Lula Belle Brown grew up in Beloit’s Fairbanks Flats and wishes all the children who once lived in the concrete-block apartments could see them now.
“We never dreamed they could look this good,” the 95-year-old says.
The Beloit woman recently attended a grand opening of the Westside apartments, which were targeted for demolition a decade ago. She is pleased to see them renovated into affordable townhouses and ready for a new generation of families.
But the buildings are much more than one woman’s warm memory of home. They recall a powerful story of black Southerners, who moved to Rock County looking for work and better lives. They also remind us that the long arm of segregation reached far beyond the Deep South into small Midwestern towns.
The Flats apartments on Shore Drive are a rare example of segregated company housing and the only known community housing built exclusively for black workers in Wisconsin.
During World War I, business boomed at Fairbanks Morse, a Beloit engine manufacturer that helped put Rock County on the map. The company was unsuccessful in recruiting labor from Chicago, so it looked south to bolster a workforce that climbed from 1,750 to 4,500 between 1915 and 1920.
Brown’s grandparents moved north from Mississippi to be with family in the early part of the 20th century. But thousands of other Southern blacks left their homes seeking jobs in northern factories with hopes for better wages and chances to escape persecution.
Fairbanks Morse was Beloit’s largest employer and needed housing for its black workers. So, in 1917, the factory built four identical buildings with six, two-story units across the Rock River from Fairbanks Morse.
At the same time, the company also built 138 separate units next to the plant for the factory’s white employees. Architects from New York furnished plans for the modern artistic homes, known as the Eclipse Homes Addition.
Brown moved with her siblings from Mississippi in the 1920s to live with her grandparents in “the Flats.” Later, as a young woman, she and her first husband raised eight children in one of the 2-bedroom apartments.
Her husband died, when her children were still young, and she was happy to be part of a tight-knit community, where “everyone was like a big family.”
Over the years, hundreds of black families lived in the Flats, which were the genesis of Beloit’s African-American community. But Beloit was not the only northern city to practice segregation. In Janesville, restrictive covenants written in deeds reportedly prohibited people of color from buying homes in certain areas. And some Midwestern cities were “sundown towns,” meaning that people of color had to be out of town by sundown or risk being jailed. Author James Loewen documents thousands of communities, primarily in the Midwest, where residents kept out African-Americans by force, law or custom to stay predominantly white for decades. He found 440 in his home state of Illinois alone.
One of many advocates for the Flats, Wanda Sloan grew up in the apartments from 1947 to 1965. She has been a member of the revitalization group since it began. Members have jumped hurdle after hurdle over the last decade to save the historic landmark, while working in partnership with the city. They, too, are pleased to see the buildings open for a new generation of families, this time without regard to race.
Sloan called the grand opening of the new Flats a great day not only for the city but for African-Americans in Beloit.
“The story has to be told of the participation of black people in this city,” she says. “Often this part is not included in history books. If you don’t have elderly people to pass on the stories, no one would know what a significant role that black workers played in building up this city.”
The work of the revitalization committee did not end, when developer Gorman & Company finished renovating the landmark, which is on the National Register of Historical Places. Low- to moderate-income families and people with disabilities began renting the townhouses earlier this year. But it is important to keep telling the story of the Flats to make sure the evils of the past are not repeated.
“We still have to place a marker or a monument across the street,” Sloan says.
“We also will be talking about how to put together the history of the Flats. It can’t be neglected, and it should never, ever be forgotten.”
ABOUT THE TOWNHOUSES
Leasing office for the Fairbanks Flats apartments is at 1717 Green Forest Run, Janesville; telephone (608) 756-0221. Residents of two- and three-bedroom homes can buy their units in 15 years.