Professor Albert Sears publishes article about African-American poet’s stay at Silver Lake College during the Civil Rights Era

Posted On September 12, 2016

Dr._Sears_and_Sister_Ritarose.jpgBy Suzanne Weiss/Director of Public Relations

MANITOWOC — Shortly after he joined Silver Lake College 14 years ago, Dr. Albert Sears heard the story about Gwendolyn Brooks.

It wasn’t until recently that the professor of English decided to write down the story.

 His article was published in the 2016 edition of The AFCU Journal: A Franciscan Perspective on Higher Education, a publication of the Association of Franciscan Colleges and Universities.

Silver Lake College of the Holy Family was founded by and continues to be sponsored by the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity.

“I wanted to explore the story in the context of Franciscan hospitality,” Sears said. “I always thought the story of Gwendolyn Brooks is a story of who we are.”

Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for the book of poetry, “Annie Allen,” making her the first African-American to receive the prestigious literary prize.

The University of Wisconsin-Manitowoc invited her to give a reading in 1968, a time when Manitowoc had little racial diversity. It was a very forward-thinking invitation during this time of social unrest, Sears said.

One glitch: Her poetry reading was in the evening, it was learned she didn’t drive, and Manitowoc was a “sundown town,” one of many in the Midwest that did not allow African-Americans to stay overnight.

Two Franciscan sisters from what was then called Holy Family College attended Brooks’ reading: Sister Carina Schisel, an English faculty member, and Sister Ritarose Stahl, her student, who is now the college’s archivist. Stahl shared research materials and recollections with Sears.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” she said. “I can see myself at the University of Wisconsin talking with her.”

It was while waiting in line to get some punch that Stahl overheard Brooks asking where she was to stay overnight. When there was some question as to her accommodations, the sisters decided to invite her to spend the night at the college, then considered outside of the city limits.

She stayed on the second floor of the main building in a guest room, which is now office space.

Sears wanted to tell the story not only for the college community, but also for its students, he said.

During his research, he was moved by the notes and books from Brooks that are filed in the college’s archives.

“The biggest story is the hospitality of the sisters, the legacies of those notes and autographed books,” Sears said.

This note, which he included in his article, perhaps best sums up the story. It reads, in part:

“I shall never forget your gentle kindness, your deep humanity; I shall always gratefully return, in memory to the hours of strange peace I experienced during my little stay with you.”