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.
For 200 consecutive days, advocates including Vel Phillips, the Rev. James Groppi, the NAACP Youth Council and hundreds of African-American residents led a push for open housing that took marchers north to south, across the Sixteenth Street Viaduct and onto what is now known as Cesar E. Chavez Drive. August will mark the 50th anniversary of Milwaukee’s Open Housing Marches, which sparked the passage of a municipal open housing law — one with more teeth than the federal and state laws in place at the time — and along with it the promise that the city’s housing would one day be integrated.
That hope is stale now, as Milwaukee continues to hover at or near the top of lists that measure residential segregation in U.S. metropolitan areas. That won’t surprise most Milwaukeeans, who’ve grown accustomed to neighborhoods nearly void of black/white diversity.
“The only time you see Caucasians in the neighborhood is when they’re riding through in their cars,” said Roosevelt Manuel, 43.
Manuel, who works in construction, lives on North 17th Street in the 53206 ZIP code. According to 2011-15 estimates from the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the 53206 ZIP code has 25,179 African-Americans residents and 632 whites.
While African Americans have, in increasing numbers, moved to the near South Side neighborhoods that activists marched into 50 years ago, those neighborhoods are no longer white; they have been populated mainly by Hispanics for decades. White and black Milwaukeeans remain segregated.
There are many reasons why Milwaukee’s segregation continues to fester like an infected wound, according to researchers, housing policy analysts, community leaders and residents. They include fair housing ordinances that continue to be difficult to enforce; the impact of historic discriminatory policies such as racially restrictive covenants, redlining and other unfair lending practices; freeway projects such as the construction of I-43 that facilitated white flight and isolated central city neighborhoods; and the unwillingness of suburban Milwaukee counties to provide affordable housing options or welcome non-white neighbors, according to Reggie Jackson, head griot at America’s Black Holocaust Museum, and others.
Combine those factors with the collapse of industry in Milwaukee, which limited social mobility for the city’s suddenly exploding low-income population, and the end result is “little progress over the last 50 years, when it comes to ending segregation,” Jackson added.
Referring to the lack of affordable housing options in the suburbs, the Rev. Willie Brisco told a crowd gathered for a Community Brainstorming Conference in April, “What they’re telling us … is, ‘We want your labor but we don’t want you around our homes or around our children.” Brisco is president emeritus of Milwaukee Inner-City the Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH).
According to Jackson, who has conducted research on segregation, 91 percent of blacks in the Milwaukee metro area live in the city of Milwaukee, while 58 percent work there.
“The suburbs won’t build enough housing to accommodate residents of the inner city who work there because they don’t want us there,” said Manuel.
Dr. Marcus Britton, an associate professor of sociology at University of Wisconsin -Milwaukee, said across the nation, housing segregation has decreased slowly, but substantially. Though areas in the Midwest and Northeast have seen less progress, Milwaukee remains an outlier even among them, Britton said.
“Progress has been slower here. The Milwaukee metro area has the lowest rates of black suburbanization,” Britton explained. In other metro areas, segregation is more likely to be based on income level, but in Milwaukee, that’s less the case, he added.
“Even blacks that have more resources are more likely to live in a low-income neighborhood than poor whites,” Britton said.
The result of racial inequities due to segregation is devastating. African-Americans living in segregated neighborhoods are more likely to live in poverty, leading to the social ills — lower educational attainment, mass incarceration, teenage pregnancy, increased exposure to violence and other negative health consequences — that accompany it, he said. .
Black neighborhoods are also more likely to have polluting facilities and failing schools, Britton added. In late March, North Side residents gathered at Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church, 2505 W. Cornell St., to voice concerns about the mishandling of hazardous chemicals by a local drum refurbishing company. During the meeting, 74-year-old Ruby Snowden, who lives near Lloyd Barbee Montessori School, said, “You know, it’s benign neglect. It’s about the haves and have-nots.”
Sitting in a coffee shop in Sherman Park, Jackson recalls a much more hopeful Milwaukee.
“When I grew up in the 53206 neighborhood it was thriving. The impact of segregation and the crashing economy was the perfect storm,” said Jackson, who gives presentations around the city about the subject. His audiences are typically very diverse and typically lack a full understanding of segregation in Milwaukee, he said.
“People aren’t paying attention to how we got to where we are now. The level of distrust between communities because of segregation has gotten us to the point where people don’t even recognize the need to live in diverse communities,” Jackson said.
Manuel agrees. “When Caucasians come to the North Side, they’re scared to get carjacked and when we go to the suburbs we’re scared that we’re going to get arrested and go to prison,” he said.
Federal policies meant to integrate neighborhoods across the country, including Milwaukee, have never fully succeeded, according to Kori Schneider-Peragine, a senior administrator of the Inclusive Communities Program at Milwaukee Metropolitan Fair Housing Council (MMFHC). The often-ignored aspect of the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 is that cities were required to proactively reverse residential segregation, Schneider-Peragine said.
A new regulation meant to enforce that promise, “affirmatively furthering fair housing,” was adopted in 2015 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under the Obama administration, but is currently in jeopardy, she added. It required cities and towns that receive federal funding to examine their housing practices by utilizing publicly available data and other tools to uncover bias based on race and other factors. The grantees are to utilize the findings to set priorities and goals to meet longstanding fair housing obligations.
“There is no fair housing. They won’t build affordable housing in the suburbs so a lot of people end up stuck here without access to good jobs,” said Linda Wheeler, 55, as she stood on her faded red porch on West Center Street in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood.
Though policy changes can address the lack of affordable housing in the suburbs, it will be more difficult to end covert discrimination, Schneider-Peragine said. “You used to be able to tell someone to their face, ‘I don’t want to rent to you,’ but now you smile and tell them nothing’s available,” she added.
The mission of the MMFHC, where Schneider-Peragine has worked for 19 years, is to promote fair housing in the state by combatting housing discrimination. The council conducts investigations utilizing faux renters with similar income levels, but differing racial, gender or other characteristics to uncover discrimination. The organization also investigates claims of unfair lending practices and provides trainings on fair housing regulations for housing providers and others.
In recent months there has been an increase in hate crimes and other aggressive actions reported to the council, according to Schneider-Peragine. “Lately it’s been not so subtle,” she said.
Unfortunately, according to Jackson, the Fair Housing Council doesn’t have enough staff to investigate all the instances of unfair housing practices, nor are most of them reported. With limited incomes and housing options, residents of Milwaukee’s central city are likely to remain where they grew up or nearby, he added.
And while some of the city’s suburbs, such as Brown Deer, where 29 percent of residents are black, and Glendale, where 14 percent are black, have made progress toward desegregation by increasing the affordable housing options, most have not. In both Greendale and Hales Corners, only 1 percent of residents are black, according to 2010 U.S. Census data compiled by Jackson.
Jackson wants Milwaukeeans to push elected officials to enforce existing open housing laws.
“If communities are discriminating in housing they should lose funding,” Jackson said. “Segregation didn’t happen organically; it was created.”
Tony Muhammad says
I look forward to reading the series of reports coming. Hopefully included is the City of Milwaukee banking community failure to approve/deny home improvement loan applications to inner city homeowners yet the same banking community will approve the homeowner’s new car loans. Covert racism happens on a massive scale in the City of Milwaukee.
Racism in the City Milwaukee is like a ‘key code’ providing access to the American Dream but Black Milwaukeeans/Wisconsinites are given a wrong access code to the American Dream.
Richard Nwabuzor says
Milwaukee was built and maintained on the social and economic exploitation of Blacks on the North & East Side & Latinos on the South Side.
Given I suspect replies are limited to a given length, instead of debunking every point in this article I will say this. Take race out of the equation and substitute culture, values and morals. As a person I want to live in a neighborhood free of crime, where my neighbors work and don’t live off my taxes. I want neighbors that are respectful of myself and others. It’s that simple. Race has nothing to do with it. Go into the schools and see who is causing the majority of the behavioral problems. It is not because of the color of their skin, it is because they were not taught respect for others in the home. Poverty is not an excuse for crime or to drop out of school. Poverty IS caused by having children you cannot or will not support, having a criminal record and by dropping out of school. It is also caused by creating neighborhoods where business’s refuse to go because of the high crime rate. It is caused by poor performing schools who refuse to address the behavioral problems and by a society that wont let them less they be accused of racism. Quit making excuses. The color of a persons skin has NOTHING to do with these problems. I don’t care what color my neighbors are, I do care about their character, their values and morals.
Richard Nwabuzor says
My taxes? Only about a dollar at most of your taxes go to government assistance.
Rick Deines says
George, your comments, in my estimation, can only be understood in the context of honest conversation. I should not jump to conclusions about your words or about you. Can we find a way to communicate thoughts, feelings and ideas that does not automatically become a ‘right’ vs. ‘wrong’ debate? Because my experience and conclusions seem to be very different than yours, mutual understanding (not necessarily agreement) is only possible when we do our best to hear what is the basis for another’s point of view, ie. their experience. The Frank Zeidler Center for Public Discussion is committed to civil dialogue when perspectives are widely divergent. That generally means that all of us will have to take a deep breath and show an interest in one another’s point of view, be curious about how each forms opinions and be willing to engage one another with respect. I invite you to explore this opportunity at Zeidlercenter.org.
Tel: (414) 239-8555 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Gintoft, EDFP says
When I was a teen, I was proud of my mother, Ethel Gintoft, was one of the first local newspaper reporters (Catholic Herald) to cover the Open Housing Marches led by Fr. James Groppi.
Just as in the ’70s when the Federal Government mandated integrating our public schools, it should require our outlying suburbs (especially those with employment opportunities and are not served by the Milwaukee County Transit System) to accept affordable housing developments. These are developments that require its residents to be employed somewhere.
I’m confused. Is the goal of desegregation more mixed-race neighborhoods or freedom of choice for anyone willing and able to live where they want? I always thought it was the later, but this article makes it seem like the former. As a black woman who grew up in suburban, mostly white neighborhoods and has lived in mixed and majority black neighborhoods, I can say that neighborhoods are not better or worse because of their demography. The goal should always be strong communities, no matter what the racial makeup. I don’t believe that a majority black neighborhood is inferior to a mixed or majority white neighborhood, because I’ve experienced strong, thriving neighborhoods of all demographic makeups, and the truth is that in the U.S., the foundation of thriving neighborhoods is strong families where parents/adults are educated, employed, and where homeowners take care of their property and occupants are responsible.
Rick Deines says
Missy’s point is not only well taken but may be one of the primary missing points in thinking our way forward. I encourage her to continue to develop this line of thought. As a community I think we may be stuck in framing the situation in such a way that can provide not path into the future. No matter how important the work of the past has been, some of us could assert that building strong neighborhoods and communities, which include a deeper understanding of who we are as human beings in this or that place, is the priority. In my mind this is not setting the ‘race’ question aside as unimportant but elevates the discussion to a level of the essential equality of each person. No doubt no matter how we frame it there will be those who want to cast it only in racial terms to support unfair policies or unlikely dreams, nevertheless Missy’s re-directing the conversation, I think, is a healthy one.