Henry Sink was born into slavery in 1830 in Batesville, Alabama. He escaped slavery through unknown means and by 1864 he and his young family had made their way to Northeast Wisconsin. Sink served in the Union Army during the Civil War. It was the only time he spent away from Wisconsin, with the exception of some time spent in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Though African Americans in nineteenth century Wisconsin faced racism, they persevered and made lives for themselves here. Henry worked in Fond du Lac, Green Bay, and De Pere as a factory fireman, day laborer, and sailor. He learned to read and write here. Henry and his wife were recognized by the Brown County Democrat as “leaders of De Pere’s colored population.” He was a member of the De Pere post of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization for Union veterans.
The Civil War abolished slavery but discrimination and racism continued. In 1900 Henry Sink purchased a home in De Pere, to the unremarkable notice of the local paper. However, Henry would not have been welcome as a De Pere homeowner in subsequent decades, when the gains made by African Americans during Reconstruction faced backlash across the nation.
In 1928 in De Pere, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross less than a half mile north of where Henry had owned his home. In 1948, less than a half mile south of his home, a new De Pere subdivision barred African American (and Jewish) home ownership. Northeast Wisconsin’s African American population plummeted in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Content courtesy of Victoria B. Tashjian, Ph.D.