can actually see the houses and you can actually see the people requesting housing. You can actually see the managers and landlords refusing housing and the excuses that they have.”

Barbee-Wooten published an edited collection of her father’s writings in 2017 — called Justice for All — including excerpts from an unpublished manuscript he started in 1982 to reflect on his early life and career. “Discrimination against Blacks was rampant in rentals, leases, and sales,” Barbee wrote. “Arguments against Fair Housing ranged from notions that a man’s home was his castle to automatic depreciation of property values if Blacks were permitted to move into white neighborhoods.”

“Before the film was shot and suppressed, it was the rule, rather than the exception, for public officials, real estate dealers, and the news media to declare that Wisconsin had no problems what[so]ever with racial discrimination in housing.”

— Lloyd Barbee

Barbee became president of the Wisconsin branch of the NAACP in 1961 and organized a thirteen-day sit-in at the state capitol rotunda that year in support of fair housing and equal opportunity legislation. “He was very forthright. He laid it on the line,” says George Allez, who along with Barbee and Stuart Hanisch were members of their self-described “Social Interference Committee.”

Hanisch was an instructor and cinematographer in the UW Extension Bureau of Audio-Visual Instruction, and Allez was a French graduate student employee. Barbee and Allez first met at the Unitarian church near campus when Barbee was working there as a janitor to help pay for law school.

Inspired in part by Alan Funt’s popular TV show Candid Camera, the three men began to devise a plan over beers at Lorenzo’s restaurant on University Avenue (where Vilas Hall now stands) to use a hidden camera and microphone to make the film. Allez says one conversation surrounding the film was inspired in part by a 1948 Life magazine feature with the cover line “The Good Life in Madison, Wisconsin.”

“Madison was and, I think, remains a very self-congratulatory community,” Allez says. “Whenever the question of housing discrimination came up, it was simply dismissed and just denied.”

newspaper clip entitle "Marchers Protest Bias Film Ban"Allez says Barbee saw the film as a tool to “cut the rug out from under certain kinds of arguments against fair housing legislation.”

UW Extension officials approved Hanisch’s request to make the film for the AV bureau, provided Barbee could raise a share of the necessary funds, which he did relatively quickly. “All of us were certain that the university believed that we would never be able to raise the money,” Allez says. “When we suddenly came to them and said, ‘We’ve got the money, let’s start shooting,’ that was a shock right off the bat.”

Filming proceeded with friends and supporters appearing on camera as prospective renters, including Barbee’s cousin and Allez’s then-girlfriend. But ultimately, after university administrators and the state branch of the ACLU argued the film’s hidden camera technique was a violation of privacy, the university only released the transcript and not the film.

Fearing the film would be destroyed, Barbee and the NAACP organized picketers to protest in Madison and at UW Extension sites in Kenosha, Racine, and Milwaukee. “Despite criticism from pseudo-liberal quarters, the protest showed the university’s duplicity and hypocrisy in dealing forthrightly with human rights violations,” Barbee wrote in his 1962–63 report on the activities of the NAACP in Wisconsin.

Rustam Barbee echoed his father’s sentiments during the online event that showed the footage for the first time. “My dad was not timid in calling out racism and bigots during his lifetime,” he said during the panel discussion following the screening. “He often spoke to me and Daphne about phony white liberals who spoke about civil rights, but when push came to shove their support was not there.”

Hanisch, who died in 2002, resigned in protest. Allez stayed on through the end of the school year in his project assistant post at the AV bureau to essentially keep an eye on the film. He could literally see it through the cracks in the door of a drab, locked cabinet in the editing room. At some point, it was sent to the UW Archives.

“Our protest helped focus the public’s attention on housing discrimination and the need to take corrective measures,” Barbee wrote in his 1962–63 Wisconsin NAACP report. “Before the film was shot and suppressed, it was the rule, rather than the exception, for public officials, real estate dealers, and the news media to declare that Wisconsin had no problems what[so]ever with racial discrimination in housing.”

Barbee was active in the civil rights movement long before he came to Wisconsin, so much so that Barbee’s father was happy to see his son move north where he thought he would be safer. “He was afraid he was going to get lynched,” Barbee-Wooten says.

black and white photo of reel storage room
The Bureau of Audio-Visual Instruction’s film reel storage room.

When Barbee first arrived in Madison in 1949, he lived at the Rochdale International Co-op on West Gilman Street, which was racially integrated, Allez says. He was one of just a handful of Black students to enroll in UW Law School. It would be two decades before the school would hire its first Black law professor — James Jones ’56. Law students who weren’t white were barred from one of the five professional law fraternities. Two Black students — Meade Harris and John Edwards — filed a lawsuit in 1951 asking a court to order the Delta Theta Phi fraternity to remove the discriminatory clause from its membership rules.

“Conscious racial discrimination was common, and unconscious racism among the educated was appallingly common,” Barbee was quoted in a 2004 posthumous profile in Wisconsin Lawyer magazine.

Barbee dropped out after his first year and later returned to complete his law degree.

“I’m sure he was very glad he graduated, got his law degree, and continued on in law. But at that time, he was discouraged and I’m pretty sure it was the discrimination that he was experiencing,” Barbee-Wooten says. “He probably just needed a break.”

After law school in Madison, Barbee worked as a legal clerk and then as a state unemployment compensation examiner. After UW officials quashed the housing film, he remained as strong of an advocate and warrior for justice as he had been before. “It didn’t stop him,” Barbee-Wooten says.

“The lesson I learned from Barbee is that you don’t compromise with yourself. Put out what you think it should be — then you can compromise if necessary with the people on the other side. But if you go halfway to start, you’re not even going to get halfway.”

— David Clarenbach

Barbee moved to Milwaukee and in 1964 won a seat representing the city’s sixth district in the Wisconsin State Assembly. That same year, he won the first housing discrimination case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. He filed the lawsuit on behalf of an army captain on leave to study at the UW who was refused trailer space in a Madison mobile home park because of his race. Shortly after his election to the legislature, Barbee proposed a fair housing bill to reinforce the court’s ruling. But lawmakers passed a significantly weaker version than what he put forward — about 75 percent of the state’s housing stock, mostly in Milwaukee’s central city, was exempt from the new law.

Outside of the capitol, Barbee continued to organize at the grassroots level in Milwaukee, his children often in tow for marches against segregation and discrimination. The family’s home was broken into, and they received hate mail and threatening phone calls. When Barbee returned home to find out his daughter hid under her bed after one such call, “he told me not to live in fear and there were hateful people who did not want to see progress on race relations,” Barbee-Wooten wrote in the introduction of her book. “He also told me to get over it.”

Barbee was the only African American in the state Legislature from 1965 to 1977. David Clarenbach, who served his first term in the state Legislature in 1975 as Barbee was serving his last, sought him out as a cosponsor on a bill to decriminalize marijuana and got an earful of advice about putting forward a watered-down proposal.

black woman leaving an apartment rental office“The lesson I learned from Barbee is you don’t compromise with yourself. Put out what you think it should be — then you can compromise if necessary with the people on the other side,” Clarenbach says. “But if you go halfway to start, you’re not even going to get halfway.”

Some colleagues referred to him as “the outrageous Mr. Barbee,” but his published writings, some of which were featured in African American newspapers across the nation including the Black Panther, would be right at home in the roster of today’s political debates: abortion rights, drug legalization, prison reform, LGBTQ rights, disarming police, and core principles found in today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

“It seems strange in a country originally founded on rather broad, democratic principles that our government can punish people for committing actions which harm nobody, crimes that are without victims, crimes that take nothing away from other people,” Barbee said in a 1973 speech to students at UW–Oshkosh.

While most legislators are focused on what they can do to keep their constituents happy and get reelected, Barbee was not concerned with either, Clarenbach says. “He looked a generation beyond and knew that much of what he was proposing would not pass, but that the groundwork had to be laid,” he says. “He caught a lot of flak.”

He also didn’t seek political power, Clarenbach says. “He wasn’t looking to become governor or congressman or anything other than do what needed to be done to move society forward and make it a better place for people who are undervalued or invisible.”

“I started asking around with other housing historians, and there were lots of films made in the mid-century about housing discrimination, but none of them use undercover footage. What we have is super rare.”

— Kacie Lucchini Butcher

black and white photos of apartmentsJohn Norquist was assigned to sit next to Barbee on his first day in the state assembly in 1975. Norquist, who went on to serve as Milwaukee’s mayor from 1988–2004, already knew who Barbee was through his father, a Presbyterian minister involved in the civil rights movement. Barbee told Norquist about how the state routed a freeway (now Interstate 43) — which Barbee called the “Dirty Ditch” — through the heart of Bronzeville, a once-thriving Black neighborhood in Milwaukee. Nine years earlier, Barbee had stood in front of a bulldozer trying to stop Bronzeville’s destruction, Norquist recounted in a recent column.

Despite his enthusiasm for intense battles over important issues he was passionate about, Barbee was still friendly with his legislative foes, Norquist says.

“He was a statesman, because it was about the issues and it was about persuasion. It wasn’t about his ego, although he did have an ego,” Norquist says. “He reveled in the idea of raising people’s consciousness.”

While serving in the legislature, Barbee also worked fourteen-hour days as an attorney, filing a federal lawsuit in 1965 challenging segregation in Milwaukee’s public schools. He won the case in 1976, a ruling that led to years of appeals and work to develop plans to desegregate the school system. Until the recent discovery of the housing film, the school desegregation case is what Barbee was most known for. He endured multiple death threats as a result of his work on the case.

As she was editing her father’s work for her book, Barbee-Wooten learned about the housing film and even pored through a collection of old family home movies to see if it was hidden among them (it wasn’t). She decided to include the previously released transcript in the appendix so people would at least know that the lost film existed.

black men at a fair housing protest
March for fair housing in Milwaukee.

After the book was published, UW Archivist Cat Phan attended a talk where Barbee-Wooten discussed the “lost” housing film. Soon after the event, the UW Archives staff received an email from a filmmaker hoping to view it. That’s when Phan recalled seeing boxes labeled “Housing Discrimination Film” that were stamped with the word “Restricted” and the image of a skull and crossbones during an early tour when she was hired. Phan dug around and located the film, and began working with the UW’s legal department in 2018 to lift the restrictions. Archives staff began the work of digitizing and restoring the film.

Barbee-Wooten later received an email from the UW Archives that said, “We have some good news for you. We found the film.”

“It just made me take a deep breath. It was 1962. This is 2021,” Barbee-Wooten says.

The first time UW Public History Project Director Kacie Lucchini Butcher saw the film, she immediately burst into tears thinking about what it must have meant to Barbee. As a housing historian she also recognized the value of footage that showed the discrimination that Black families knew they had experienced for decades but couldn’t offer proof. “I started asking around with other housing historians, and there were lots of films made in the mid-century about housing discrimination, but none of them use undercover footage,” she says. “What we have is super rare.”

“Most people will say he was ahead of his time, but I say he [was] right on time. … If we really want to excel as a society, we need to do the things my father was advocating for.”

— Daphne Barbee-Wooten

Wisconsin PBS offered to digitize the rest of the reels ahead of their virtual premiere during the online event in April 2021. That was when Barbee-Wooten and her brother, along with the public audience watching online, saw the film for the first time.

“When I saw it, it made me tear up,” Barbee-Wooten says. “It’s just poignant. It’s right there. It’s so historic.”

At the same time, the past echoed the present. The pain of recognition surfaced in the chat box during the event as viewers posted comments identifying some of the apartment buildings and neighborhoods shown in the film. After all of this time, Barbee’s mirror was still there: showing people what they didn’t see before, or didn’t want to see.

“Most people will say he was ahead of his time, but I say he [was] right on time,” Barbee-Wooten says. “People were living in a different reality and not caring about other people and the future, the lack of diversity, the amount of discrimination. … If we really want to excel as a society, we need to do the things my father was advocating for.”