Sifting and Reckoning UW–Madison’s history of exclusion and resistance

Student holding up a Black power fist in front of a crowd at the Wisconsin State Capitol building circa 1969.

In August 2017, the white supremacist rally and fatal car attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, jolted the nation and our campus. In the wake of that tragedy, UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank commissioned a study group to research two student organizations from the 1920s with the Ku Klux Klan name. The resulting report recommended further efforts to not only confront the university’s history of exclusion, but also highlight the contributions of marginalized people who pushed back. The Public History Project was born in 2019, and its work has culminated in a fall 2022 exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art and the digital version before you.

The official 1836 territorial seal features the figure of a white man breaking the land with a team and plow. He is surrounded by ships, lighthouses, and steamboats, symbols of a modern commercial economy. A large domed capitol building is above the farmer, and words encircle the seal: The Great Seal of the Territory of Wisconsin. Fourth of July 1836, Civilitas Successit Barbarum

The Early Years

The UW was built on ancestral Ho-Chunk land and was slow to integrate its student body.

Two black and white photos from Badger Yearbooks: members of the Chinese Opera dressed in traditional garb from 1925; and a 1951 group photo of India Association members on the grass outside Memorial Union, all dressed in suits except for one lone woman who stands in the center in traditional Indian garb.

Student Life

Marginalized students created space for each other even as they were excluded from many campus circles.


Jewish, Black, and international students struggled to secure housing near campus from discriminatory landlords.

Two Black students sitting on a couch in a residence hall with posters of Black activists displayed behind them.
A visually impaired student at the McBurney Resource Center explores the braille portion of a three-dimensional map of the university with her fingers.

In the Classroom

The classroom hasn’t always felt like a welcoming space for marginalized students.


In the face of adversity, UW athletes and coaches have fought for equality on and off the field.

Akio Konoshima,a Japanese-American student athlete, stands with fists up in boxing gloves wearing the Wisconsin team boxing uniform.
Students outside of Bascom Hall circa 1990 hold signs protesting discrimination in the ROTC.

Student Activism

For decades, UW students have effected change through activism and protest.

Learn the meaning of the exhibition name

In conclusion

“True resistance begins with people confronting pain … and wanting to do something to change it.”

—bell hooks, MA’76

As we fearlessly sift and winnow through the university’s past, many hard truths emerge. We also find hope, and the ever-present possibility of change for the better. The university has changed in many ways across its history, often because members of the campus community have demanded it.

We believe that reckoning with our history can lead us to a better future, and that unless we acknowledge and learn from our past, we cannot move forward together. The future is not yet written. What happens next is up to us.

The UW–Madison Public History Project was made possible with support from the Office of the Chancellor using private funds.