Milwaukee Open Housing Marches: 50th Anniversary

July 31, 2017

Open housing marcher passes legacy of activism to daughter Chantia Lewis

By Jenny Fischer


Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of 15 pieces about the Milwaukee Open Housing marches, which took place 50 years ago beginning on Aug. 28, 1967. Download a free copy of “The Long March to Freedom” ebook, a compilation of all the articles in this series.

Milwaukee City Hall’s first-ever Black History Program was held in a packed rotunda on a gloomy day in late February. Ald. Chantia Lewis spearheaded the effort to honor strong-willed African-American citizens who have made a difference in the Milwaukee community.

Lewis braced herself before she spoke.

“She’s not only my mother, but many of you are like her,” Lewis said. “You work behind the scenes. You don’t like to be recognized.”

Lewis explained that her mother, Deborah (Campbell) Tatum, was one of the children who marched in the Milwaukee open housing marches 50 years ago.

“Everywhere she goes, she has this activism spirit,” Lewis said. “She gave me my spirit.” Tatum and Lewis embraced on stage, each holding the award.

“Mommy,” Lewis said with a laugh, “I wanted to do this for you to show you how much you mean to me and how many lives you have touched.”

Tatum said she felt God telling her that Lewis should go into politics.

“Chantia was just 10 years old,” Tatum said. “I told her, ‘Write it down, honey.’ I knew she wouldn’t, so I did. And I always remembered.”

Lewis served in the United States Air Force before being elected to the Milwaukee Common Council as alderwoman of District 9.

Tatum’s passion for serving others began when she was a young teenager.

“I think I was 12 or 13 years old at the time,” Tatum said. “Father (James) Groppi came around to the classrooms at St. Boniface rallying kids to march with him because he couldn’t get much participation.”

The marches took place for 200 consecutive days over the 16th Street Viaduct. Thousands advocated for the Common Council to pass an open housing bill.

“We marched twice a day, from the North Side to the South Side and back,” Tatum said. “And I never missed a day, either.”

Tatum said she wishes she remembered more about that time. “I was just so young,” Tatum said. “But I knew right from wrong. I knew what being treated unfairly looked like. And I wanted to help change things.”

Lewis said she has always envied her mother’s “full-steam-ahead attitude.”

Half a century later, her daughter is making similar strides for change.

In addition to her role on the Common Council, Lewis has served for three years on the board of 9to5 Wisconsin, an organization fighting for women’s advancement. She was recently appointed to the 9to5 national board.

Tatum said she’s seen her passion for serving others come full circle in her grandchildren. “Chantia’s kids helped her campaign,” Tatum said. “They stuffed envelopes and knocked on doors. They know what’s right and fight for it, too.”

Tatum credits the open housing marches for making a difference in Milwaukee.

“We got the bill passed. It took a while, but we rallied and we made it happen,” Tatum said. “Now, I live to see it — all the results of all that walking.”

Earlier this year Lewis unveiled plans to revitalize the Northwest Side of Milwaukee, the neighborhood where her mother now resides. The plans include a re-imagined Northridge Mall, which has been closed and abandoned since 2003, and the area around it.

Lewis said she will continue to take strides for change, one foot in front of the other, just as her mother did.

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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