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In Milwaukee History

Hancock's memorial still stands in Forest Home Cemetery. (PHOTO: Dory Wentzel)

Transcending race to pay tribute to a hero

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." Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)

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