Milwaukee Open Housing Marches: 50th Anniversary

July 13, 2017

Open housing marches a family affair for former Youth Council member

By Jennifer Walter

Claudette Harris, a former NAACP Youth Council member, stands on the 16th Street Viaduct. (Photo by Jennifer Walter)

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. Download a free copy of “The Long March to Freedom” ebook, a compilation of all the articles in this series.

Standing in front of a baby blue mural depicting a crowd of young men linking arms with a priest and flooding a Milwaukee street, Claudette Harris is engulfed in memories.

“It brings you back,” Harris said. “Locked arm-in-arm, there we go … marching.”

Across the street from Harris’s former workplace on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, two murals feature artist renditions of photos from the NAACP Youth Council open housing marches in the 1960s.

Harris, who was formerly a day care director for HeartLove Place, was a teenager when she participated in the marches. In 1967, she was present at the 16th Street Viaduct when the Youth Council marchers were met by violent counter protests that resulted in a response from the National Guard. Harris also was arrested at 14 years old alongside many of her peers at a protest in front of the Eagles Club in 1966.

“There were good memories and bad memories,” she said. “But I’m glad I was part of it because it made a difference in the city of Milwaukee.”

When the marches began, Harris said her whole family was involved. She marched alongside relatives — her older sister, Allie, was Youth Council president. To prepare for marches, members would gather at the Freedom House, the Youth Council’s headquarters. They would share meals, make posters and sing. Harris recalls that her mother always supported the children’s participation.

“My mother was always cooking something for everybody,” Harris said. Her family often invited the Rev. James Groppi, organizer of the Youth Council, over for dinner. The marches even involved Florence, Harris’s sister and the youngest member of her family. A while back she picked up a copy of “200 Nights and One Day,” a book by Margaret (Peggy) Rozga, Groppi’s wife. She was surprised to find a photo of Florence while flipping through the book.

“My little baby sister was in the picture, holding Peggy’s hand,” Harris said. “I looked at the picture and thought, ‘Wow, look at this. Florence was even involved and she was just a 10-year-old.’”

The murals at Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Place depicting NAACP Youth Council Commandos and the Rev. James Groppi. (Photo by Adam Carr)

The generations that follow, said Harris, have not been as active in their community as the Youth Council was during the 1960s. Issues such as police violence, black-on-black crime and inner city poverty are sometimes swept under the rug by young people today, she noted.

“There’s still so many things to fight for, but it seems young people have gotten complacent … they just take care of themselves,” Harris said. “Everybody has their groups, they take care of their groups, and that’s it.” Harris even notices complacency in her own grandkids. She doesn’t see them taking action to protest injustice and stand up for those who are unrepresented.

“They’ve got their own little worlds, but you can’t be that selfish. I tell them that all the time,” Harris said. “You’ve got to know what’s going on in your community, and you’ve got to be part of your community to fix things.”

Almost 50 years after the marches, remnants of the Youth Council’s efforts are scattered around Milwaukee. The 16th Street Viaduct, once an infamous site of protest, is now named the Father James Groppi Memorial Bridge. The murals at Peace Place, the park on N. Martin Luther King Drive, keep the memory of the marchers alive.

Una Van Duvall, fund development director for HeartLove Place, said the murals were originally created for another location, but Peace Place was a more visible spot to capture the history of open housing.

“It’s a nod to history and a wink to the future of what justice looks like in Milwaukee,” Van Duvall said.

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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