Unpacking the history of Milwaukee's Eagles Club
The Eagles Club on Wisconsin Avenue was first completed in 1926. It was the headquarters for the Milwaukee Aerie of the Fraternal Order of the Eagles – a national social organization with a rather illustrious history.
The group created Mother’s Day and its membership includes many former presidents - John F. Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Warren G. Harding, just to name a few. For a while, Milwaukee had the largest club in the nation and was the location of the group's headquarters (the headquarters were not generally housed at the Eagles Club on Wisconsin Avenue).
The building served as a fitness club and a music venue known as “George Devine’s Million Dollar Ballroom,” which attracted big bands and high-profile performers, like Bob Hope and Buddy Holly. It also became the site of a flashpoint in Milwaukee’s civil rights history.
"It’s interesting when I give talks today about Milwaukee civil rights. And when I talk about that portion of the civil rights activity, I begin by asking, 'Who knows where the Rave is?' And almost everybody raises their hand. And then I say, 'That used to be the Eagles Club. They had a Whites Only clause.' And there’s this audible gasp through the room," says Margaret Rozga, who was a member of the NAACP Youth Council.
Rozga had just returned to Milwaukee after working in rural Alabama to register people to vote. She had just joined up with the NAACP Youth Council in Milwaukee when they first decided to protest the club in 1966.
"Virtually every politician in Milwaukee belonged. All the judges, all the city council members. It was what we began to call a quasi-political organization… It came to the youth council’s attention because young African-Americans who were arrested would go before judges who belonged to the Eagles Club and we began to question whether they could get a fair hearing before a judge who belonged to the Eagles Club," says Rozga.
It should be emphasized that the Eagles Club wasn’t a hate group – it was a social club. But it was explicitly racist, as the organization’s national bylaws barred non-white people from becoming members.
The NAACP picketed the club for more than two months, before they switched tactics.
Rozga explains, "As we moved into spring, some other civil rights leaders in Milwaukee suggested shifting the focus of the demonstrations from the membership clause itself to the membership of public officials in the Eagles Club, and that brought the issue closer to home."
Members of the NAACP Youth Council picketed the homes of judges and politicians who belonged to the club, like Congressman Clement Zablocki and Circuit Judge Robert C. Cannon.
The demonstrations grew, and they were met by counter-demonstrators, including robed members of the Ku Klux Klan. The governor called in the National Guard to maintain peace, but as the summer ended, so did the demonstrations. According to Rozga, few judges resigned despite the public pressure and the national organization refused to meet with the NAACP.
She recalls, "After the demonstrations that summer of 1966, the National Eagle Convention voted to retain the clause. So in one sense you could say the demonstrations were not successful."
But in another way, they were the start of something bigger. The NAACP Youth Council moved onto greater battles, including the fight for fair housing. The group led by Vel Phillips and Father James Groppi marched for 200 consecutive days in support of fair housing laws. The marches resulted in both federal and local legislation.
In 1979, the Trustees of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, Milwaukee Aerie No. 137, were sued by the U.S. government for discriminating against applicants on the basis of their race – having never truly desegregated in the eyes of the federal government. The Milwaukee Aerie No. 137 argued they were a private club which excluded them from being subject to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but a judge refused to dismiss the case on those grounds, deciding the club was not selective enough to be considered "private."
The decision states, "Between June 1, 1976, and May 31, 1977, the club received 1,011 applications. Of these, only three were turned down, a figure hardly indicative of a selective membership screening process." Although the white's only clause had been removed from their bylaws, the unwritten rule remained intact.
The building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986 and by most accounts, the club was fully integrated by 1988, with an African-American man sworn in as the president of the aerie that June. But just a few months later, the club filed for bankruptcy and disbanded. After decades of dominating public life in the city, the Milwaukee Eagles disappeared.
"I would like to think that the Eagles Club will be remembered as a bastion of negative social policy that had to change and did."
While the Eagles still exist, they have since moved their headquarters from Milwaukee. Zack Timmons is the marketing and communications director at the Fraternal Order of the Eagles, now based in Grove City, Ohio. He was unsure when the group officially desegregated their chapters, but he was quick to say how much the modern organization cherishes their members who are people of color.
"We're very happy now to be a diverse and inclusive organization, especially throughout the Southwest in states such as New Mexico and Arizona. We thrive down there thanks to individuals of color, who represent what the Eagles stand for as well as anyone," he says.
There are people who believe Milwaukee's former Eagles Club is haunted, and in some ways that’s hard to deny. The ghosts of its former glory can be found in the faded outline of the marquee for "Devine's Million Dollar Ballroom." Its bricked up doorways and windows still hang below stonework eagles carved into its facade, which belie the grandeur of its former life. And there are other, less tangible ghosts.
"I would like to think that the Eagles Club will be remembered as a bastion of negative social policy that had to change and did," says Rozga. "If I were to talk about ghosts there, I would not only talk about the young people who demonstrated to change that policy, but I would think that it was racism that haunted that building."
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