Project Milwaukee: Push for School Integration

Jun 12, 2009

We continue our series Project Milwaukee: Black and White with a look at school segregation. The push to integrate the schools flared racial tensions here in the 1960s and 1970s. The results of the fight were mixed. WUWM's Ann-Elise Henzl has our report.

Words used in the story may be offensive to some, but are integral to the report.

Some of the audio for this story is courtesy of WTMJ-TV, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and the Archives Department, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

By the 1950s, most black Milwaukee residents lived in the inner core of the city. And because neighborhoods were segregated, so were public schools. That didn't sit well with the late attorney and assemblyman Lloyd Barbee. He started agitating for school integration in Milwaukee in the early '60s.

"We emphasize the psychological effects upon both the white children and the Negro children, and the fact that it is harmful for whites growing up in a world which is not all white to go to a homogenous school only with whites, and the same with Negroes," Barbee said.

Barbee and other civil rights activists said there was de facto segregation in Milwaukee. While it wasn't the law, it was the practice. They also said black schools were overcrowded, and the education was inferior.

Activists started going to school board meetings, and participated in marches and rallies. In 1964, they organized a one-day school boycott.

At a news conference, Mayor Henry Maier urged parents to keep their kids in school. More than 7,000 stayed home.

"And I am concerned principally for the children, both Negro and white. It seems to me that the demonstration may harden racial barriers in their young minds for generations to come," Maier said.

The next year, Barbee filed a lawsuit against the school board. Professor Jack Dougherty of Trinity College in Connecticut wrote a book about the push for equality in Milwaukee schools. He says it took more than a decade to end segregation.

"The court system in the United States wasn't really clear about what should happen in what they called de facto segregation cases, where there was no clear evidence -- at least at that time -- of intent to segregate by the school district," Dougherty says.

In 1976, a federal judge ordered the Milwaukee school district to come up with an integration plan. The district started busing thousands of black children to white schools. The administration also created specialty schools in black neighborhoods to attract whites -- limiting the seats for black children.

A 1980 documentary called Forced Choice captured some of the conflicts that arose. In this clip, a black teenage boy outside Bay View High School is talking about being bused out of his neighborhood, when a white girl walks past, and yells in his direction:

Teenage boy: "I mean if we go apply for enrollment at a north side school and they said no we can't attend because of the racial balance...

Teenage girl: "(Expletive) you, you (expletive) damn nigger..."

Unhappy white families fled to the suburbs, to prevent their children from being bused to black schools.

Integration did not necessarily achieve the results advocates had hoped. That's according to Howard Fuller, founder of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.

"Some people simply were promoting integration because they thought it was important for black and white young people to sit down together in schools. Some people really felt that it was going to lead to a better education. What has happened is (that) the strategies that we pursued have not led to better academic results for the vast majority of poor black children in this city. That's the thing that continues to grate at me," Fuller says.

Because so many black students struggled in school, Fuller and others kept pushing for equality in alternate ways. Author Jack Dougherty says the charter and school choice programs grew out of civil rights era dissatisfaction with the school system.

"There were different movements for African Americans to try get more power over schooling in the city. There were struggles to hire black teachers, struggles for Afro-centric schooling, and if you only look at just school integration struggles, then I actually think you miss the bigger picture," Dougherty says.

These days, integration is almost a moot point. The number of minority children in the public schools has risen in the last couple of decades, while the number of whites has declined. So it's impossible to achieve racial balance.