Project Milwaukee
4:05 pm
Thu June 18, 2009

Talking It Out

We continue our Project Milwaukee series: Black & White, examining race relations in the city.

We discovered a group that gathers once a month specifically to talk about race. WUWM’s Susan Bence attended a recent meeting.

In 1913, 12 white businessmen started the Rotary Club of Milwaukee.

The organization maintained a white, male profile until 1968. That’s when it accepted its first African American member.

Now there’s a group of Rotarians that meets downtown at the War Memorial once a month to talk candidly about racism.

Today, a small group - half black, half white – is sitting in metal folding chairs. They’re listening to John Ridley, an ophthalmologist, recall what it was like moving his young family to Milwaukee in the 1960s.

“ We went in to a real estate agency. He said we don’t handle real estate for your people and you’ll have to find a Negro real estate agent to help you,” Ridley says.

The group has been sharing stories and impressions for three years.

“I came in the 90s.” That’s Paula Penebaker. She heads the YWCA of Greater Milwaukee.

“My first night in my home, three Wauwatosa squads blocked in my husband in driveway, because somebody had reported a strange black man driving a luxury car in the neighborhood. And I’m sure there’s people came In the early 2000s and say they had similar situations,” Penebaker says.

Penebaker thinks communication about the realities of racism get bogged down, because there’s an undercurrent of fear among area residents.

“They’re so tightly bundled if they talk about it, they’re just going to fly apart. Afraid of saying the wrong thing, afraid of making somebody angry, afraid of getting beat up,” Penebaker says.

Denise Crumble isn’t afraid to talk. She coordinates a program to reduce teen pregnancy.

“I think more about the class issue and poor people how to empower them to break the cycle of poverty and I think that definitely African Americans are more entrapped in poverty because of their skin color,” Crumble says.

Crumble raised her two children in Milwaukee. Both have decided to raise their families elsewhere. In fact, they’re trying to convince Crumble to leave town as soon as soon as she retires, because they don’t think the city is safe.

“I’m staying,” Crumble says.

Wendell Willis also intends to stay in the area and raise his kids where he grew up.

“You know, I guess being the younger person in the group,” Willis says.

But Willis says it hasn’t been easy. Until recently, the college graduate had been searching for a job. He says lots of people told him he’d have to relocate to Chicago or Atlanta.

“Someplace where they’re used to people of color in management ranks so that you can quickly move up the ladder,” Willis says.

Willis did land a job in Milwaukee, but says he’s one of the lucky few.

“It’s really hurts the city from an economic standpoint, because people aren’t used to looking at different folks and promoting them,” Willis says.

John Fitzgerald is a teacher and a regular at these monthly conversations on race.

“What strikes me always about these conversations is just how deep the effects of racism are. It affects our language, it affects our freeway structures. It affects just about everything around us every day,” Fitzgerald says.

Fitzgerald says it’s been his personal mission to live a desegregated life.

“And in the last three or four years, I could tell you stories about having friends at my house, who when they left my house to go back to their car were challenged by my own neighbors about what they were doing in the neighborhood,” Fitzgerald says.

Fitzgerald says that won’t stop him from inviting friends to his home.

John Ridley, the ophthalmologist who moved here in the 60s, has been sitting quietly, seeming to digest everything he’s heard, before commenting.

“I personally have lived a life that was just full of racism,” Ridley says.

But Ridley says it’s time to stop talking about the past.

“I don’t want to deal with racism, I want to deal with the problems that we have as a community and as a nation,” Ridley says.

Ridley wants Milwaukee to funnel its energy into providing solid educational opportunities for everybody’s kids.

While he wants to move beyond the past, Paula Penebaker says lives won’t really change unless people keep talking about racism. She says it’s baked into the fabric of the city.

“You know it’s like you bake a cake, once you do, you can’t take out the eggs and the flour and the butter, I mean it’s in there,” Penebaker says.

Many people engaged in today’s dialogue will sit in these same uncomfortable chairs next month, and the next and the month after that. They hope with time, more people – from inside and outside the club - join their conversations, so that even on a small scale, they become a model of healthy race relations.