The Life & Times of Carson Gulley

The Life & Times of Carson Gulley


Born in 1897, Carson Gulley grew
up near Camden, Arkansas. His parents were sharecroppers
and his father was a former slave. At the age of six, he began to
work picking cotton, and what little schooling he received
happened around the needs of the cotton fields. At 16, in an effort to enrich
his education, his father apprenticed him to a teacher
in a nearby community. Gulley graduated from high
school in two years and returned to teach in his local
school, developing the skills of an educator. He also continued sharecropping
while teaching. At 20, he married Maybelle Lenor
and they would have four children together. However, the marriage did not
last and they would separate in the 1920s. Gulley became discouraged with
sharecropping and low wages of teaching and ventured out to
try and find a new trade. He traveled widely and worked in
different cities as a chef, continually improving
his culinary skills. In the summer of 1926, he was
cooking at the Essex Lodge in Tomahawk, Wisconsin and he met
the Director of University Housing, Don Halverson. Halverson was impressed with
Carson and offered him a job at UW-Madison, where Gulley
started in December of 1926 at the age of 29. As he was establishing himself
in his work at the University, he also found the love
of his life. On July 26th, 1930, Gulley
married Beatrice Russey. In the early part of the 20th
Century, African Americans in Wisconsin found segregation and
discrimination similar to that existing in the
southern states. The Gulleys experienced this in
Madison, especially around obtaining housing. Several times, white neighbors
in buildings where the Gulleys rented circulated petitions to
evict them, stating they did not want African Americans
in their building. This discrimination continued
and in 1935 Gulley decided to give up his job at the UW and
take one that had been offered to him in another city. To resolve the Gulley’s housing
problems and as an inducement to stay at the
University, Halverson got permission to build the Gulleys
an apartment in the basement of Tripp
Residence Hall. In the summer of 1936, Gulley
was invited by the President of the Tuskegee Institute to
develop a 10-week commercial chef-training course. He would lead this program,
spending time immersed in life at one of the most important
centers of African American identity in the United States. As part of his teaching at
Tuskegee, Gulley worked with and was influenced by Dr. George
Washington Carver, who told him: “Chef Gulley, you
are an artist, and you are dealing with the finest
of all arts. You give so much time to the
little things that most cooks overlook.” Replicating his Tuskegee
teaching experience, Gulley developed a successful Cooks and
Bakers School for the U.S. Navy at the UW from 1942 – 1944. From 1944 – 1951, he helped develop a
professional cook’s training school at the UW. Gulley was one of the early
African American instructors on campus. In 1949, Gulley published
his first cookbook, Seasoning Secrets, something first suggested to him
at Tuskegee by Dr. George Washington Carver. Already a well-known personality
in Madison, the cookbook added to his celebrity,
creating more opportunities for him to address
various groups around the state, oftentimes speaking
in towns that had no African American residents. His celebrity continued to grow
and he had radio programs on local Madison stations and
in 1953, Carson and Beatrice were invited to star in a local
cooking program on WMTV television called
What’s Cookin’. Gulley was one of the early
African Americans with his own TV show in the United States,
and it is the only known program to feature an African
American husband and wife team on television during
the 1950s. Gulley retired from the
University in 1954 after 27 years of service after
continually being passed over for Director of Dormitory Food
Services and other promotions that went to younger, less
qualified white candidates. After retiring, he focused on
his catering, TV, radio and speaking ventures. In 1954, the Gulleys purchased
land to build a home in the new Crestwood subdivision. Once again, they were faced
with white neighbors circulating a petition to
prevent them from moving in. A special meeting of the
cooperative was held in September to vote
on this issue. In an intense and divisive
meeting, the housing co-op voted 64 to 30 against the
proposal and invited the Gulleys to join the Crestwood
community. While this was an early and
public individual victory for open housing in Madison, more
systemic change in Madison housing laws would not happen
for another decade. In 1961, the Gulleys decided
to expand their catering business to a full-fledged
restaurant. They built a new building that
would be their home and business which opened on
September 15th, 1962. Two weeks later, Gulley became
ill and entered the hospital. He never recovered and passed
away on November 2nd, 1962. On February 20th, 1966 the
building where Gulley spent his University career
was re-dedicated as Carson Gulley Commons. This was the first university
building named after a civil service employee and
the first named after an African American. Carson Gulley spent his life not
just nourishing people’s bodies through his cooking,
but nourishing their minds through his teaching. Gulley was a civil rights
pioneer in the state of Wisconsin, breaking racial
barriers in teaching, radio, television, and housing, and
doing it all prior to what we think of as the start of the
modern civil rights movement.

1 thought on “The Life & Times of Carson Gulley”

  1. Thank you very much for this wonderful piece about this amazing man. He was a friend of my father, who always remembered Mr. Gulley fondly. Wish I would have had the chance to see his big ever present smile in person, but I was only 1 year old when he passed. Thanks for keeping history alive.

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