College News

A look back at remarkable African-American UW System alumna

From the first African-American UW-Madison graduate to the first foreign litigator to practice in Afghanistan, UW System alumni have achieved many firsts since 1875. 

Image By: Max Homstad

In the 2017-’18 academic year, the UW System set a new record by awarding a total of 959 degrees to African-American students — a 42 percent increase over the past decade. 

Despite this increase, African-American students comprised only 2.6 percent of the UW System graduating cohort in the last academic year.  

As Black History Month comes to an end, the nationwide awareness it brings does not. 

African-American UW System alumni have successfully accomplished many “firsts” since 1875 in both academia and athletics, when William Smith Noland became the first African-American to graduate from UW-Madison. 

Nearly 30 years later, George Coleman Poage became the first African-American to win a Olympic medal, two in fact, in 1904.

Poage claimed many achievements throughout his life in both academics and athletics. He also became the first African-American individual Big Ten track champion in league history when he took first place in both the 440-yard dash and the 220-yard hurdles.

Poage also graduated from UW-Madison in 1903 with a history degree. 

Another UW-Madison alum, Gwendolyn Brooks, published “Annie Allen,” a poetry book which shares the turbulent story of a young African-American girl growing into womanhood. 

One year after its publication, Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950. Afterwards, when asked about her writing process, she said she would “drop the mop, broom, soap, iron or carrot grater to write down a line, or word.” 

”Writing is the only work in which I am interested,” she said.

Brooks was on campus during the Black Student Strike of 1969 and later documented her observations in a letter

“Cars are trying to run them down! I saw it happening. One tried desperately to run me down,” Brooks said, referring to an African-American student on campus at the time. 

“I don’t feel my time was wasted, because of the lengthy and ‘soul searching’ exchanges with manuscript-bearing and very earnest students,” Brooks said. 

Another notable alum is Milton Coleman — a former senior editor of The Washington Post — who graduated from UW-Milwaukee in 1968.

As one of the top students in his high school, Coleman got a tuition scholarship of $128 a semester, which allowed him to attend college. While an undergraduate, he was also the chairman of the Alliance of Black Students.

“It really opened my eyes,” Coleman said in reference to his time at UW-Milwaukee. 

His efforts at The Washington Post devoted more coverage to Latin and other ethnic minorities to increase representation in the media. Coleman came to be known as a active supporter of diversity.

“All of that came together at UW-Milwaukee,” Coleman said. “It sort of said that college can be the formative years of your life. It certainly is what I remember from my experience.”

Kimberley Motley, another UW-Milwaukee alum, became the first foreign attorney to litigate in Afghanistan's Criminal Courts in 2008. Motley left her position in the State of Wisconsin's Public Defender's Office for a nine-month program to train Afghan lawyers.

During her time overseas, Motley spoke with many people, ranging from business owners to incarcerated individuals. These conversations convinced her to stay. 

“Laws meant to protect them were being underused, while gross and illegal punitive measures were overused,” Motley said.

Motley witnessed “unjustness” firsthand in the case of young Naghma Mohammad, who was negotiated as the price of a debt her father acquired. Naghma was going to be forcefully married to a man 15 years older than her.

In representing 6-year-old Naghma, Motley saved her from the arranged marriage and had all the men involved in making the decision sign a document acknowledging what they did was illegal, and if they did it again they would go to prison.   

“The laws are ours — no matter what your ethnicity, nationality, gender, race they belong to us,” Motley said.

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