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Samuel Pierce

Samuel S. Pierce (1930 ca)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-37461

Pierce Family

Possibly the longest-lived Madisonian was Hettie Pierce. Born in slavery in North Carolina on January 1, 1829, according to a family Bible, she died here on August 13, 1944, at the age of 115. In a Capital Times interview on July 7, 1932, she said: “No one in my family was ever sold. They wouldn’t ever part with us because we did our work so good.” When slavery ended “it was a big excitement. I was happy because I knew at last the good Lord had opened a new door for my people.” She remained with her former owners for two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Her husband (who died in 1892) was a slave when they married; he later served in the Louisiana legislature and as a judge in New Orleans. She came to Madison in 1907, where she spent the rest of her life. In 1921, Senator Robert La Follette got a bill through Congress so that she could recover money her husband had deposited fifty years earlier in the Freeman’s Bank in Washington, D. C.

Hettie’s 11th and last surviving son was Samuel (1870-1936). He was a Pullman porter for 35 years on the Chicago to Los Angeles and Madison to Milwaukee runs. After leaving the railroad he was, beginning in 1925, messenger for governors Blaine, Zimmerman, Kohler, Philip La Follette, and Schmedeman. “With his towering figure, gentle-mannered ways, soft-voiced speech, cheerful greetings and quiet industriousness, Sam Pierce made himself an institution in the governor’s office.” He stood six feet four and one-half inches tall. His most cherished possession was an original autographed copy of the bill Senator La Follette had introduced in the U. S. Senate for Hettie. He was a guide and financial patron to many African American UW students, and helped set up a house for them at the university. Upon his death all the former governors sent messages of condolence to Hettie. Governor Philip La Follette telegraphed his chief of staff: “Deeply grieved to learn of Sam Pierce’s death. The state has lost a loyal public servant whose genial personality and never-failing courtesy and consideration for others will long be remembered. Capitol flag should be half-masted in his honor.”

Mark Gajewski