“First Lady of Milwaukee’s Black Press”
Woods wrote for the Chicago Defender, Milwaukee Defender, Milwaukee Star and Milwaukee Globe over the course of her long career, and freelanced for Ebony and Jet magazines. However, she is best known for her society column, ‘The Party Line’ for the Milwaukee Courier Newspaper, where she followed the social events of the African American society in Milwaukee, a post she held for 40 years until her death. “In a way, her work as a reporter was just a reflection of Woods' greater role in the community, helping people network and be connected with each other,” said Milwaukee Courier publisher Faithe Colas. "She was, in my mind, the first African-American society woman….We hold her dear as the first lady of the black press.”
Mattiebelle Woods lived in Milwaukee for nearly her entire life since 1905 when, at the age of three, she moved with her family to Wisconsin. Her parents Ira and Anniebelle Woods relocated from Louisville, Kentucky, to Milwaukee, where members of Annabelle’s family trained horses for the Hansberg family. According to the African American National Biography, after Annabelle Woods secured employment at the Astor Hotel, she was eventually able “to introduce Mattiebelle to an exclusive world of this wealthy German American community, allowing her to learn German. Mattiebelle established connections she used later in her community activism.”
Woods attended West Division High School, where she became immersed in Milwaukee’s Black community. After working at various jobs in the city, by the 1940s her community involvement had led her to reporting for the Black press. In 1963, Woods joined the Milwaukee Courier, a newspaper focused on the African American community.
Based at her location of 1933-A North 7th Street, Woods would go on to write for the Chicago Defender, the Milwaukee Defender, the Milwaukee Star, the Milwaukee Globe newspapers and as a freelancer for the national magazines Ebony and Jet. Woods began a column called “Partyline” in the Milwaukee edition of the Chicago Defender which she would write continuously for the next five decades. She highlighted the groups and social clubs of Bronzeville along with other locations. Woods used her social connections to the benefit of the community. According to community leader Ruben Harpole, Woods used her resources to obtain the first funds for the Milwaukee Urban League. She founded and directed the Ms. Bronze Milwaukee pageant in 1955, and in 1970 she founded the Miss Black Teen Wisconsin contest, among the many ways she sought to create new opportunities and promote self- confidence among young people. Clayborn Benson, director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society said in a tribute, "She made things happen in the African-American community." When civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Milwaukee, he stayed as a guest at Woods’ house.
Woods was a dedicated activist, and she remained active in politics. She managed the successful campaign of Leroy Simmons, who in 1945 was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly. Simmons was the first African American to reach that office since the 1907-1909 term when Lucian H. Palmer had been the first-ever African American member of the state assembly. Woods also aided the campaign of Representative Isaac Coggs, helping to launch the dynasty family whose members have held many offices in Milwaukee politics. Following the 1972 election of Monroe Swan, in a racially charged 6th District Democratic primary race for the Wisconsin State Senate, Woods was quoted as saying it “is just the beginning…we are getting more and more politically conscious and active” referring to the black community’s continued movement into state politics.
Woods was an active member of St. Mark’s AME Church, and she has been honored by the NAACP, Milwaukee Press Club, and the Urban League. Milwaukee mayor John Norquist proclaimed "Mattiebelle Woods Day" on her 98th birthday. Marking her 95th birthday, House Representative Tom Barrett read a tribute to Mattiebelle Woods published in the Congressional Record, as he did for her 100th and 102d birthdays. In 2004 after she had turned 102, Jet magazine devoted a multi-page feature article to her life and work. It described a legendary scene when she had been invited earlier that year by the executive producer of “Showtime at the Apollo” to appear on the televised show: “The former dance instructor brought down the house by doing the electric slide. At one point, she dropped low and touched the floor. That episode is still being aired.”
Before she passed in 2005, Woods was believed to be the oldest working reporter in the United States, and the oldest voting poll worker in Milwaukee at that time. Jerrel Jones, then the president and chief executive officer for Courier Communications, which publishes the Milwaukee Courier, verified that she wrote her last column the week of her death
“In a way, her work as a reporter was just a reflection of Woods' greater role in the community, helping people network and be connected with each other,” said Milwaukee Courier publisher Faithe Colas. "She was, in my mind, the first African-American society woman…To think that you could be a society reporter and a black woman, that was absolutely amazing. We hold her dear as the first lady of the black press.”
Although the construction of the North-South Freeway I-43 and urban renewal policies severely disrupted the Bronzeville geographical neighborhood, the life of Mattiebelle Woods serves to drive the notion that the Bronzeville community was more than the land and buildings within its borders. The resiliency of the community members was seen even after the demolition of Bronzeville’s geographical base. Mattiebelle Woods loved her community, and the community loved her.