I’ve heard it said many times that Milwaukee is “the most segregated city” in the United States. It has been hard for me to believe this, because the particular area I live in here seems to be very multicultural. Not only do we see all colors in the rainbow, but the groups of people walking together are often a mixture too. On the other hand, there is a whole section of the city that we almost never enter on our trips home because there was no particular thing located in these streets to draw us there. When I was young, people used to refer to this area as “The Core”.
So I got to explore some of that part of the city when we decided to go to the Wisconsin Black Historical Society Museum at my daughters’ request. When we first arrived, I took in the neighborhood, which like so many in this part of town was hard to get a real sense of . . . mostly because of everything that was NOT there. There was a very nice looking public library with a green area around it, but the parking lot in the back could have come straight out of Addis Ababa. The road clearly should have been a commercial one, but a lot of the buildings seemed empty. There were no grocery stores, or pharmacies, or clothes stores, or hair salons or non-fast food restaurants. There were almost no pedestrians.
The museum was locked and we assumed closed, but we pushed the buzzer anyway. A friendly woman came and let us in. She said yes, the museum was open and that someone would come to show us around. In the meantime, we had the whole place to ourselves. We looked at some of the wall exhibits. Most seemed to be documents or pictures printed from computers, pasted on colored paper and then taped or tacked to the wall. Many were showing signs of wear or exposure. The room seemed more like a classroom than a museum.
To be fair, I think we didn’t see the more professional exhibits because the main hall had been cleared for an event. The website, at any rate, has this picture:
But when we were there the hall was nearly empty:
So I don’t know what we missed due to unfortunate timing, but I don’t think it matters.
Because the curator walked in, introduced himself, and proceeded to devote the next two and a half hours to us. First there was a long but interesting talk filled with things I had never heard or known before. Then he discussed ideas with my daughter for the focus of her graduation research paper (the original reason we decided to go there). And then he went off to compile/photocopy articles for her.
While the curator talked, I found my mind and attention gravitating toward this picture:
I had seen it before. Was it something iconic (at least for Milwaukeeans?) – or was there something else about it that grabbed my attention? At one point I asked the curator who those people were and he said “I’ll be coming to that.” He went back to his talk which was somewhere between Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. Eventually, he reached the 1960s.
It turns out that almost exactly 50 years ago today, Milwaukee experienced civil rights protests that earned this city the nickname “Selma of the North”. A group of extremely courageous mostly black people began marching again and again, under the most dangerous of circumstances, FOR 200 DAYS IN A ROW (!) to protest unfair housing policy in the city. Looming large among these protesters was Father James Groppi – a Catholic priest (who happens to resemble my own father):
Father Groppi had already traveled to the South to take part in many civil rights protests including some with Dr. Martin Luther King. At some point he realized that many outside activists were moved to fight against abuses in the South while ignoring the problems in their own northern cities. He returned to Milwaukee and got involved in raising consciousness about unfair housing policies that kept African American confined to certain parts of the city and in sometimes abysmal conditions.
All of this was news to me. And it captured my attention and imagination. While telling my sister about our museum visit, she mentioned that there were exhibitions and events going on in Milwaukee to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the marches. She also suggested a book called “Evicted” which tries to elucidate why the problems identified in 1967 still haven’t been resolved. I am 100 pages into it and can already recommend it to anyone who cares about the fact that big profits can still be made from people in desperate circumstances – especially those trapped at the corners where Racism Road, Segregation Street, Poverty Lane, and Opioid Alley intersect.