Goodman Community Center | Madison Black History: The Hill Grocery…

Madison Black History: The Hill Grocery Store

March 1, 2023 |

On the corner of Blount and Dayton is one of the last remaining traces of Madison's first Black community: The Hill Family Grocery Store.

The Hill Family Grocery was one of the first Black owned businesses in Madison. The humble store, running for nearly 70-years, is also one of the longest running single-family owned businesses in Madison's history. And while the Hill family is undoubtably an important part of Madison's history, the property has an even deeper Black history that started prior to the family's purchase of the property in 1917.

The John-Hill House and Hill Family Grocery Store as it stands today. Photo property of the Hill Family Nonprofit and photographer William J. Toman.

The property was originally owned by John Turner, a man previously enslaved in Kentucky, and his wife, Martha. Turner formed the Douglass Beneficial Society, an organization based on the teachings of Frederick Douglass that encouraged self-help. He also founded the first Sunday school for his community of around 140 African Americans. In order to provide a meeting place for the Douglass Beneficial Society, Turner moved a two-story building from its original downtown location to its permanent home at 649 E. Dayton St.

When John Turner died in 1909, Martha was left responsible for her family's properties.

In 1911, Martha sold the house and newly attached building to Reverend Charles Thomas, pastor of St. Paul's African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest Black congregations in WI. It was Reverend Thomas who turned the original boarding house and meeting area into a grocery store for Madison's Black community.

Historical photo of John Hill standing in front of his store. The photo can be seen on the historical site plaque currently in front of the structure. Photo is property of the Hill Family Nonprofit.

In 1917, after he and his wife moved the family from Atlanta to Madison in 1910, John Hill bought the grocery store from Reverend Thomas with a loan for $45.

Hill's main objective was to make enough money to provide for his family. Specifically, he wanted to send all three of his children to college. Hill succeeded with flying colors. His daughter, Freddie Mae Hill, became the first Black woman to graduate from UW-Madison in 1928.

Both John and wife Amanda were successful leaders outside of their jobs as grocery store owners and operators.

John was appointed to important Madison city committees, including the Committee on Minority Housing and the Advisory Committee, which focused on city improvement projects.

Amanda served as a leader in the Utopia Club, a Black woman's club that worked to improve the social conditions for many marginalized groups.

John and Amanda operated the store 7-days a week (minus holidays) until a few years after John's death in 1983. The building became a city landmark in 2006.

Their eight granddaughters started the Hill Family Non-Profit to honor the family's legacy.

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