You are on page 1of 7

An excerpt from  

by Joey Grihalva 
When Patsy Ann Abston was lying on her deathbed, a nurse asked her to 
list her children’s names. Though heavily sedated and suffering from a brain 
aneurysm, Patsy recounted each of her seven children in chronological order: 
Sharon, Sandra, Stephanie, Rander, Rosanne, Roxanne, and Robin. The only 
problem, according to her eldest daughter Sharon, who recounted this story, 
was that Patsy only had five children, or so Sharon thought. As it turns out, Patsy 
and Kenneth Abston had two secret children, one girl (Sandra) and one boy 
(Rander), a fact that Sharon would not learn until twenty years after Patsy passed. 
Patsy had seven siblings, six of whom sang in a family choir, the Lampkins 
Chorus. She was born in 1931 in North Chicago, Illinois. When Patsy was seven, 
her family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Lampkins clan initially settled in 
the Haymarket neighborhood, just north of where the Fiserv Forum now stands. 
A few years later, Patsy’s parents bought a house on the 2100 block of north 
Eleventh Street, about a mile northwest of Haymarket, joining other 
African-Americans in a neighborhood originally settled by Germans, which at the 
time still had many Jewish families. Today the neighborhood is predominantly 
African-American and called Lindsay Heights, after local activist Bernice Lindsay. 
When Sharon was a child, it was referred to as “The Core”. The Lampkins 
homestead sits just west of where Interstate 43 butts up against Beckum Park. 
When Patsy was a child, the highway did not exist. Construction began in their 
neighborhood in the early 1960s.  
The I-43 project is often blamed for the demise of Milwaukee’s original 
African-American commercial district, which was centered on a strip of Walnut 
Street just north downtown. According to Reggie Jackson, a research journalist 
and race relations expert, urban renewal projects were the initial undoing of 
Walnut Street. Nonetheless, the community did not appreciate the highway, 
according to Sharon. 
“It created this big chasm. Before they built the North Avenue bridge and 
the Brown Street bridge, you had to walk a l​ ong​ way around,” says Sharon. 

The highway may have hurt the community, but Sharon’s baby brother 
Robin took advantage of the valley being dug behind his house. In the winter, 
Robin and other neighborhood kids would sled down the hill leading to the 
unpaved highway.  
For Robin's grandmother Karrianna, snow-lined city streets were a foreign 
sight. Karrianna and her husband, the Reverend Lewis Clay Lampkins Sr., moved 
to the Midwest from Arkansas in the 1920s. They were part of the first wave of 
African-Americans to move out of the South in the twentieth century, an exodus 
known as the Great Migration. 
If you were lucky enough to learn about the Great Migration in school, 
chances are you were told that it was motivated by economic opportunities in 
the Northeast, Midwest, and West. What is rarely mentioned is that in the years 
between the Civil War and the civil rights movement, the day-to-day 
experiences of African-Americans in the South were heavily impacted by 
legalized discrimination and domestic terrorism by whites, both of which 
contributed just as much to their departure from the South as any economic 
“That is the part of our history that is the least known by all Americans, 
particularly white people,” says Reggie Jackson on a new podcast about 
systemic racism from 88Nine Radio Milwaukee.  
“They just assume that slavery ended and everything was all good and 
then for some reason black people were protesting Jim Crow segregation. They 
forget all of the things in between. Those ninety years of ugliness. They forget 
all of those things because they never learned them,” claims Jackson. 
The reason Lewis and Karrianna Lampkins left Arkansas and ended up in 
Milwaukee is directly related to that “ugliness”. Lewis was born in 1885 in 
Claiborne County, Mississippi. He did not serve in the first World War, but some 
of his brothers did. Despite serving their country, black veterans returned home 
to face the same old racial prejudices and indignities. Many black veterans living 
in the South were farmers, growing cotton and other subsistence crops, and 
were consistently offered prices inferior to their white counterparts.  
Shortly after Lewis and Karrianna were married in November of 1922, a 
group of local black veteran farmers were hatching a plan to confront buyers as 
a unit and lobby for fairer prices. Baseless rumors spread among white residents 
of the municipality that the group planned to indiscriminately kill white people. 
Under the guise of a “preemptive attack”, white residents shot and killed these 

men during a meeting, burning down their barn. The white mob escalated the 
violence into the adjacent black community, looting businesses and murdering 
innocent black people. This is the ugliness that motivated Lewis and Karrianna 
Lampkins to move to the Midwest. 
When the Lampkins decided to head north, Lewis’ oldest brother Saul was 
living in Chicago and working on the railroads as a Pullman porter. Karrianna 
also had a first cousin in Waukegan. The Lampkins moved to Milwaukee in the 
late 1930s because of its booming industrial sector. At the time, the city was 
known as the “Machine shop of the world”. Karrianna got a job at a paper bag 
company on south Chase Street, while Lewis worked as a carpenter and cobbler.  
Patsy was the seventh of Lewis and Karrianna’s eight children. She was an 
intelligent child who loved to learn. As an adult, she took it upon herself to 
become fluent in German, even joining the Goethe House, a German-American 
cultural institute. By the time of her graduation from North Division High School 
in 1949, Patsy’s main focus was being a young mother. 
Kenneth Floyd Abston was born in October of 1932 in Memphis, 
Tennessee. He was the only child of his parents James William Abston and Eva 
Mae Staves, who divorced before his tenth birthday. His mother remarried 
Lonnie Lloyd, a man of means who had fought in the first World War and owned 
property. The small family moved to Milwaukee shortly after the second World 
War. They bought the house next door to the Lampkins, which is how Kenneth 
met Patsy.  
Not being city people, Eva Mae and Lonnie eventually moved to a 
farming community south of Milwaukee called Oak Creek. They were one of a 
few black farmers in the metro Milwaukee area in the 1950s. After having his first 
few children with Patsy, Kenneth joined the Navy. He contracted tuberculosis 
while overseas. Upon his return home, Kenneth spent months at the Muirdale 
Sanatorium on Highway 100 and Watertown Plank Road. The protective 
measures being taken to stop the spread of COVID-19 today remind Sharon of 
visiting her father at Muirdale, where she and her sister Stephanie would have to 
wear gowns, gloves, and masks. 
“When I look back at it, that relationship was doomed to fail,” says Sharon 
about her parents. “There were too many challenges.”  
In the aftermath of the separation, the kids occasionally saw Kenneth, but 
he became an alcoholic, moved in with his mother in Oak Creek, and lost touch 
after her death in 1958. The children’s uncle Lewis, a tailgunner in WWII and the 

owner of a funeral service, became a father figure. Lewis instilled a strong work 
ethic in the children. His influence on Robin, the only boy, was particularly 
Young Robin was a certified genius. At age eight he was recruited by the 
prestigious Exeter Academy. Sharon remembers the day that men in suits 
showed up to their house and sat Patsy down to tell her about Robin’s 
outstanding test scores. They claimed that if Robin enrolled in their boarding 
school he would be guaranteed entry into the nation’s top universities. Patsy 
rejected their offer on the spot. She worried that if Robin went to Exeter he 
would return a changed man, someone she didn’t recognize. What Sharon 
didn’t know at the time was that Patsy had already let one son go. Rander was 
being raised by Patsy’s first cousin in Jackson, Mississippi. Meanwhile, Patsy and 
Kenneth’s second born, Sandra, was being raised by friends of Lewis and 
Karrianna in Milwaukee. Sharon and her siblings saw Sandra often, but had no 
idea she was their sister. 
Patsy raised the children with the help of her mother and other family 
members. Outside of the house, Patsy worked as a practical nurse before going 
into the cosmetology business. She was a hairdresser at a handful of beauty 
shops in their community, one of which was demolished during the construction 
of I-43. Patsy eventually opened her own shop on the corner of North Thirteenth 
Street and Concordia Avenue. Back then, in the early 1960s, there weren’t many 
black-owned businesses in that part of town.  
Thanks to his brilliant mind, Robin advanced two grades in school. His 
twin sisters Rosanne and Roxanne were two years older, but since they were all 
in the same grade they were commonly referred to as triplets. After attending 
nearby Lloyd Street School, the “triplets” took part in the busing movement of 
the late 1960s. They attended Fritsche Middle School in the predominantly 
white neighborhood of Bay View. They hated it. When it was time to go to high 
school they insisted on attending nearby North Division. 
A few years earlier, Sharon hadn’t been afforded the option to attend her 
mother and father’s alma mater. Patsy didn’t want Sharon getting involved with 
the political activity and student walkouts of the mid 1960s. Sharon was bused 
to John Marshall High School some five miles away. At the time, Marshall was 
mostly white. Depending on her schedule, Sharon rarely saw other black 
students during the day.  

“It was very bad, in terms of how I was treated,” recalls Sharon. “More so 
by the instructors. The racism was really intense.” 
Sharon’s high school physics teacher once told Patsy that her eldest 
daughter “wasn’t college material”. As it turned out, Sharon earned her 
bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in 1972, the same 
year a black woman, Shirley Chisholm, first ran for president from one of the two 
major parties. Sharon’s degree was in Medical Laboratory Technology. Her first 
job was at the prestigious University of Chicago. Sharon would go on to earn a 
master’s degree and a PhD from Cardinal Stritch University. She worked for 
many years at Aurora Healthcare, eventually becoming an associate dean at 
Milwaukee Area Technical College’s School of Health Sciences. Throughout her 
career, Sharon actively recruited and nurtured students of color to work in the 
Health Sciences. 
The boiling racism that Sharon and other black people felt in the 1960s 
bubbled over towards the end of the decade, as demonstrations and riots 
gripped the nation. In Milwaukee, a young white Catholic priest named Father 
James Groppi helped organize and activate Milwaukee’s black community and 
those sympathetic to the fight for civil rights. Operating out of St. Boniface 
Church, just a few blocks from the Lampkins homestead, Groppi teamed up with 
members of the NAACP Youth Council to march in the name of equal housing 
rights across the Sixteenth Street bridge for 200 consecutive nights. This 
prolonged demonstration came to be known as the March on Milwaukee. 
Against the backdrop of this social and political upheaval, Robin Lewis Abston 
was entering adolescence.  
“Robin was a peacemaker. That’s the irony of his death," says Sharon of 
her baby brother. "Even when he was a small kid, if kids were tussling or 
fighting, he would try to break it up. He would tell them that they didn’t want to 
do it.”  
One day, when Robin was hanging out by the highway with some kids 
from the neighborhood, a boy was trying to get rid of a puppy by putting him 
over the fence. Robin insisted that he adopt the dog, who grew up to be fiercely 
loyal to his owner. As a boy, Robin loved to play sports, particularly basketball 
and football. He adored the Green Bay Packers, who played a handful of games 
each season at the newly built Milwaukee County Stadium. At North Division, 
Robin lettered in swimming. He and the twins learned violin together. Sharon 
says that Robin could pick up almost any instrument and play it by ear.  

Patsy took the kids all over town and exposed them to as much culture as 
she could. She volunteered as a Girl Scout troop and regional leader. The 
Abston children all learned to swim. They went to the movies and museums 
together. They roller skated in the summer and ice skated in the winter. But the 
center of their lives was Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church.  
"Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, you were always known by what 
church you went to," recalls Sharon. 
In the Abston’s neighborhood, there was no shortage of places to 
worship. Robin’s first exposure to theater was as a young boy in church. A 
woman from their congregation founded Frey’s Drama Guild, which involved 
people from nearby churches. Robin began participating in productions at the 
age of seven. The stage became Robin’s principal passion in life.  
After graduating from North Division, one of the final classes to do so in 
the original building, Robin and his sister Rosanne enrolled at Marquette 
University. Robin was sixteen. He majored in communications and journalism 
initially, but gravitated towards theater. Sharon remembers seeing Robin in a 
production of Ossie Davis’ 1961 play ​Purlie Victoriou​s, staged by a company of 
black theater students at Marquette. Robin grew to be six foot two inches, with a 
football player's build. He was handsome and gregarious, the life of the party. 
During his second year of college, shortly after Patsy’s death, Robin found 
himself adrift and losing focus.  
In an attempt to add structure to his life, Robin dropped out of Marquette 
and joined the Air Force. He spent four years overseas, singing and dancing in 
musicals put on by the armed forces. He participated in cycling races in 
Germany. He worked as a mechanic on airplanes. Sharon remembers a story 
Robin told her about accidentally dousing himself with jet fuel. “I know what it 
feels like to be close to death,” Robin said of the experience.   
After returning to the United States, Robin moved to southern California 
to pursue an acting career. Sharon and her husband, the artist Gerald Duane 
Coleman, connected Robin with some of their acquaintances, who let him sleep 
on their couch or in their garage. Sometimes Robin slept in his car. He made it 
on a few game shows, including ​The Joker’s Wild​, but did not land a major 
television or film role. After two years in Hollywood, Robin moved back to 
Upon his return home, Robin worked odd jobs while performing in local 
theater productions. He helped out at Mount Zion. He landed a steady gig at 

the Boys & Girl's Club. By that point in Robin’s life, his mother had been dead 
for about seven years.  
Patsy Ann Abston died in 1974, shortly after the “triplets” finished their 
first year of college. She was at a relative’s house when she suffered the 
aneurysm. In fact, she was standing around a piano, singing with her siblings, 
the Lampkins Chorus, when it happened. Patsy died later that week at St. 
Michael's Hospital, which used to stand on the northwest corner of Lincoln Park. 
Sharon can still picture Robin giving their mother a kiss on the cheek soon after 
she passed. Patsy was forty-two.  
Robin would end up living one year longer than his mother.