The civil rights era is alive and very real in the minds of high school students who’ve created a museum-quality exhibit that documents Milwaukee’s open housing movement of the sixties.
The students from NOVA School, a middle school and high school on the city’s north side, hosted their exhibition at the Arts@Large gallery Monday night. Arts@Large partnered with the Northwest Opportunities Vocational Academy, an MPS alternative school, to help students curate the exhibit. It draws on archival photos and interviews to tell the story of the “March to Equality” — the campaign that helped desegregate the Milwaukee housing market.
In the sixties, Milwaukee’s rapidly increasing black population was pressing hard against the boundaries of a 75-block area of the city’s inner core. Written and unwritten codes of racial discrimination prevented them from moving outside the core to better housing in other neighborhoods.
Starting in 1967, blacks responded by taking to the streets to demand an open housing ordinance in Milwaukee. For 200 nights they marched, joined by supporters from across the nation. The movement was led by the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council, an affiliated group called the Commandos and Father James Groppi, a Catholic priest who was a mentor to the Youth Council and the Commandos.
In the Arts@Large gallery, students from NOVA school have assembled dramatic photos from the archives of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. They’ve created other exhibits from scratch that depict key elements of the open housing movement. And they have interviewed movement veterans, including Vel Phillips, Prentice McKinney and Peggy Rozga. That research allows the students to speak authoritatively on the movement.
The students shared their knowledge recently as docents of the Arts@Large installation. Groppi’s widow (he left the priesthood in 1976) was also there to share memories and lead a discussion and poetry workshop. Together, the students and Rozga were able to draw a vivid picture of the open housing movement and its consequences for Milwaukee.