The Golden Age of Bronzeville Milwaukee’s African-American heritage
To live as an African American in this country at the turn of the 20th century was to face unrelenting injustice and torment onmultiple fronts. During the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, federal law provided some protection for the civil rights of newly freed slaves. But when Reconstruction ended, Southern states enacted Jim Crow laws that prohibited blacks from using the same public accommodations as whites.The period of “separate, but hardly equal” in America had begun.
When Wisconsin became a state in 1848, it was very progressive on human rights issues and had an active, organized Abolitionist Movement. This, along with an abundance of manufacturing jobs, motivated African Americans of all classes to journey north along railroad lines and the Mississippi River to Wisconsin. According to cultural anthropologist Ivory Abena Black, author of Bronzeville: A Milwaukee Lifestyle, a large migration of African Americans into Milwaukee took place between 1905 and 1935. With the European population dominating industrial occupations, African Americans found themselves working primarily in domestic and personal service positions for wealthy European Americans. Black contends that by the late-1920s to early-1930s, Milwaukee’s black population had settled in a square-mile area generally bordered by Brown Street on the north, Juneau Avenue on the south, Third Street on the east and 12th Street on the west. The neighborhood was coined Bronzeville, a generic term given to an area of a city inhabited by African Americans.
While Milwaukee was still comparatively progressive, the city wasn’t immune to the tide of racism flooding the South. Because the black population wasn’t allowed to patronize many white businesses, they simply started their own. Lower Walnut Street, at the heart of Bronzeville, became home to chicken shacks, frozen custard stands, cafes, restaurants, corner stores, barbershops, theaters, nightclubs and hotels. According to Milwaukee’s Bronzeville: 1900-1950by Paul Geenen, these businesses attracted not only people from the neighborhood, but white patrons from Shorewood and Whitefish Bay looking to eat, drink and listen to music in an “exotic” locale. Bolstered by influential churches and social clubs, Bronzeville was, in Black’s words, “a reliable society in which people assisted each other in child rearing, job placement, tutoring, money lending, repair services, medical assistance and social interactions.”
Bronzeville felt the economic impacts of the World Wars and the Great Depression, but it was two major actions within the mid-1950s to early-1960s that sounded the death knell for the vibrant Bronzeville neighborhood. Stemming from President Truman’s Fair Deal reforms, the Housing Act of 1949 was legislation that allocated federal funds to assist cities in eliminating their slums and to provide opportunity for new housing projects and urban redevelopment. Under Mayor Frank Zeidler, the city of Milwaukee developed plans to rid Milwaukee of what it deemed squalid. Many of these homes and buildings were located on Lower Walnut Street and within Bronzeville. Later, federal funding was also obtained to complete the highway system that had started under Mayor Daniel Hoan. Black writes that the construction of the North-South Freeway, I-43, required the elimination of 8,000 homes in the Bronzeville area.
The Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, color, religion or national origin, gave African Americans the liberty to rebuild their community. In the early ‘80s, the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee approved a plan that would ultimately focus on the creation of a Bronzeville Cultural and Entertainment District that specifically focuses on fostering African-American culture, arts and entertainment in the historic Bronzeville district.
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Photo: 12th St., north of Walnut Street