Selma of the North: The History of Housing Discrimination in Milwaukee

July 31, 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riot in Milwaukee, which was one of 159 race riots across the country during what has been coined the “long hot summer of 1967.” The Milwaukee riot was fueled by escalating tensions due to housing discrimination and police brutality.

Vel Phillips, an attorney who served as a member of the Common Council, a lawmaking body of the City of Milwaukee, and Father Groppi, who served as a Catholic priest and the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People Youth Council, teamed up to create laws that would forbid racial discrimination in housing. Their efforts ignited movements across the country to support a national fair housing law, and in 1968 – one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. – the Fair Housing Act was passed by Congress.

NAACP Youth Council members attend a
fair housing protest. ID# 97930.

“Part of it goes back to Vel Phillips,” said Reggie Jackson, the head griot (historian) at America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee. “One of the issues that she wanted to address on the Common Council was that issue of fair housing and the inability of black people in particular not being able to move to certain parts of the city.”

Jackson said that Phillips proposed an ordinance that would open up housing opportunities for African-Americans.

“Each time that she did so, she was the only person who voted for it,” Jackson said. “She became increasingly frustrated with the lack of support from the rest of the Common Council. What she did is she partnered with the NAACP Youth Council to work on this issue.”  

Jackson said that even after partnering with Father Groppi, Phillips and the NAACP Youth Council decided that talking about the issue was not enough progress. He explained that African-Americans were not only limited to where they could live, but also where they could go, and that there were specific borders black residents couldn’t cross.   

There is a common misunderstanding that African-Americans wanted to reside on the South Side; however, Jackson said that “one of the things that is left out and isn’t talked about in great detail is that they talked very openly, not just the South Side of Milwaukee, but also the North Side of Milwaukee should be open and available for blacks to move to as well.”

As emotions began to grow, the African-American community was landlocked.

“Before the 1960s, urban planning was taking place while Mayor Frank Zeidler was in office,” Jackson said. “With such planning, the landlocked neighborhood was named the Inner Core.”

The name “Inner Core” comes from a report that was done on behalf of Mayor Frank Zeidler. The final report was completed in April of 1960. Under Mayor Zeidler, the city was working on a plan to do urban renewal.

“They wanted to tear down businesses and homes, anything that was really old in those areas to build new structures,” Jackson said. “The Inner Core was the oldest part of the city. The western boundary was 20th Street, the southern boundary was Juneau Street, the northern boundary was Keefe Avenue and the eastern boundary was Holton Avenue. That was the area where just about every black person in Milwaukee lived. Even blacks that had money were not allowed to move outside of the Inner Core.”

Russell Brooker, professor of social science at Alverno College, said that Milwaukee earned itself a new nickname as a result of Father Groppi and the NAACP’s 200 consecutive marches: Selma of the North.

Brooker recalls the march across the 16th Street viaduct that was initiated in August of 1967. “In a way it was Poland meeting Africa because of the number of whites standing in opposition on the south side of the viaduct,” Booker said.

Father Groppi and Vel Phillips stand around
a crowd filled with people wearing NAACP
Youth Council shirts. ID# 48149.

Although Father Groppi, the NAACP Youth Council, and Phillips initiated the fight and continued until there were ordinances passed, there was another discriminatory problem for African-Americans: redlining.

“The three (areas) that were redlined specifically because of the population was an area of the North Side that is now called Riverwest,” Jackson said. “The reason that it was redlined was because of an infiltration of polish citizens. There was another area down on the South Side that was redlined and was described as an area where Mexicans were infiltrating that area. The last area was that inner core area where blacks lived during that particular time.”

According to Jackson, the borders were basically that north ave was the northern boundary, the southern boundary was Juneau, the eastern boundary was 3rd street and the western boundary was 12th street.

“This was called the Negro Slum Area,” Jackson said.

During the 1960s, the National Real Estate Board continued this pattern of redlining . “[This] required in their code of ethics to steer people to certain neighborhoods,” Jackson said. “They wanted to maintain racial homogeneity of each neighborhood.”

Although the National Real Estate Board, Federal Government, and Common Council all opposed the open housing ordinance, “Father Groppi, Phillips, and the NAACP Youth Council marched until the ordinances were passed,” Jackson said.

“Almost exactly one year after the initial march with Father Groppi, the Common Council finally passed the ordinance that was proposed by Vel Phillips,” Jackson said.

Even after 50 years since the marches for fair housing have taken place, there is still work to be done. Jackson mentioned Cleveland, Detroit, and Baltimore as segregated cities; however, he made a unique point about Milwaukee.

“The biggest change is that large numbers of white people have left the city,” Jackson said.

According to Jackson, from 1960 to 2000, there was a 56 percent drop of white population in Milwaukee. They are only 37 percent of the population today.

“There has been progress made, but there is a lack of enforcement of open housing,”Jackson said.

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