"The Greasers Don't Want Us Here" Milwaukee Greasers and School Integration
To read "Greaser Redux: The 1970s Revival of the 'Greaser' in Milwaukee" click here.
One of the great joys of researching and writing local history stories is that sometimes an idea or an event will take you to a completely different place than you imagined. For example, last week, when I took a look at 1970s “greasers” in Milwaukee. I stumbled onto the story trying to find out what kind of local reaction there was to the show Happy Days when it first aired. From Happy Days I found Fonzie, and from Fonzie I found the greasers. And from the greasers, I found an ugly story about the integration of Milwaukee’s public schools.
After the initial burst of attention paid to Milwaukee greasers in 1975, a new batch of stories began to appear in 1976 – the year that Milwaukee’s busing program began moving large numbers of African American students from the northside to schools like Hamilton, on the city’s southside. That school, Hamilton High’s African American student population increased five-fold, prompting anger and resentment among many of the school’s whites, especially among those of the greaser set.
The Journal reported on the greaser problem in September, shortly after a bus carrying black students was pelted with rocks by locals. “The greasers don’t want us here,” one black student told the paper. White students interviewed shared rumors that black students were carrying guns at the school. One black student responded to the claim, “That’s a lie. I didn’t seen anyone with a gun.” Referring to the stoning of the bus, he said, “If we had had guns on the bus yesterday, they would have been wasted.”
James K. Nelsen, author of Educating Milwaukee: How One City’s History of Segregation and Struggle Shaped Its Schools, said that whiter the school, the greater the objection to integration and that Hamilton High was the district’s whitest school. “Washington [High] and Hamilton were there first two high schools to have busing,” Nelsen told me via email. “Not much happened at Washington, but the situation at Hamilton was volatile.” Nelsen said that during a spring 1976 meeting on the integration plan at Hamilton, over 1,300 people showed up – including uniformed members of the local Nazi Party.
Greasers were largely the children of working class families, many having worked their way into the middle class. This was the set of Milwaukeeans most likely to object to busing and integration. “Some were blatantly racists,” Nelsen said. “Others felt that they had worked themselves up from poverty to move to a good neighborhood and that African Americans should do the same. They, of course, did not understand that the legacy of racism in Milwaukee prevented African Americans from moving into those working class neighborhoods.”
The resentment of the greasers was clear in the Journal’s 1976 coverage of the situation. The “greaser’s door” at Hamilton was a primary example. Unaware of the greaser’s “claim” to the door, many black students who used it found themselves the victims of the greasers’ wrath. “They think they’re better than us,” one white greaser told the paper. Others spoke openly in the hallways that “the niggers [were] running the school.” African American students, in turn, grew hostile towards the greasers, some even using the term “Fonzie” as a slur. One white student plainly admitted trading slurs with the black students. “They’ll be walking down the hall and yell, ‘Hey Fonzie.’” He told the paper, “I just say, ‘Hey, nigger.’”
Many black students felt that the bulk of the problems were being caused by the greasers. Relations between African Americans and the so-called “freaks” at Hamilton – the anti-establishment, marijuana-smoking, love and peace crowd – were reportedly much better. Some black students did not even classify the greasers with the other, less troublesome, white students. “The greasers?” one told the paper. “They’re their own color.”
Through the 1970s and into the ’80s, racial issues at Hamilton remained, but the less consequential trends of dress, lingo, and hairstyle changed with the normal tides. Although documented racial problems continued at Hamilton for several years after the introduction of busing, mentions of “greasers” had disappeared from the newspapers by the 1980s.