The Jones-Hill House is part of the fabric of Milwaukee's Black culture
A Bubbler Talk question asker was curious about Black historical sites in Milwaukee. There are many, so I chose to look at one that’s had many lives: the Jones-Hill House in the Harambee neighborhood. The building on North Palmer Street — and its owners — played key roles in the city’s Black culture, starting in the 1950s.
The Jones-Hill House looks like your standard Arts and Crafts-style home. It stands three stories tall and is built of that classic cream-colored brick. The window trim and eaves are painted with rusted orange and white accents.
Willie and Fostoria Jones bought it in 1953.
The Joneses owned and ran entertainment venues in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood, which was established by Black people who were confined to the north side of the city because of segregation. They formed a business district with social and professional clubs, financial institutions and much more.
The Joneses were part of that.
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Daina Penkiunas of the Wisconsin Historical Society says Willie Jones was born in Tennessee in 1896 and moved to Milwaukee in 1914.
"And he came to Milwaukee and worked a number of different kinds of jobs, but by 1940, he owned a pool hall on W. Walnut St. and he also really helped out other businesspeople and established a number of other businesses in what was then known as Bronzeville. And one of the most notable of his ventures was the club Congo in the 1930s, which was very popular club," she explains.
Penkiunas says Willie and his wife Fostoria also owned the Hillcrest Hotel where Black jazz musicians would stay since they weren’t allowed in white hotels. And the two co-owned the Casablanca, a rooming house and after-hours club in a converted mansion at 1641 N. Fourth St. Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington were some of the acts that performed there.
After-hours bars were popular in Bronzeville. When the Joneses bought what’s now known as the Jones-Hill House, they turned the basement into an after-hours bar.
Their friend and business partner, Eva Hill, who ran the Casablanca, bought a portion of the house from the Joneses before taking full ownership. She rented out the basement for parties and later ran a rooming house there too.
Penkiunas shares some of Hill’s story: "Eva was born in Arkansas in 1907 and she first moved to Chicago and came to Milwaukee about 1940. And she had worked in domestic housework, but she very soon also became a businesswoman and she really thought that owning a rooming house business was a lucrative career. Oral tradition is that she started renting out her own apartment and then started looking to see how she could expand into a bigger rooming house business."
Hill ran a social club called The Creamettes on Fourth St. until urban redevelopment forced her to sell her property to the city in 1967.
She died in 1982. But her husband, Wiseman Keaton, still lived in the Jones-Hill House and rented out rooms for about a decade. Penkiunas says a fire in 1993 ended that.
"There was quite a bit of damage, about $20,000 worth of damage and it stopped being a rooming house about that time. The house was repaired, but again it wasn't operating in the same manner as it had before," she says.
The Keaton family sold the house to Calvin and Dorothy Greer in 1997. Six years later, they opened an art gallery there, called Greer Oaks Gallery. It featured works by Black artists, including from Milwaukee and from Calvin Greer, who was a well-known artist here.
Greer died in 2007. A line from a tribute to him in the Riverwest Currents newspaper reads: “One of his passions was celebrating African American history and culture by any means necessary.”
The Jones-Hill House has been a place for Black people in Milwaukee to live, to socialize and to experience art. And Black people made that space. In 2019, the Wisconsin Historical Society gave the house a historic site designation.
So, if you happen to be on the 2400 block of North Palmer Street, take in the sight of the Jones-Hill House. Now you know there’s more there than meets the eye.
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Editor's note: This story was originally published February 26, 2021.