If the folks who run the Milton House Museum need help improving their historic tourist attraction, they might want to turn to Wisconsin’s new lieutenant governor.
Mandela Barnes and state tourism secretary designee Sara Meaney toured the museum Friday.
It was Milwaukee-native Barnes’ second visit to the Milton House. He toured it years ago because his father, Jesse Barnes, was a student at Milton College.
“It’s important we preserve institutions like this,” Barnes said after the tour that included evidence the 175-year-old site was used as a station on the Underground Railroad.
“There is significance for Wisconsin. There’s also national significance in this building as well,” Barnes said, adding that people should be able to learn from the site in generations to come.
Barnes, the state’s first African American lieutenant governor, took a tour, much like the one schoolchildren take, with tour guide and executive director of the Milton Historical Society, Kari Klebba.
Klebba told stories of the abolitionists who established the site in 1844 and helped freedom-seekers for decades. And she told of the escapees themselves, including the story of Andrew Platt.
Platt is the only former slave who passed through the Underground Railroad station whose name is known.
Platt wrote to Wisconsin’s governor in 1863, asking to be allowed to serve in the Union Army: “I, a man who escaped the house of bondage 18 months prior, desire to be counted as a man. Why do you let white men enlist and tell me I can’t serve?”
Klebba ended the tour with words that could work as a pitch to history-minded tourists: “This place is a very real reminder of how good people are capable of being (and) the bravery of those men and women who chose freedom.”
Rep. Don Vruwink, D-Milton, called the site “one of the treasures of Wisconsin” and suggested Barnes could be an advocate for funding “because we always need upgrades.”
Meaney said sites such as the Milton House are important, adding that the Gov Tony Evers’ budget proposal includes tourism promotion to potential growth markets, which include young people and people of color.
“The role that Milton played in the freedom movement is an important story that we need to share,” Meaney said. “People seek authentic experiences. People see unique experiences.”
She continued: “Wisconsin is rich with stories. It’s rich with history, and we have a lot of wonderful things to offer, but it isn’t just waterparks, right? It’s history, it’s people and authentic stories of the struggles that helped make us the state that we are.”
Asked to name their favorites among the Democratic candidates running for president, Meaney’s initial reaction was: “Whoa, boy!”
Mandela followed with, “You know, hear ye, hear ye, come one, come all.”
“Mm-hmm,” Meaney agreed and then deftly pivoted to the fact that her party’s next national convention will be in Milwaukee.
“We’re excited to put Wisconsin on a national and international stage in conjunction with the DNC Convention in 2020,” she said. “I think that’s an opportunity, regardless of political persuasion, that really ends up being an economic opportunity for the entire state.”