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Public History Project unveils a film history of Madison housing discrimination

UW-restricted footage from 1961 premieres in the PBS live virtual event, “Sifting And Winnowing And Film Burning,” on April 18 with a distinguished panel.

Film stills courtesy of UW Archives.

“I can’t let you have it. Not in this neighborhood,” a fearful landlord tells a polite Black couple from behind a front door. This is Madison in late 1961, and we have 16mm footage of this interaction thanks to the undercover work of civil rights activist Lloyd Barbee and cinematographers Stuart Hanisch and George Allez. But 60 years ago, UW-Madison fought to keep it out of the public’s view. 

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That changes this Sunday, April 18, at 6:00 p.m., when the UW-Madison Public History Project and PBS Wisconsin will partner up to present a live virtual public event of long-buried footage on Madison redlining and housing discrimination: “Sifting And Winnowing And Film Burning: The Film UW Restricted.” (The event is free but you can RSVP here.) This footage, tentatively titled “Racial Discrimination In Housing (In A Mid-Sized Northern City),” may have meager production values, but it nonetheless belongs in the same conversation as the era’s most socially incisive and vital documentaries of Frederick Wiseman, Julia Reichert, and Madeline Anderson. (Update: The recorded event is now available to watch via PBS Wisconsin.)

Over the course of 12 minutes, which the filmmakers often shot with hidden cameras in sitting vehicles, the film captures landlords imparting a range of deceitful and racist responses to prospective renters of color between September and November 1961, years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Fair Housing Act of 1968 (Title VIII). Given the lack of greater access to affordable housing that persists today in our fair city, these 13 oppressive encounters largely on lawns and at front doors are collectively unsurprising, but they’re no less shattering to view within the context of other photographic documentation of the early 1960s. 

Kacie Lucchini Butcher, director of UW-Madison’s Public History Project, whose professional research focuses on museum exhibition and public housing, recalls watching the footage for the first time: “I cried, to be honest with you. It’s really rare…there were films being made during this period about [inequitable] housing, but not many of them were using undercover film footage. It’s a primary source that shows, vividly, the experience of housing discrimination.”

UW-Madison students launched the #RealUW social media campaign five years ago and have undertaken numerous other efforts to call attention to institutional racism on campus. Recent research efforts like the Public History Project has endeavored to shed light on the roles racism and discrimination have played across the UW System’s 150-year history, even beyond that of Klan presence on campus. In the process of researching at the UW Archives and Records Management, Butcher spoke with digital and media archivist Cat Phan, who informed her of the existence of the sealed-and-shelved 16mm reels. In 2019, Phan  began lobbying the university’s  Office of Legal Affairs to lift restrictions UW officials placed on the footage in the early 1960s so that researchers could digitize it and ultimately share it with the public. 


Kacie Lucchini Butcher.

Kacie Lucchini Butcher.

The chronicle of UW’s suppression of the footage is convoluted. Legal reasoning for keeping the film under lock and key essentially boiled down to objections to use of undercover footage and arguments about protecting legal rights to privacy while citing the relationship between the UW and the broader community. UW officials at first supported its release, at least before an initial test screening with university administrators. Afterwards, they began to renege on former approval despite the film proposal’s explicitly stated aims to use undercover footage. So, UW’s reversal was clearly an extension of something more insidious. 

The contention led to Barbee’s objections, Hanisch resigning from the project, student protests, and the film getting reassigned to producer Jackson Tiffany and reimagined using actors and reenactments. Backlash continued to encompass this issue, however; several years before the restricted footage was taken, mid-1950s articles in the Wisconsin State Journal and The Daily Cardinal revealed that the Wisconsin Student Association (WSA) was actually well-aware of widespread inequity. They pursued equal access to housing through sharply worded resolutions to urge a crackdown on landlord discrimination based on race, religion, and national origin.

Even though the film celluloid has deteriorated in storage, and suffers from fuzzy sound-recording, it’s still arresting in its forthright approach. Hanisch and Allez keep their sympathetic lens centered, as best they can, on prospective renters as they approach a house or rental office to obtain basic tenant information or arrange a showing. Often hidden from frame by their own nervous volition, white property owners or landlords go to devastating lengths to outright lie to and disenfranchise Black people. This includes everything from simply denying that they have housing available, to misrepresenting utility costs, to further discriminating based on marital status. But the truest point is the landlords’ steadfast perception that Black people are going to cause trouble for their immediate neighbors and community. It’s a baseless, recurring fear that the landlords seem to imagine absolves them of any responsibility. In one instance, a middle-aged Black man (Mr. O) courageously (and coolly) refutes this claim to a landlord (Mr. V) outside. (All people are designated with single letter names in order of their appearance.) But there is no justification; following a landlord’s response, as the subtitles read, is just a “long silence.”

These subtitles, provided with this new digitization of the film, and coupled with a transcribed but never recorded narration track from the Board of Regents’ full 1962 typescript (including B-roll notes), provide further contextualization beyond the footage’s present moment, summarizing the stark contrast in experience between white and Black renters. The final minute of the film shifts from Madison neighborhoods to the interior window of a realty office where an unseen man (Mr. O) is turned down by a realtor, Mr. U, who says there’s nothing they could show him. Only, a white person who enters the office later is said to have their choice of seven listings in a “buyer’s market.”


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A distinguished panel will be joining Butcher for the April 18 event, including Barbee’s children Daphne Barbee-Wooten and Rustam Barbee, YWCA Madison CEO Vanessa McDowell, and local historian Betty Banks. The panel invites viewer interaction and questions surrounding parallels to the existing realities and crises of Madison housing accessibility. As Butcher cites the social discrimination shown in the film, she also notes that it is “under-girded by federal government policies that work to discriminate against Black people when they try and seek out housing” in the form of federally-backed mortgages, heinous racial covenants, and the legacy of redlining.

Butcher maintains that where one lives not only determines property values, but access to education and schools, healthy food options, as well as the absolute necessities of clean air and water. “My hope is that showing the film will give us a real glimpse into this history so we can open up the current conversation. […] We know housing is hard to come by in Madison,” she says. “We know there is vast housing inequality in Madison and the state of Wisconsin, and that’s only going to continue unless we learn this history and really learn from this history.”

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