Young Black Men in Milwaukee Ditch Sneakers and Jeans for Tuxedos

Dec 12, 2014

A grassroots movement is underway in Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code to improve the lives of young African American men who live there.

This summer, we reported on the program called We Got This. It was the brainchild of Andre Ellis. He started giving a few boys $20 to clean the neighborhood on Saturday mornings. Since then, the numbers have swelled; so have relationships.   

We Got This now brings together generations of black males in the form of mentees and mentors. This week, Ellis wants to expose the young men to what some would say are the finer things in life. You might spot a very sharp-looking group dining out in downtown Milwaukee.

On Saturday, 50 young African American men and their adult mentors will ditch the sneakers, jeans and t-shirts in favor of tuxedos. Then, they’ll sit down to break bread with each other at Carson’s restaurant. Andre Ellis says he wants the young men to know he hears them.

Andre Ellis speaks with one of the young men participating in From Boys in the Hood to Gentlemen on the Town.
Credit Michelle Maternowski

“I was having a conversation with a few of the young men on my block who are a part of the program and I was getting dressed up to take my wife out to dinner, and they were admiring that," Ellis says. "They said wow, we never knew you had to dress up to go to dinner. We never dressed up. We go to McDonalds or something like that. And then one of them said I wish we could go downtown for dinner. I said you can. So when I left, this started to come to fruition."

Over the past few days, Ellis has made sure everyone was fitted for a tuxedo at Torrence’s House of Threads on Milwaukee’s north side. Young men like Walter Gladney. At 14, he stands 6 foot tall and a solid 160 pounds. Walter says before participating this summer in the program We Got This, he used to fight a lot.

“Just to get respect,” Gladney says.

Dennis: “Have you gotten that respect?”

“No,” Gladney says.

Dennis: “Do you still want that respect?”

“No. Because it’s not doing good for me,” Gladney says.

Walter Gladney being fitted for his tux.
Credit Michelle Maternowski

Walter says male mentors have helped teach him how to control his anger. He says now he’s focusing on athletics and school. But Saturday, it might be – what’s on the menu.

Dennis: “What’s the nicest restaurant you’ve been to?”

“Old Country Buffet,” Gladney says.

While Walter says he’s excited about having dinner downtown, his mentor says the experience is about a lot more. David Crowley grew up in the same neighborhood, in a zip code that some call the worst in the country to raise black boys.

Crowley says the drugs and violence were there when he was growing up, but he had people to push him in other directions. The 28-year-old finished college and now works for a state senator. Crowley says his goal is to show Walter there’s more to life than what he may see daily. 

“Really, it’s just expanding the horizon. I think a lot of times the issue with Milwaukee is that we just see Milwaukee. Introducing something outside of you know what you see on T.V., what you see in social media," Crowley says. "Showing that black men are doing a lot of good things, whether they’re doctors, surgeons, politicians, whatever."

Saturday’s dinner will include lessons in etiquette, and the mentors and mentees will exchange letters about their hopes and dreams.

The saying "Black Lives Matter" has become a rallying cry across the country in recent weeks to protest police killings of African American men. Andre Ellis says he’ll continue pairing boys and mentors in hopes they build lifelong relationships.

“It’s my way of protest, but on a flip side. Instead of burning it down, let’s make it greater,” Ellis says.

According to Ellis, many young black men are searching for people to love them and show them the way.

Tuxedo fitting at Torrence’s House of Threads.
Credit Michelle Maternowski