Youth Council Members Reflect On Milwaukee's Housing Marches

Sep 1, 2017

The concerted push for open housing in Milwaukee began 50 years ago this week. Demonstrators marched for 200 consecutive days, trying to convince the Common Council to pass a fair housing ordinance.  The NAACP Youth Council played a major role in the movement. Journalism students at Marquette University interviewed a number of them this year, and shared their stories with WUWM.

Shirley R. Berry (Butler) Derge is an original member of the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council.
Credit Carly Wolf, Marquette University

One of the teens was Dr. Shirley R. Berry (Butler) Derge. She says the Youth Council didn't form with the intent of becoming political. She shares this origin story about Father Groppi, a Catholic priest at St. Boniface, and the teens.

"The youth didn't have anything, nowhere to go for entertainment, just to sit and have a soda and talk. So Father suggested that why don't we all just meet after church in the church basement, and we could just talk -- and talk about our schools or whatever was going on in the community, whatever our concerns were. And actually, that's what was the birth of the Youth Council," Derge says.

It was toward the end of 1966 that the Youth Council began pushing for an end to housing discrimination against black residents. For months, the council and Father Groppi used a number of tactics to pressure city leaders to approve an open housing ordinance. Then, in August of 1967, they planned a symbolic march across the Menomonee Valley to the near south side, which was largely white.

"The first march across the bridge was terrifying and they were throwing glass bottles, cans, rocks and stones," Derge says.

Derge is talking about the 16th Street Viaduct that spans the valley. When marchers got to the south side, they faced the wrath of counter-demonstrators who easily outnumbered them.

That was the first of 200 consecutive nights of marching. And Derge says it wasn't the only time the marchers faced danger. The Youth Council formed a group called the Commandos, who were tasked with protecting the marchers. Yet they couldn't keep everyone safe. Derge says a lot of her friends were injured over the course of the marches. So was Father Groppi. Derge was walking near him when he was hit by a big rock.

"And blood just came all down his face. And the Commandos immediately surrounded him and put him further in the middle. But Father didn't -- it didn't faze him at all. He just kept marching," Derge says.

Barbara David Salas (right) stands next to her mother Mildrid David (left). Salas said her mother encouraged the entire family to get involved in the fight for social justice.
Credit Matt Unger, Marquette University

Barbara David Salas says she and other marchers were taken aback by the intensity of the pushback. They also were surprised to discover they would need to demonstrate for months in order to affect change.

"At the beginning, the preparation was not for a 200-day march. It started with the large marches, there was lots of reaction, national attention focused on Milwaukee. There were people from all over the country who joined us here for those marches, initially. But it didn't accomplish what we wanted, you know, even with all that attention, even with all that pressure. So I think we all felt that we weren't going to give up," Salas says.

Salas says the push for open housing wasn't just about a push to end the discrimination African Americans faced. She says it was a movement for justice for everyone. And she says, in the thick of the confrontations with counter-demonstrators, the issue of race faded away among the marchers.

"Facing a screaming mob throwing things at you, do you think we worried about which one of us was black and which one of us was white? We were brothers and sisters in the cause," Salas says.

Youth council member Earl Bracy is now a psychologist at Bracy Psychological Services and Stress Management Institute.
Credit Alex Groth, Marquette University

Dr. Earl Bracy was another member of the NAACP Youth Council. He says the marches grew out of frustration among African Americans who had moved from the south to Milwaukee to find work. Bracy says many expected to find more opportunities, including the freedom to choose where they lived.

"I think in the south a lot of the racism and discrimination was kind of overt. In the north it was more covert. So people would do things and they would do it to maybe contain or to kind of keep you back from progressing, you know, not being able to buy a house where you wanted to buy a house. And some people, they were kind of like cordoned off," Bracy says.

Joyce and Ken McGhee stand in front of St. Siloah Lutheran Church.
Credit Rebecca Carballo, Marquette University

As Ken McGee recalls, black residents only were welcomed in a small portion of the central city. He says many people selling homes in other neighborhoods would turn away African Americans. McGee says he was frustrated that his dad's housing choices were limited.

"You probably had some real estate brokers who were African American who also steered you away, assuming that you're not going to be happy there. So they didn't even show you houses. That was my issue. If I can afford it, I should be able to live where I want to live," McGee says.

In the early spring of 1968, Congress was considering the Fair Housing Act. The Youth Council ended its nightly marches. Less than a week later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. A huge march in his honor took place in Milwaukee. Not long afterward, the federal government and the Milwaukee Common Council approved open housing laws.

Although several factors contributed to an end of legal housing discrimination here, McGee says there's no denying the role played by the Youth Council.

"We forced the city to recognize that it was an issue, because we marched every day," Mc Gee says.

Multimedia stories produced by Marquette University journalism students Matt Unger, Carly Wolf, Alex Groth and Rebecca Carballo. Video produced by Margaret Cannon.