The stuffed bald eagle on display at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum — a replica of "Old Abe," the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry in the Civil War — could be easily passed on a tour of the museum’s cavernous exhibits.
But stop to hear the story of the colonel that led those infantry troops with which Old Abe flew, and Wisconsin’s military and racial history is illuminated in a new way.
John Jefferson was the name of that colonel. His name probably sounds familiar. That’s because he is Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, though at the time Jefferson kept it a secret, said Kevin Hampton, the museum's curator of history.
“Why do you think the guy who was the grandson of the one who wrote the Declaration of Independence didn't tell anybody who his grandfather was? Why was he trying to hide that?” Hampton asked. “You’d think you’d want to tell everybody. I’d be shouting it from the top of the building.
"But it’s because of his grandmother. His grandmother was Sally Hemmings. Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemmings. So he’s half Black. And he’s terrified in 1861 that someone is going to find out he’s half Black.”
He didn’t want to lose his commission as colonel of the 8th Wisconsin, so he never said a word, Hampton said. According to diary entries and correspondence at the time, Jefferson pleaded with neighbors not to tell anyone who his family was.
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It is an important window into race relations at the time and a key lesson to teach, Hampton said. “It's very powerful when you think of that.”
Jefferson is buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison.
That story is one among many animating the artifacts and exhibits on display at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, 30 W. Mifflin St., owned and operated through the state Department of Veterans Affairs. Storytelling is a cornerstone of its mission, according to the museum’s director, Chris Kolakowski, who was hired in January 2020.
After being closed to the public for more than a year because of COVID-19, the museum reopened to the public July 1. During the pandemic, it expanded its virtual programs, including trivia nights, movie discussions, special lectures on topics ranging from piloting a Huey helicopter in Vietnam to documenting the evolution of women’s uniforms in the military. Between March 24, 2020, and June 15, 2021, museum staff produced 73 virtual programs, for which 3,370 virtual attendance tickets were sold, according to the museum.
Looking ahead, museum staff say they are looking to build on the virtual programming successes to reach a wider audience but are re-introducing in-person activities including book talks, live music and its tour of Forest Hill Cemetery.
Kolakowski’s chief priority is elevating the people and their stories behind everything the museum does, he said. The stories give one a reason to care. He, along with museum staff, have agreed on three key messages they want visitors to take away from a visit: There is a story, Wisconsin was there, and it still matters.
“Our vision, quite frankly, is to be the go-to resource for Wisconsin military history, not just for the people of Wisconsin, although that's obviously a primary focus, but also nationally and internationally,” he said. That vision drives the museum’s dual missions: conservation and sharing stories.
“We not only save stories, we tell the stories, and we share the stories,” he said.
Along with exhibits and events, the museum has digital and in-person archives for researchers to tap for history or genealogy work. It has millions of pages of digital and paper records, more than 100,000 photographs and 2,500 oral histories from Wisconsin veterans dating back to the Spanish American War, which Kolakowski said is one of the largest oral history databases in the country.
The state considers a Wisconsin veteran any veteran who was born in the state, enlisted from the state or have lived here for five consecutive years. It aims to preserve records and stories of any veteran who meets that criteria, Kolakowski said.
The museum also aims to curate a wider array of programming for veterans from communities of color and other historically marginalized veteran communities. It has curated a collection of LGBTQ veteran stories from the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy era that governed their lives. The online program is called “Do Tell!”
It has also showcased the contributions of Native American “code talkers” from the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin, who served alongside Navajo service members using the little-known Native languages as a way of secretly communicating with troops.
But it wants to do more. Finding more diverse voices is a priority as it moves out of the pandemic, Kolakowski said.
“Could we do more? Could we collect more? Absolutely,” he said. “There are certain things that we realize are either underserved in our collection or underserved (for) our audience; we're actively going to go out and get those.
“This museum was founded by veterans for the people of Wisconsin. And we take that very seriously. And I define people of Wisconsin as broad as it possibly can be. Everybody should be able to walk in here and recognize some aspect of themselves in our displays.”
A step toward that is collecting a photo of every veteran in Wisconsin. It's a dream of Hampton, the curator, who wants to create a massive collage of veteran photographs. He is encouraging every veteran in the state to send in a photo.
"It's so, so meaningful to look into the face of a person. You know, every time you talk about military history, it's usually like, you know, 16,000 people in a division. But when you can see in their eyes, you can see the face, and then you can maybe tie it in with the words that they said or the letter home, (it's a) much different feeling. And that's what we're looking for."
How to submit your veteran story:
Submit a photo of your veteran: https://wisvetsmuseum.com/veterans-profile-submission/
Share the story of your military service with the museum's oral historian: https://wisvetsmuseum.com/oral-histories/
Donate artifacts: https://wisvetsmuseum.com/collections/