Visitors to Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s Allied in the Fight: Jews, Blacks and the Struggle for Civil Rights come to understand the essence of the struggle. The exhibit commemorates the city’s Open Housing marches in the 1960s and provides necessary historical context.
One object symbolizes the prejudice that provoked both African-Americans and Jews to protest — a map.
Dated 1938, a Security Map of Milwaukee County divides the city into sections, redlining less desirable neighborhoods as a warning to bankers, real estate agents, mortgage companies and anyone else doing business in the city.
One of the redlined areas is the Haymarket neighborhood, bounded by Third Street and 12th Street on the east and west, and Walnut Street and Juneau Avenue on the north and south.
A description accompanying the map reads: “This is the Negro and slum area of Milwaukee. It is old and very ragged. Besides the colored people, a large number of lower type Jews are moving into the section. This section housed Milwaukee’s wealthiest families seventy years ago.”
The “inhabitants” are described as “laborers and ne’er-do-wells,” while noting that the area is “65% Negro,” is being “infiltrated” by “Russian Jews” and that “many” families are receiving public assistance. Prognosis for the coming 10 to 15 years points to a continued downturn in the neighborhood’s fortunes, and the section’s security grade is rated D.
Milwaukee’s marches resonate nationwide
Such redlining and blatant stereotyping helped lead to the Open Housing marches 50 years ago.
The marches — organized by the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council, African-American Ald. Vel Phillips and white Catholic priest Father James Groppi — went on for 200 consecutive nights in 1967 and 1968.
Marchers were met by jeering, bottle-throwing crowds of white counterprotestors and a strong police presence. Uniformed NAACP Commandos, groups of African-American men ages 18 to 30, formed human blockades to protect the marchers.
The Milwaukee marches ultimately had a positive effect on local housing laws.
Milwaukee’s efforts also were credited for contributing to President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968.
The exhibit helps to tell the story of the combined fight for civil rights by the Jewish and African-American communities before, during and after the marches, according to museum curator Molly Dubin.
“The Milwaukee marches were covered nationally and it was the first time the issues and the people’s palpable frustrations were being broadcast into living rooms across the country,” Dubin says. “Milwaukee was really a barometer in measuring these frustrations and helping implement change.”
The JMM exhibit, which runs through March 25, was inspired by a civil rights exhibit at the Center for Jewish History in New York City. JMM worked with the center to bring a national component to the Milwaukee exhibit, and also tapped multiple local sources.
Archival news photos and footage tell how blacks and Jews, confronting prejudice, came together by design and happenstance to mount efforts that supported each other.
Southern poverty and academic refugees
Pieces in the exhibit reach beyond the Milwaukee boundaries to tell some of the backstories of early cooperation between the Jewish and African-American communities.
For instance, Julius Rosenwald — son of German-Jewish immigrants and a founder of Sears, Roebuck and Co. — developed a friendship with Booker T. Washington — the African-American educator, author and former slave — on the board of the Tuskegee Institute.
At Washington’s urging, Rosenwald convinced other wealthy philanthropists to set aside funds from the Tuskegee contributions to build schools throughout the rural South to educate African-American children who lacked access to education, as well as build houses for teachers at the schools. When the program ceased in 1932, more than 5,300 schools and homes had been built.
African-American educators reciprocated with similar support a decade later, when Jewish refugee scholars, fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe, arrived in the United States and found prejudices at American educational institutions. African-American colleges hired them and gave them teaching posts — history chronicled in the documentary From Swastika to Jim Crow, which was shown Feb. 1 as one of the exhibit’s special features.
Other special programs provide a closer look at redlining in Milwaukee and offer a civil rights history bus tour of the city.
Dubin points to the work done between the African-American and Jewish communities in helping create greater civil rights for all.
But the work is far from over.
“We hope the exhibit serves as a springboard for grappling with social and political change,” Dubin says.
“We know that Milwaukee is considered the most segregated city in the nation in terms of race and residency,” she adds. “There are still issues we need to come together on and address.”