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The story behind Wisconsin Book Festival 2013: Madison historian Jody LePage explores racial injustice
Jody LePage and Sylvia Bell White
Jody LePage and Sylvia Bell White

Madison historian Jody LePage met Sylvia Bell White in 1973, when they were both selling vegetables at the farmers' market on the Capitol Square.

"She was one of the most fun people I had ever met," says LePage, who did not learn for 10 years that White's brother, Daniel Bell, had been gunned down by a Milwaukee police officer in 1958. The event cast a dark shadow on White's life and that of her family. "She was just so engaged. I would never have guessed that she'd lived through a tragedy of that magnitude."

The case exploded into the news in 1979, when the shooter's partner came forward to tell the truth of that night and the cover-up that followed. A year later, the shooting officer admitted his guilt. But Daniel's wrongful death, and the cruelty of the system which refused to acknowledge it, took a heavy toll on the Bell family.

It was White herself who asked LePage to record her story, a project that began in 1998 and took 15 years to come to fruition as Sister: An African American Life in Search of Justice (UW Press). The story begins in the 1930s, in the segregated South, where White was born. The first half of the book describes growing up the only girl of 13 children on a farm in the swampy pine woods 40 miles north of New Orleans.

"It is quite a story in itself, of how people lived in that time and place," LePage says. "And also how Sylvia's parents created this space in which their children were protected, loved and given a sense of dignity."

White's particular sense of dignity and belonging are what created the underpinnings for her later struggles against racial injustice, LePage asserts.

"Syliva, her family and community all knew what happened [to Daniel Bell] was wrong. They knew they were American citizens and understood that they should have certain rights," she says. "One of the amazing things to me in her whole story is how, in spite of everything, the Bells identify first as Americans."

For her presentation at the Wisconsin Book Festival (Saturday, Oct. 19, 3 p.m., Wisconsin Historical Museum), LePage will play taped excerpts from her conversations with Sylvia.

"Sylvia is so irresistible as a human being, such a winning personality, that she brings the story home in a way that political rhetoric can't," LePage says.

Sylvia, now 83 years old and living in a memory care unit in Watertown, felt that the whole story of her life was important, not just the years around her brother's murder and the trials that followed.

"Syliva really wanted people to understand that while she's seen all this change in her life, from the 1930s to voting for Obama, racial injustice is still a major problem in the U.S.," LePage says. "She brings this serious message, in her surprising and wonderful voice, that things are still not right in a lot of ways. She was so hopeful that her story could make a difference."

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