KAUKAUNA, Wis. (WFRV) – History has a way of repeating itself while art has a way of exposing the truth. In 1966, 13 Wisconsin high school students were in for the ride of their lives. One Milwaukee filmmaker is retelling their story.
“I was looking through materials in my garage one day and came across a box that said high school stuff. I opened it and found a copy of my high school newspaper, The King’s Page. I looked at it and I saw this story about the kids from Kaukauna coming to Rufus King. This was in 2016. I looked at the date on the newspaper and it said 1966, and I said this was 50 years ago. This is a good story and I’m going to tell it,” says Joanne Williams.
Former television journalist, now filmmaker, Williams is always on the hunt for a good story. She is making a documentary on the student exchange, titled, “The Exchange in White America: Kaukauna & King 50 Years Later.” It happened between students at Kaukauna High School and Rufus King High School. This particular story, some might call ahead of its time, is not something many Wisconsinites are familiar with.
“Most people don’t know about this exchange. It’s what I call part of Wisconsin’s hidden history,” says Williams.
“There was a high school social studies teacher who wanted his kids to have a broader view of the world, and to do that he wanted them to perform a play. The play was In White America, but in Kaukauna there were no black people. So he and another teacher at Kaukauna High School arranged an exchange with a teacher from Rufus King in Milwaukee,” says Williams.
Linda Plutchak, a senior at Kaukauna High School at the time, participated in the exchange. She and Phyllis spent two months together. The pair spent a month at each other’s homes and performed the play once in Kaukauna and once in Milwaukee.
“It gave me a much greater awareness of what was going on. I understood the trueness from the past, but I didn’t understand how it was virtually the same in 1966,” says Plutchak.
She recalls what her peers thought about the exchange.
“They definitely were shocked to see actual black kids in our classes and walking the halls. I remember walking with Phyllis at times in the hall and glaring down a lot of people. t’s hard to gauge, except that I don’t think we felt a lot of support,” says Plutchak.
The play, In White America, is now being introduced to a new generation. It’s been performed several times due to William’s film, three times at Rufus King in Milwaukee and twice at Kaukauna High School.
Williams, who has been working on the film since 2016, has experienced her share of hardships in making the film.
“The way COVID-19 has slowed us down is that the fundraising that we have to do to get this film paid for sort of came to a halt,” says Williams.
Although, she isn’t giving up. The story of Wisconsin’s hidden history is far too special to go untold.