SISTER: An African-American Life in Search of Justice Sylvia Bell White & Jody LePage uwpress.wisc.edu
Sylvia Bell White was raised with 12 brothers in Louisiana, a state that didn’t provide schools for African American children through the 1940s. She went north as a teenager, dreaming of a nursing career and a freedom defined in part by wartime rhetoric about American ideals. In Milwaukee she and her brothers persevered through racial rebuffs and discrimination to find work. Barred by both her gender and color from employment in the city’s factories, Sylvia scrubbed floors, worked as a nurse’s aide, and took adult education courses.
When a Milwaukee police officer shot and killed her 22 year old brother Daniel Bell, in 1958, the Bell family suspected a racial murder but could do nothing to prove it. A knife had been planted in his right hand — even though he was left-handed.
Twenty years later, one of the two officers involved in the incident unexpectedly came forward and confessed the truth. Daniel’s siblings filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city and ultimately won that four-year legal battle. Sylvia was the driving force behind their quest for justice.
Telling her whole life story in these pages, Sylvia emerges as a buoyant spirit, a sparkling narrator, and, above all, a powerful witness to racial injustice. Jody LePage’s chapter introductions frame the narrative in a historical span that reaches from Sylvia’s own enslaved grandparents to the nation’s first African American president.
The Daniel Bell project was 15 years in the making. Bell White, 83, told LePage her story and helped with research before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about five years ago. Jody LePage met Sylvia Bell White in 1973 when both were selling vegetables at a farmers’ market in Madison, Wisconsin. She is an independent historian with a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who lives and works in the Madison area.
BW50+ Health & Lifestyle Magazine
From the Heart
Off the Shelf