Wauwatosa’s Civil Rights Struggle Honored with Special Exhibit
Throughout July, the Wauwatosa Historical Society will host a traveling exhibit titled “Crossing the Line” to help commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Milwaukee’s fair housing marches. The exhibit will be hosted at the Little Red Store (7720 Harwood Ave.) in the Village area of the city, near the farmer’s market.
While Civil Rights activism within the city of Milwaukee gets the bulk of the attention in histories of the era, the NAACP Youth Council and Father James Groppi did not limit their activism to the city proper. In 1966, Groppi and the council bussed to Wauwatosa for 11 consecutive nights to march outside the home of Judge Robert Cannon to protest the Judge’s membership in the whites-only Eagles Club on Wisconsin Avenue. In an article on the protests for a recent issue of Historic Wauwatosa, Dave Vogel notes that the visits were not warmly received in the suburb. He quotes a local editorial from the time that declared, “The Wauwatosa invasion was completely pointless. No public official worth his salt would, before he joins a lodge or any other group, ask the approval of a group of teenage Negroes directed by the assistant pastor of St. Boniface Catholic Church.” On the twelfth night of protests, the National Guard was summoned to maintain order. A local Ku Klux Klan chapter also appeared that night and peppered the protestor’s busses with rocks and cherry bombs.
Wauwatosa reluctantly passed a fair housing ordinance in 1968. “There was still a lot of opposition to the idea that African Americans should be allowed to live anywhere they wanted,” said Natalie Wysong, executive director of the Wauwatosa Historical Society. She cites another editorial mentioned in Vogel’s piece, written just after the ordinance passed. “[The ordinance] holds false hopes to Negroes that Tosa is now open to them regardless of whether they have enough money to buy or build here.”
With the Milwaukee metro area among the most segregated in the nation, it is vital to recognize that the fair housing battles of the 1960s were not limited within Milwaukee’s city limits, nor should the fight against segregation end there today. “There are so many layers to injustice, and people had to march and endure and problem-solve just for this one fair housing ordinance to be passed,” said Wysong. “If you understand that, you may realize that there are other areas where injustice occurs, and that there is more work to be done. I hope people feel encouraged and motivated by seeing the exhibit.”
The exhibit is open from 5:30-7 p.m. on Thursdays, 8 a.m.-noon on Saturdays, and 12:30-2 p.m. on Sundays. It runs from July 6 through July 23 and is free to the public.