The University of Wisconsin Press

Autobiography / African American Interest / U.S. History

An African American Life in Search of Justice
Sylvia Bell White and Jody LePage

Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography
William L. Andrews, Series Editor

Winner, Book Award of Merit, Wisconsin Historical Society

“A fascinating biography, adding important insight into the African American experience in Wisconsin as well as the broader histories of migration, race, and employment in the twentieth-century United States.”
—William P. Jones, author of The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber Workers in the Jim Crow South

Raised with twelve brothers in a part of the segregated South that provided no school for African American children through the 1940s, Sylvia Bell White 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 killed her younger brother Daniel Bell in 1958, the Bell family suspected a racial murder but could do nothing to prove it—until twenty years later, when one of the two officers involved in the incident unexpectedly came forward. 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. Giving depth to that wide sweep, this oral history brings us into the presence of an extraordinary individual. Rarely does such a voice receive a hearing.

“Sylvia Bell White’s life intersects with many important aspects of recent American history, from the Great Migration to the struggle for racial justice in the urban North, from the counterculture of the 1960s to black life in the rural Midwest and beyond. Her brother’s murder was a signal moment in the emerging struggle for racial justice in Milwaukee. Sister brings that story back down to a human and very personal level.”—Patrick D. Jones, author of The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee

Sister contributes to our understanding of the significant changes that came to the lives of African Americans migrating from South to North during the twentieth century. Conveyed in Sylvia’s strong personal voice, supported by Jody LePage’s fluid and accomplished introductions, this story succeeds in personalizing the struggles that many African Americans faced when they migrated to cities such as Milwaukee.”—Stephen E. Kercher, author of Revel with a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America

Sylvia Bell White was born in Milwaukee in 1930 and raised in Louisiana. She migrated to Milwaukee at seventeen and now lives near Milwaukee.

Jody LePage met 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. She lives and works in the Madison area.


Wisconsin Public Television talk:



“If you're looking for something that's different, powerful, and sometimes delightful, then you're going to love this book.”
The Washington Informer

“White's story . . . is a powerful and moving one told in the voice of the remarkable woman who lived it.”

Media & bookseller inquiries regarding review copies, events, and interviews can be directed to the publicity department at or (608) 263-0734. (If you want to examine a book for possible course use, please see our Course Books page. If you want to examine a book for possible rights licensing, please see Rights & Permissions.)

Of Related Interest:
The legacy of George Edwin TaylorFor Labor, Race, and Liberty
George Edwin Taylor, His Historic Run for the White House, and the Making of Independent Black Politics
Bruce L. Mouser
“The best piece of historical detective work I have seen since John Hope Franklin’s work on George Washington Williams. At every turn it brings new findings and insights about the political experiences of African Americans. Superb and pioneering work.”
—Hanes Walton Jr., author of American Politics and the African American Quest for Universal Freedom

June 2013
LC: 2012032691 F
304 pp.   6 x 9   18 b/w illus.

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Cloth $27.95 t
ISBN 978-0-299-29434-2
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"A vivid and moving story, Sylvia Bell White's life tracks the roots and routes of many working-class black people of her generation. But she also shows her vibrant individuality, her refusal to be the typical or the representative woman, her determination to be herself."
—William L. Andrews, series editor and coeditor of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature

“White and LePage have collaborated on this moving and well-researched book that details the texture of black community life and racial struggle inside as well as outside the South, the experience of Northern migration, and the reality of systemic racial injustice, job discrimination, and police abuse in Milwaukee.”
—Jeanne Theoharis, author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks


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Updated 01/06/2015

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