Milwaukee’s racist past and present

The 1960s were a decade of turmoil and conflict, particularly surrounding the civil rights movement. Every region and city faced a unique set of problems. Milwaukee was no exception.

According to Stephen Byers, an assistant professor of journalism who has a Ph.D. in urban studies, the black population in Milwaukee remained fairly small until around World War II when the manufacturing economy began to grow significantly. Until then, many white Milwaukeeans had little contact with the black community.

In 1956, Vel Phillips was elected the first woman and first African American to serve on the Milwaukee Common Council. One of her passions and hopes was fair housing for all, regardless of race.

Milwaukee has always been a segregated city. When immigrant groups migrated into the city, they lived in neighborhoods together and moved out of them together, Byers said.

Now Milwaukee’s neighborhood boundaries are not separated by European ethnic group membership, but rather by racial group membership. In 2000, almost 40 years after the civil rights movement, Milwaukee was rated the most segregated city in the country, surpassing Detroit and New York, according to the U.S. Census.

Though Milwaukee’s current housing imbalances have not attracted the same levels of national attention as they have in the past, they cannot be ignored.

Housing discrimination

The fight for open housing was a long and difficult one. Phillips met much opposition, including from former Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier.

In a 2008 presentation given to a Marquette University history class, Phillips spoke about her work to end discrimination in the city’s housing practices. A recording of this presentation resides in the University Archives.

She said the mayor would call her into his office and scold her for pushing fair housing legislation. Phillips said she told Maier, “What I’m doing for fair housing is going (to) benefit the whole city.”

The legislation Phillips introduced that called for open housing was voted down almost unanimously. Her vote was the only one in favor of the bill, said Milwaukee historian Patrick Jones at a forum on race and housing Oct. 11 in Raynor Library.

The city surely needed the benefits of Phillips’ legislation.

Landlords and property owners were able to place restrictions in deeds that regulated who could rent the property. These “restrictive covenants” not only affected black renters, but other minority groups, Jones said.

Zoning, discriminatory lending practices and downright racism were some of the ways black renters and buyers experienced discrimination, Jones said.

Some real estate agents practiced “block busting.” They would sell one house in a white neighborhood to a black family and spread rumors about the “decline” of the neighborhood, he said.

“This creates fear and panic among white homeowners who associate the deteriorating conditions of inner city neighborhoods with black people,” Jones said.

White homeowners would then be inclined to sell their houses below market value. This would allow real estate agents to sell the properties to black families at inflated prices, most of whom wished to move into better neighborhoods.

“This fuels white flight … and reinforces the segregated lines, the difference between black and white,” Jones said. “At root, these policies are wrapped around the fact that there was a pretty broad, popular unwillingness of whites to live near black people for most of the 20th century, and this, in fact, is still the case today. Despite what white folks say, they actually act in this way.”

Fight for fair housing

The year 1967 was crucial for the development of civil rights in the U.S. as a whole, but also in Milwaukee specifically.

There were several violent outbreaks related to the movement, including the bombing of the Milwaukee NAACP office in August of that year.

On July 30, a civil disturbance led to the death of a policeman and three civilians. Maier declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard was mobilized in Milwaukee.

In the late summer and fall, the black community decided to take more drastic action by organizing marches.

Once during a march, a white man asked Phillips, “What is it that you people want?”

“I said, ‘My dear, nothing but our share of the pie,’” Phillips said. “‘Same things that you want: good schools, an opportunity to get a job and keep it and move forward, a quiet neighborhood, place for our children to play in … The things that you take for granted and that we don’t have.’”

Phillips would not have been able to push her legislation through alone. One pivotal figure in the fight was James Groppi, a priest assigned to St. Boniface Parish in Milwaukee’s “inner core,” the part of the city populated mostly by black families.

Groppi used the respect people had for him as a priest to fight for equal housing and other civil rights issues. Groppi was the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council Adviser and formed and led the NAACP Youth Council Commando unit, which protected marchers and protesters.

“Milwaukee’s (fair housing fight) had, in a sense, a more interesting sound bite (than other cities),” said Thomas Jablonsky, a professor in the History Department. “The fact that you had a white priest at the head of a very large group of African Americans … members of the Commandos looked like an army. … Visually, that’s gripping.”

The opposition Phillips, Groppi and other fair housing supporters faced was also more outwardly extreme than what was commonly experienced in other areas of the country.

“They were confronted by rage, racist rage on a volume of thousands of people,” Jablonsky said. “These kinds of violence were not infrequent across other points of America … but Milwaukee’s had a certain distinctive characteristic, not unique in its goal, but distinct in its presentation.”

In 1968, after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the federal Fair Housing Act, the Milwaukee Common Council passed Phillips’ open housing legislation. A few months later, a similar law was passed by the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors that affected many suburbs.

Past affects the present

The root of Milwaukee’s problems, Byers said, is economic.

“We fix these problems by building a Toyota plant at 35th and Capitol,” Byers said, laughing.

But the sentiment is serious. The jobs that originally attracted a black community to Milwaukee have left the city, some moving overseas and others moving to the suburbs. If more jobs were available within the limits of public transportation, more inner city residents would likely be able to afford better housing, Byers said.

“Milwaukee is behind (other cities),” Byers said. “Because of our hyper-segregation, we have not built a strong infrastructure in the black community.”

William Tisdale, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, who spoke at October’s forum, also stressed the idea that job location greatly influences housing problems. He said job growth around Milwaukee has been mostly west, near Waukesha.

“The mismatch is that … the labor force lives in the city,” Tisdale said. “They can’t afford the housing or are prevented from getting housing in the area where the jobs are, and there’s basically no way to get out to the jobs.”

Public transportation lines rarely or never run far into the suburbs, Jones said. This makes it nearly impossible for many low-income workers to travel out of the city for work.

Byers said, “My personal belief is that the city, and America, in the long run, is integrating — and nothing is going to stop it.”

However, he also said the city and country are currently in a time of “intense dislocation.”

In 2008, Phillips said, “I think it’s better today. But it has problems. The fat lady, they say it ain’t over until the fat lady sings. She’s standing up, but she hasn’t opened her mouth yet.”

Check out raw footage from the fair housing fight courtesy Today’s TMJ4:

News footage of Groppi and others at a fair housing march, September 1967

Press conference with Groppi and his Commandos to announce the second fair housing march on August 29, 1967.

Common Council meeting on September 19, 1967 where Phillips resubmitted her fair housing legislation and Alderman Robert Dwyer responded. Groppi and the Commandos were in the audience.

For more information about Milwaukee’s civil rights past, check out the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee Libraries’ new March on Milwaukee Civil Rights History Project which includes more live footage, time lines, photographs and audio clips.

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