By Pete Ehrmann Special to Published Jan 01, 2012 at 11:10 AM

It took the newspapers a few days to get Albert Lawson Hancock's name right after he died trying to save two men on Milwaukee's East Side. When Hancock was alive his employer didn't even bother trying to get it right, choosing instead to call the quiet, hard-working black man "Snowball."

That was par for the course in 1903, when African Americans were objects of derision and condescension by the white establishment even when its representatives were trying to be magnanimous.

Take the eulogy of Hancock's boss, John J. Crilley: "'Snowball,' as I christened him to designate him from another Hancock in my employ, was a giant in size, yet as tractable as a child. He was faithfulness personified, and when he was in charge of one of my jobs, I knew that the work was being done as well as I could have directed it myself. I know that he never shot craps, and I doubt whether he knew a dice from a billiard ball. He made good wages, but he always gave full value to his employer in return, and his earnings went to a savings bank instead of to the bank of a gambling house ...

"After he had been with me but a short time I made him foreman of one of the gangs. Then an Irishman who had worked for me for some time came up and asked, "Crilley, are yez goin' to make that naygur boss?' I told him I was, and the whole gang quit, but they all came back the next day. The only thing which marked Snowball as a negro was the color of his skin."

And, of course, that demeaning nickname.

Hancock had come to Milwaukee from Virginia after the death of his mother five years earlier. Employed by Crilley's construction company, he was working with a crew digging a water main near the intersection of East North and North Oakland Avenues on Sept. 1 when Louis Schunck, superintendent of construction for the city water department, and sewer contractor Richard Hickey Jr. – both white – were felled by lethal gas at the bottom of the new tunnel.

In its "Extra" edition about the tragedy published the next day, The Milwaukee Journal reported that Hancock – called "Albert Larson" in the story – "bravely volunteered to go to the rescue of the two men and sliding down a rope was quickly at the bottom, fastening a rope about the bodies of the unconscious ones when he, too was seized by the fatal gas, and falling backward became its third victim."

The front-page account called Schunk "one of the best known young men of the city," and, said Hickey, "was considered to be one of the most promising young men in his profession." The misnamed man who died in an effort to save them was identified only as a "colored laborer."

Their families retrieved the bodies of Schunk and Hickey from the morgue within 24 hours. "Larson" had no family, and his remains were destined for Potter's Field until City Engineer Charles Poetsch intervened. "Even though he was black, he had a heart of the right kind and he died as a hero should die," he said. Acting Mayor Cornelius Corcoran (Mayor David Rose was recuperating from illness in Arizona) agreed.

"We will surely see that Larson has a decent and respectable burial," Corcoran said, "for he is a hero and at least deserves what respect we are able to show him in this way."

In an editorial titled "The color line as drawn in Milwaukee," The Journal said that by his selfless dying act "Larson" had drawn "the line between the men with the great, white souls and the other kind, over all the world ... Larson, a colored man, died to save white men. Remember that when prejudice is aroused. Let the fact weigh against the stories from elsewhere that will come telling of wrong acts of negroes. Remember Larson."

After a funeral service at the African M.E. Church on Sept. 4, Albert Lawson Hancock – his real name had finally been ascertained – was buried at Forest Home Cemetery amidst "an ever increasing army of white heroes who 40 years ago risked their lives for their colored brethren."

Moved by the Journal's editorial, A.H. Hollister of Madison wrote a letter to the editor that was printed on the front page. "...While I do not wish to be considered as in the least degree as slopping over," it said, "I wish you, through your great paper, to start a scheme of some kind for a memorial to the memory of this brave man. Deeds of this kind are too little thought of, and we have too few memorials of such great acts."

Hollister kicked things off with a $5 donation, and within 24 hours the Hancock memorial fund had grown to $19, including $1 from a "Crispus Attucks," and $5 from Milwaukeean Charles Quarles, who said Hancock's "self-sacrifice condemns every Pharisee who claims superiority by reason of the whiteness of his skin."

There's no shortage of them even now, but 107 years ago the Pharisees rode tall in the saddle. Of the 99 persons lynched in the USA in 1903, 84 were black. None of the lynchings occurred in Wisconsin, but the notion that the only laudable black hero was a dead one was evident during a memorial service on Sept. 13 at St. Mark's African Methodist Episcopal Church when an unidentified "white neighbor" said, "Everybody who knew (Hancock) forgot his color and remembered only that he was a fine, honest man."

On Sept. 15 – a day after Sen. Edward Carmack of Tennessee announced his intention to introduce a bill calling for the disenfranchisement of all black citizens – the Hancock memorial fund was up to $34, and the Journal suggested that further contributions be limited to $1.

The day after that, delegates to the Democratic state convention in Maryland approved a resolution proclaiming their belief that "the political destinies of Maryland should be shaped and controlled by the white people of the state, and while we disclaim any purpose to do any injustice whatever to our colored population, we declare without reserve in every conservative and constitutional way the political ascendancy of our race."

Things hadn't come to such a pass here, but on Sept. 17 the all-white female staff of seamstresses at the downtown Gimbels store walked off the job because a young black woman had been hired. They returned to their sewing machines after the black seamstress quit and their supervisor promised not to hire any more of her kind.

When contributions to the Hancock memorial fund reached only $73 by Sept. 18, The Journal was plainly worried.

"The amount needed for a suitable marker of Hancock's grave in Forest Home cemetery is small," noted a front-page plea. "Probably twice that already subscribed would be sufficient. When he died there were hundreds who in their enthusiasm were loud in their praise of his conduct. A brave deed does not grow old and a good thought should not die."

The fund held $89 on Sept. 21, and The Journal reported that "some surprise has been expressed at the fact that there are no colored men on either the fire or police forces, despite the fact that the death of Lawson Hancock ... showed that there were colored men in Milwaukee worthy of recognition in public service."

According to a police spokesman, in the last 10 years only one black man had applied to join the department, and was rejected on account of "lung trouble." No blacks had applied to become fireman.

By the end of the month, the daily tally of contributions to the Hancock fund disappeared from the newspaper, and there was nothing further until a page two item in the Nov. 30 Journal announced that with $215.15 in the till (the top contribution: $10 from Margaret W. Allis, widow of the co-founder of Allis-Chalmers) there was finally enough for a memorial, to be chosen by a committee of contributors.

It's there in Section 45 of Forest Home Cemetery, a still-legible tribute chiseled in red granite:

Erected by an appreciative public
to the memory of Albert Lawson Hancock
a colored man who gave his life in an attempt
to rescue two white fellow workmen
from asphyxiation
in the North Avenue Tunnel
Milwaukee, Sept. 1, 1903

Today it has an off-putting separate-but-equal ring, but for its time it was a clarion expression of humanity.

Pardon me if I seem in the least degree to be slopping over, but I would say the same about the parting shot of that unnamed "colored sewing girl" who left her job at Gimbels after her racist colleagues quit en masse because she wasn't white. It's a shame she can't be identified and her own ringing declaration emblazoned on her tombstone:

"Oh, those Polacks didn't want to work with me, so I got out."

Pete Ehrmann Special to
Pete Ehrmann is a sports historian whose stories apear at His speciality is boxing.