Milwaukee Open Housing Marches: 50th Anniversary

June 22, 2017

Former St. Boniface student says Father Groppi ‘taught me how to love’

By Carly Wolf
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Editor’s note: This is one in a series of 15 pieces about the Milwaukee Open Housing marches, which took place 50 years ago beginning on Aug. 28, 1967. Watch for the stories every Monday and Thursday through the end of July.

Shirley (Berry) Butler-Derge met the Rev. James E. Groppi when she was only 8 years old. According to Butler-Derge, she and several students at St. Boniface Catholic School instantly fell in love with the young, white priest who came to their school to teach catechism.

He was different. “He made it real,” Butler-Derge said.

Groppi, having marched with civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the South, taught the St. Boniface students about black history, a subject that had been largely ignored by their school curriculum. Most of the students were African-American.

“He started talking to us about black people who had contributed to history,” Butler-Derge said. “He was the one who told us about Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Crispus Attucks.”
Learning about important black figures in history sparked Butler-Derge’s passion for education. “Why aren’t these people in our history books?” she began to ask as a middle schooler.

Butler-Derge was elected secretary of education at the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council when she was only 13 years old.

“Father Groppi was the kind of person that didn’t look down on children,” Butler-Derge said. “His eyes would just light up like stars. He loved for you to express how you were feeling about anything.”

The Youth Council, a collective of about 15 young people, would lead the historic open housing marches in Milwaukee that lasted for 200 days in 1967 and 1968. The Youth Council and Groppi fought to end the racist rules surrounding housing.

The protestors were frequently met with strong opposition, especially on the South Side. According to Butler-Derge, people opposed to the protest threw rocks, glass, bottles and other objects at them.

“I remember Father Groppi got hit with a big rock,” Butler-Derge recalls. “Blood just came all down his face, but it didn’t faze him at all. He just kept marching.

Groppi’s mission was not only to address big picture issues such as fair housing. He was also passionate about individuals.

Butler-Derge recalls the time she came to a greater understanding of American slavery. Enraged, she decided that she was not going to have anything to do with anything white. She wore no white tennis shoes, no white t-shirts and spoke to no white people.

This included Groppi.

“For a whole week, I was not going to speak to him because he was white,” Butler-Derge recalled. “He would look at me with the kindest eyes. He knew what was going on and he kept loving me.”

Her boycott didn’t last long.

“Everything really goes back to Father Groppi because he really taught me how to love,” Butler-Derge said.

Breaking down racial barriers in a racially divided city, he became a symbol for equality and love.

To this day, Butler-Derge is thankful for the impact Groppi made on the city. She credits him with planting the seed that led her to become an award-winning teacher at Milwaukee Public Schools and parochial schools in the Milwaukee area.

In 2013, Butler-Derge authored “Asante Sana, ‘Thank You’ Father James E. Groppi” to honor Groppi and the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council.

About the project

Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service reporters Andrea Waxman, Edgar Mendez, Naomi Waxman and Jabril Faraj, and web/social media directors Dwayne Burtin and Adam Carr, contributed to this series. In addition, journalism students at Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication participated in the project in the spring 2017 semester. Videos and text stories were produced by LaToya Dennis’s digital journalism class; text stories and graphics were provided by students in Herbert Lowe’s journalism capstone class.

For the maps, census data was drawn from National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS), Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) and the U.S. Census Bureau. The American Communities Project at Brown University created the variables and harmonized the data.

Milwaukee NNS

Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service (NNS) is an award-winning online source for objective, professional multimedia reporting on urban issues in 18 Milwaukee communities.

NNS covers stories that are important to the people who live, work and serve in city neighborhoods, on topics such as education, public safety, economic development, health and wellness, environment, recreation, employment, youth development and housing.

In 2017, NNS won a regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for excellence from RTDNA (Radio Television Digital News Association). NNS also won a regional Murrow award in 2012, as well as journalism awards from the Milwaukee Press Club in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. In 2015, NNS won the gold award for “Best Local News or Feature Website.”

A project of the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University, NNS traces its origins to the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative and United Neighborhood Centers of Milwaukee (UNCOM).

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