Margaret Rozga, poet, civil rights activist and professor emerita of English at UW-Waukesha, writes that the history of a place changes how people perceive it. Two cases in point: the Rave and Red Arrow Park.
Molly Snyder’s Facebook posting simply read, “There really is a pool in the basement of The Rave.” Of course her accompanying photo was bound to attract attention. It shows a beautiful but empty six lane pool with a fully clothed person standing arms up, hands to head, in lane 3. But who could have expected the depth and variety of the response?
Within 12 hours, her photo of the empty swimming pool in the basement of what used to be the Eagles Club, now the Rave, prompted 248 Facebook likes and more than fifty comments. I might not have seen the posting at all, but some comments connected the empty pool to the Rave’s past as the Milwaukee Eagles Club, and two of those comments named me as someone who knows details of that history.
As a member of the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council in 1966, I participated in protests of the Whites only membership clause of the Eagles Club. The focus of those protests zoomed in on the Eagles Club membership of virtually every Milwaukee politician, especially judges, who claimed they could be impartial on the bench while belonging to a segregated club. The protests escalated, and that summer Governor Warren Knowles called out the National Guard to protect the Youth Council members and supporters when they marched to the Wauwatosa home of Judge Robert Cannon, a member of the Eagles Club.
Many people who replied to Molly Snyder’s posting told of swimming in that pool as children. Some enjoyed the time spent in that pool, some not so much. One person saw the other swimmers, all men, as elderly and remembered them swimming naked: “We went there to swim one time and the place is packed with buck naked grandfathers. Never went back.”
Others remembered going to the Eagles Club to bowl or to use the gym. Some remembered family members boxing there as part of a boxing club open to young men of color, even though they and their fathers could not be members of the Eagles Club itself.
More than ten responses mentioned that the building was haunted or that they’d heard stories about its being haunted. Not having heard such stories before, this took me by surprise. But the mention of ghosts seemed to surprise others less than the fact that there had been an officially segregated club in Milwaukee and that what they knew as The Rave had been that place.
When I do presentations to groups of young people in Milwaukee, I often include as part of Milwaukee’s civil rights history the Eagles Club issue. I begin by asking those who know The Rave to raise their hands. Most do. I then ask if they knew that building was once the Eagles Club. Most don’t.
But once they know, then something interesting happens. Their experience of the space changes. It’s not that they’ll stop going to concerts there. But when they go, their knowledge of the history plays a silent counterpart to the music they hear. One person who knew the history of the building posted that once she learned of the civil rights struggle that took place there, “I’ve never looked at that building the same way.”
Everything that happens in a space helps to make of that space a meaningful place. This is true whether the happening was a happy or a tragic event. This is true whether what happened happened long enough ago for the memory to be dimmed or to take some nebulous form, or whether it happened recently enough to still be sharply focused in the public mind.
Current case in point: Red Arrow Park. Archival documents suggest that this was once the space where the Indians who lived here grew wild rice. With the coming of Solomon Juneau, it was a space visible from his trading post. It has since become a space surrounded by office buildings, and a Starbucks. In the winter part of it becomes an ice skating rink.
In April 2014 its meaning became forever altered. It is the place where Dontre Hamilton was shot fourteen times and killed by a Milwaukee police officer who did not follow departmental procedures. Red Arrow Park became a place that symbolizes Milwaukee’s racial divide. This is, I think, the ghost that haunts us. To schedule a civic celebration there, as happened with the recent Christmas tree lighting, however innocent the intention might have been, is to ignore this meaning, a meaning that the city has not yet come to terms with.
People often say we need to learn history so we don’t repeat its mistakes. We’d have an easier time learning what events have to teach us if we didn’t try so quickly to forget them. Every time I drive past The Rave/Eagles Club, I give a nod to my younger self, to my friends also younger.
Every time I walk or drive past Red Arrow Park, I remember a living human being, a young African American man, who did not need to die.