Bronzeville: The old heart of Milwaukee’s African America could beat again

Milwaukee's Bronzeville, devastated by freeway construction, remembered and understood by a scholar-artist who sees some rays of hope as the city celebrates Bronzeville Week.
August 18th, 2013 |
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“The Bronzeville Poet Series – Blanche,” by Mutope Johnson. Courtesy of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

What is left of Bronzeville? Vacant land, abandoned buildings and a faded cultural environment slowly on the mend. As the City of Milwaukee seeks to revive the neighborhood — and to celebrate it right now with a Bronzeville Week crowded with events – the time is right to retell Bronzeville’s story and compare it with African-American communities in Chicago and New York.

This Milwaukee neighborhood -- bounded by Brown Street on the north, Juneau Avenue on the south, Third Street on the east and 12th Street on the west — was once a thriving African-American community. It was systematically destroyed in the 1960s, largely through eminent domain for freeway construction. Eminent domain was expanded to include the transfer of seized land to private developers.

The seizure of Bronzeville allowed the I-94 / I-43 freeway system to plow through the middle of the neighborhood, to which Southern African-American population had migrated earlier in the century. African-Americans had settled there and grown economically, socially and politically. The better cultural qualities of this neighborhood came about through unique circumstances that evolved naturally over time.

Remembering and re-imagining Bronzeville mean something today. An understanding of this neighborhood can help a community grasp its cultural identity and the enduring qualities of Milwaukee’s African-American community and benefit the city as a whole.

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“What is most precious, because it is lost. What is lost, because it is most precious.”– Amiri Baraka, Writer, Activist, Poet

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Bronzeville can be the entry point to an honest discourse about the shared culture that bound together the African-Americans who lived there. Along with the history comes the possibility of promoting this neighborhood as a cultural tourism destination today, when Bronzeville is not the thriving African-American community once was and stands divided into fragments of land as a direct result of a politics.

What can we gain going forward? How can we create a better communication and social interaction? Could Bronzeville get us beyond nostalgia and offer opportunity for creative thinking about cultural conservation?

In Primitive Culture, published in 1871, Edward Tylor, British anthropologist, defines culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs and other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

It involves practices and shared values considered the norm. Of course Tylor’s analysis is based on a European model. In the essay Social Justice, Stuart Hall reminds us to think about black popular culture as including America’s ambivalent relationship to European high culture and existing within the ambiguity of America’s relationship to its own internal ethnic hierarchies. America has always had new ethnic waves, and ethnic hierarchies have always defined American cultural politics. American popular culture has always contained within it, acknowledged or not, black American vernacular traditions. Outside the U.S., black vernacular traditions are perceived as the signature of American culture.

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Sånkofå,  Word from the Akån language of Ghana, means  “Go back and get it” or “Refer to the past in order that we are able to move forward.”

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Memory Culture

Memory, as an idea, is changing. Electronic media have become a kind of artificial memory and have brought about a cultural revolution as profound as the invention of the printing press and writing before that. George Steiner, an influential European-born American literary critic, essayist and philosopher, sees us in a period of “post-culture,” a time of things coming to an end. A generation of contemporary witnesses to some of the most terrible crimes and catastrophes in human history is dying out.

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Bronzeville church ladies. Photo courtesy of Black Historical Society.

Steiner: “Generally, a period of 40 years is regarded as the threshold beyond which the collective memory begins to fade and the recollections of the living become problematic.”

Thus the urgency of the Bronzeville project. The changing concept of memory constitutes the basis for a new paradigm of cultural studies that would connect art and literature, politics, sociology, religion and law.

Jan Assmann, a noted Egyptologist and an influential theorist on cultural and communicative memory, has made a general observation that applies to Bronzeville: “When an ethnic unit merges with another ethno political group through alliance, migration, or conquest, there are bound to be problems of integration acculturation. The dominant culture takes on trans-ethnic validity, thereby acquiring the status of the more advanced civilization and thus marginalizing the cultural formations of the other groups.” The stratifying power of culture can lead in two different directions, (1) a sociological educational distinction that separates experts and specialists from the illiterate masses, (2) an ethological distinction with the refined lifestyle of the educated upper classes in stark contrast to the “rough and ready” lives of their inferiors. Culture thus becomes an upper-class phenomenon. This is generally not a matter of elite culture as opposed to lower class culture, but of culture itself, which is simply mastered and realized more fully by the elite than by ordinary people. So one section of society (the elite) claims to be represent the whole.

The Way Things Were: Bronzeville and the Great Migration

In the spring of 1916, the American press and public attention focused on The Great War in Europe. Few noticed the tiny stream of Southern black men brought north by the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Shorty after the Penn RR experiment, between 1916 and 1918 alone, nearly 400,000 African-Americans moved north. That’s 500 each day embarking on what they hoped would be a journey into freedom.

View of Bronzeville's Walnut Street in the 1950s. Bronzeville, Street View, photo courtesy of Black Historical Society.

View of Bronzeville’s Walnut Street in the 1950s.Photo courtesy of Black Historical Society.

The migration was a watershed in the history of African-Americans. It reduced their heavy concentration in the South. World War I opened industrial jobs to people who had up to then been mostly farmers, and it made them urban. In addition to Northern jobs, Southern segregation and Jim Crow impelled the Great Migration. Between 1910 and 1950, “Black Metropolises,” as they were sometimes called, sprang up within larger cities across the country. African-American residents coined the phrase “black belt” for predominately African-American neighborhoods, many informally dubbed Bronzeville.

Horace R. Cayton, the noted Chicago sociologist, states that “the expression ‘bronze’ when counter posed to ‘black’ reveals a tendency on the part of the formerly characterized ‘Negro’ to avoid referring to themselves as ‘black.’” As a descriptive term, bronze is more accurate than black, as most African-Americans are actually various shades of brown. The term Bronzeville gave residents of the Black Metropolis a much-needed lift. They did not wish to be looked down upon as the “black neighborhood.”

The great African-American migration represented a  “pull yourself up by the boot straps” ethos. African-Americans sought to shape their own destiny and improve their lives through hard work. The first generation to move North believed that this new city lifestyle offered more than the Southern way, with its lopsided economics. Working on a plantation or remaining a sharecropper on a farm were no longer the only alternatives.

The migration tended to follow the railroad tracks to Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee, where manufacturing and large city infrastructures were well established. In the book “Images of America – Milwaukee’s Bronzeville 1900-1950,” Paul Geenen states that “many of these Southern travelers bypassed Chicago and settled in Milwaukee, because the city-life was not as vast as Chicago, and navigating in a smaller city environment like Milwaukee would possibly offer a more manageable way of living. Northern industrial firms, faced with growing labor troubles, welcomed cheap, Southern African-American labor.”

African-Americans faced hard times in the North, though. Some of the relocated, especially those from the larger Southern cities, had been prominent politicians, business people and professionals and lost status in the North. African-Americans were the first to feel the impact of the Great Depression, and by the early 1930s’ it was not uncommon to see idled men begging on Bronzeville street corners or hanging out in its pool halls. Many gave up hope of finding jobs and turned to relief agencies for help. Even domestic jobs dried up, as European immigrants took up many such jobs during the Depression. Geenen: “It reached the point where a perceived better life style promoted moving in one direction, is followed quickly by a movement of opposition and hard-times in the opposite direction as life’s realities set in.”

African-American Employment and Enterprises

Geenen also notes “in 1940, 51 percent of African-American men were unemployed, with 29 percent of them actively looking for work, compared to the 13 percent of white men seeking work. The outbreak of World War II found many of the African-American men in the armed forces, while the women found defense jobs at places like Allis Chambers.”

Formed in 1901, Allis-Chalmers made machinery for naval ships, such as steam turbines, generators, electric motors, artillery tractors, electrical switches and controls, for army use; and other products.

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Bronzeville’s Ideal Tailors shop. Photo Courtesy of Wisconsin Black Historical Society.

Geenen: “After the war, African-American women were replaced by white workers in the plants, and again forced to take domestic services jobs, resulting in a reduction of their weekly income from the average of $44 per week to $20 per week. As the northward migration continued, the African-American population in Milwaukee grew from 8,821 in 1940 to 21,772 in 1950. This put a tremendous pressure on housing in the Bronzeville area where expansion to the east was blocked by the Milwaukee River and the Third Street shopping district, and expansion to the south was blocked by the light commercial district on Wisconsin Avenue.”

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“Milwaukee’s Bronezville was a place where African-Americans families worked hard to make a living and to make a community. The men worked heavy, physical jobs during the day at a factory and then came home and worked the evening hours in their restaurant or in cleaning up their new church building. The women worked long hours as domestics to earn precious savings to start a new business or to make extra money to help their church grow. The children who grew up there went on to live out the lessons of hard work and community, long after the neighborhood itself was gone.”

– Reuben Harpole, Images of America, Milwaukee’s Bronzeville, 2006

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Between 1915 and 1932, poor migrants coming from the South needed rooming houses, inexpensive cafes, and a place to get a haircut. They patronized the African-American owned barbershops, restaurants, nightclubs and taverns. Even funeral home services benefited from the population in and around Walnut Street, sometimes called “Chocolate Boulevard” by the unenlightened. In the 1920s and 1930s, many Russian Orthodox and Reformed Jewish families made their homes in the Walnut Street business district, establishing synagogues and such businesses such as grocery stores, a bakery, a drugstore, and a deli. Paul Geenen points out “that the Jewish residents of Bronzeville began moving West to Sherman Boulevard and were soon replaced by African-Americans. Urban Renewal and the clearance of land for the I-43 and I-94 freeway system in the 1950s and early 1960s sounded the death knell for African-American businesses. The Hillside Redevelopment Project cleared the heart of the African-American Business district, and although some businesses relocated, most did not survive over the long run.”

The Role of the Church

A conceptual model of Bronzeville today, created for the City of Milwaukee's redevelopment plan.

A conceptual model of Bronzeville today, created for the City of Milwaukee’s redevelopment plan.

Bronzeville churches played a significant role in the lives of migrants as they transitioned from living in the rural South to the urban North in Chicago and Milwaukee. The church played an important role in welcoming newcomers and immediately directing them to social services centers, providing them with food and clothing, and assisting with housing and employment.

These social conditions placed a special burden on black churches, which hosted a wide variety of social, educational and recreational activities. The churches soon gained a reputation throughout the South as refuges from racism, violence as well as places of worship.

As other institutions, such as fraternal groups, civil rights organizations and social clubs developed within the African-American community, the church and the preacher had to adjust to a less pivotal role. Historian Lawrence W. Levine described a pattern that played out in many American cities:  “Although the church became less of a central institution, it continued to influence African-American culture. The scholars who took black music and literature seriously–from the gospel songs of Mahalia Jackson to James Baldwin’s portrayal of black Pentecostalism in Go Tell It on the Mountain–could not escape the culture carryover. What might appear to be a secular form, such as the evolution of the blues and jazz, turned out to have intimate connections with folk traditions of African-American religion. The view that religious experience of African-Americans encompasses more than the story of ecclesiastical institutions, preachers and the people in the pews.”

St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in Milwaukee in 1869, one of the first black churches established in Milwaukee, stood at Fourth Street and Cedar (now Kilbourn) 31 years. It occupied two subsequent Bronzeville locations and was forced to move because of freeway construction. Calvary Baptist Church began as a small mission church on Seventh Street in 1895. It was known for its music and social action, especially for helping to establish housing programs for the elderly. St Benedict the Moor Mission (1908), The Church of God in Christ (1919), Greater Galilee Baptist Church (1920) and many others served the African-American community. Churches of all sizes and denominations became cornerstones of the community. Doctors and lawyers lived in the same neighborhood and attended the same churches as laborers and the unemployed. Geenen notes that even after open housing laws enabled the more affluent professionals to move elsewhere, they often continued to attend and support their generational home churches.

Bronzeville churches provided a sense of security and support and played active roles in African Americans lives long after the early years of migration. But more importantly, the churches of Bronzeville had to take a social and civic stand. Black migrants came to Milwaukee with little or nothing in their pockets. The Bronzeville churches helped them nurture and realize dreams of a better life.

For the church, it was vital to hold true to community service, to record history, to share the responsibility of the people, and to help provide a better quality of life. Rosemary Radford Reuther, in Liberation Theology: “If the African-American religious experience is allowed to stand on its own merit, not as a footnote to someone else’s story, then we will discover a great deal about American culture that is opaque unless seen from the vantage point of those who, according to a nineteenth-century black spiritual, have been in the storm so long.”

Education and the Entertainment District

A good education became a principal component of Bronzeville families. The forces of segregation kept the African-American students of this tight-knit community within 10 schools: Fourth Street (now Golda Meir), Siefert, Lloyd Street, St. Francis, Ninth Street, Roosevelt Junior High, St. Benedict the Moor, Lincoln High, North Division High, and Girls Tech. According to Reuben Harpole, Milwaukeean and long-time citizen of Bronzeville, the Milwaukee Public Schools made few attempts to hire African-Americans. Most teachers were single white women and were known to be “strict task masters.” While several of the schools were predominately African-American, others such as St Francis and Siefert, had only a few black students.  St. Benedict the Moor was the only Catholic boarding school in the county for African-Americans. Students going into the building trades or service industries went to Milwaukee Technical School, usually going to school at night and working in one of the factories during the day. Geenen notes that many high-school age children both attended school and worked to help the family.

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Bronzeville school bandmantes, on the cover of Paul Geenen’s book.

Because the city was so segregated geographically, its schools did not integrate following the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. In a 1960 survey, the NAACP found that schools in the central city were 90 percent black. On August 28, 1963, the Congress of Racial Equality in Milwaukee organized the first civil rights demonstration in the city. A year later, in May of 1964, CORE organized a boycott of the black schools that drew the participation of more than half of the African-American students. The following year, Lloyd Barbee, a Democratic politician and civil rights activist, filed a lawsuit that challenged segregation in the Milwaukee Public Schools, charging that the school board practices allowed discrimination. Not until 1976 did the courts finally rule that Milwaukee schools were illegally segregated, and it took until 1979 for the school board to implement a five-year desegregation plan.

This collective effort within the community helped to establish a new educational paradigm to gain a certain level of economic homogeneity, exceeding the accomplishments of the preceding generation. Michelle R. Boyd writes that “neighborhood development conflicts are extremely useful for examining identity construction because they are contests over the appropriate boundaries and meaning of community. It is through such political struggles that residents actively consider, negotiate, and articulate both the character and the interest of community.”

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“Before we settled in Milwaukee during the mid to late sixties, my father piled the family in the car and moved from Mississippi to Alaska. The racial tension in the country  was so heightened during that time, my father drove virtually nonstop for a total of 11 days.” – Larry Adams, Founder, Walnut Way Conservation Corporation

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Because African-Americans were not allowed in white clubs and hotels, African-Americans created their own vibrant entertainment district in Bronzeville. Jazz and blues attracted white patrons to Bronzeville clubs, and the entertainment district became one of the few points of racial integration in Milwaukee in the first half of the 20th century. (The relationship was one-way; white clubs remained white.) The Metropole was the first Bronzeville club to attain popularity in the 1920s; the Flame and Moon Glow lasted the longest. Other clubs included the Blue Room, the Chateau, the Celebrity Club, the Gold Coast Tavern, the Intrigue, the Milwaukee Club, Mr. Jimmy’s Place, Morri’s, the Pelican Club, the Polk A-Dot, Ranchos, Savoy, the 711 Club, T Joes, Thelma’s Back Door, Trocadero, and the White House. 

Those who could afford the seven-dollar admission could get an evening’s entertainment by nursing a drink like milk on the rocks. Dancers were paid one dollar and orchestra members three dollars to work an entire evening. Tuesday night was Celebrity Night at the clubs, and entertainers were invited onstage for short performances as special guests. Geenen remarks that as “Dixieland jazz and blues music began to attract a following, black bands traveled the ‘Chitlin Circuit’ throughout the Midwest, and even as far west as Seattle.” The band members and their wives traveled together by bus, sleeping in the seats, since white hotels would not rent them rooms. Geenen sites an example of an African-American band forced to play all night by a group of gun-wielding white patrons in North Dakota.

These Bronzeville memories remind us that what was successful may have been worth keeping. The failures offer a chance to learn from mistakes. It is better to adopt empathy for the human participants in history and culture and establish a process that promotes good conservation. Even if the most memorable aspects of Bronzeville could not have been saved, we can at least document them to prevent them from disappearing completely.

A Case Study – Chicago’s Bronzeville – Creative Documentation

The Bronzevilles of Chicago and Milwaukee developed in parallel during the Great Northern migration. Horace Cayton wrote that “Chicago’s Bronzeville was a city within a city,” the second largest African-American city in the world in the 1940s. Unlike Milwaukee, Chicago’s black infrastructure amassed and supported 500 African-American churches and 300 doctors. It was the capital of black America in the 1940s, supplanting New York’s Harlem as the center of black culture and national sentiment. Chicago was home to such notables as boxer Joe Louis, singer and recording artist Mahalia Jackson, Congressman William Dawson, Defender newspaper editor John Sengstacke, Ebony magazine publisher John H. Johnson, and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Its flourishing literary and artistic circles constituted a Chicago Renaissance comparable to the earlier Harlem Renaissance.

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Young gentlemen of Chicago’s Bronzeville, 1941. From “Bronzeville, Black Chicago in Pictures.”

Relative affluence, better education, an early civil rights movement and access to new media technologies bolstered Chicago’s African-American community. Chicago’s Bronzeville was, as Cayton noted, the advance guard of “the post-migration generations.” The noted author Richard Wright called it the “first-born of the city tenements” who enjoyed and produced various and sophisticated culture now familiar worldwide.

In 1941, photographers Russell Lee and Edwin Rosskam spent two weeks on Chicago’s South Side. They eventually produced more than a thousand documentary images. The photographers worked for a New Deal federal agency, the Farm Security Administration. FSA supported a photography project to record and publicize conditions in rural areas and in towns and cities that were destinations of rural migration. The immediate purpose for making and circulating FSA pictures was to publicize and build support for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs aimed at combating rural poverty and promoting the resettlement of citizens displaced by agricultural depression, drought, and technological advance during the Great Depression years.

In recent years, scholars have traced the project’s institutional history, delineated careers of individual photographers and debated both the projects and the photographers’ contributions and limitations. The immediate circumstances of the United States in these years–including the ways that public apprehended news and social facts just before television–have receded from popular memory, even as some images remain globally recognized icons. They stand out even now in our dense and pervasive culture; we can readily imagine how powerfully they signaled a new visual aesthetic at the dawn of mass photojournalism in the 1930s.

On July 4, 1940, with the publication of Richard Wright’s Native Son, the African-American Exposition opened at the Chicago Coliseum on the city’s near south side. Planned to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the eight-week exposition, funded in part by a $75,000 grant from the Illinois State Legislature, showcased the achievements of writers, journalist, musicians, and visual artists. Though national in reach, its location reflected Chicago’s centrality to the changing scope and direction of African-American culture.

The Illinois Federal Writers’ Project had by 1940 produced the outlines of the largest single WPA study of African-American life, The Negro in Illinois project. It featured some of Chicago’s best African-American writers:  Arna Bontemps, Richard Wright, and Willard Motley. No fewer than 21 African-American Chicago visual artists had by 1940 participated in the Illinois Federal Arts Project, more than in any Federal Art Project in any American city. The Art Exhibition of the Negro included work by Charles White, Eldzier Cortor, William Carter, Joseph Kersey, George E. Neal, Henry Avery, Charles Davis, William Farrow Bernard Goss, Walter Ellison, Archibald Motley, Charles Sebree Margaret Taylor-Goss-Burroughs, and Marion Perkins, all of whom had studied, trained and worked in Chicago before and during the Depression. Though their style and subject matter varied broadly, almost all had concentrated, like their Federal Writers’ Project contemporaries, on documenting the quotidian conditions of Chicago’s depression – besieged South Side.

In contrast to Milwaukee, what can we learn from creative projects that helped to change the discourse of how we view culture in other cities? Plenty. Milwaukee, during the same time period, was a young budding city that benefited from Chicago’s spillover of migrating African-Americans. Yet there is little evidence of the FPA or the WPA projects that financed and documented the African-American population in Milwaukee’s Bronzeville in the same scholarly way. Only in recent years have local scholars and historians taken an interest in Milwaukee’s Bronzeville.

 

A Case Study – New York’s Harlem Renaissance

This brief case study of the Harlem Renaissance offers only a glimpse into one of the most important, extensive and influential movements in American history. Harlem had its Renaissance before the Bronzevilles of Milwaukee and Chicago had fully formed.

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Mutope J. Johnson, Milwaukee artist, designer and scholar.

In the 1920’s, Harlem, the “cultural capital of black America,” was host to some of America’s finest and most daring writers, actors, musicians, and artists. Almost every Harlemite seemed to be writing, producing sizzling shows on Broadway or leaving for Paris to paint and sculpt. Alongside writers Langston Hughes and Claude McKay and musicians Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, black artists contributed to Harlem’s excitement by creating art that expressed their identity and introduced black themes into American modernism.

Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of the newfound sense of purpose and activism was the popularity of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Driven by the charismatic zeal of Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican who had migrated to New York, the Harlem-based UNIA captured the grass-roots sensibility of the New Negro in much the same way as the civil rights movement under the visionary leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., or the presidential bid of Barack Obama inspired hundreds of thousands of African-Americans. For intellectuals like Alan Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois, a Harvard-educated historian and the brilliant editor of The Crisis Magazine (the organ of the NAACP during the Renaissance), art could bridge the gap between the black and the white worlds —  if African-American artists were allowed the opportunity to hone their talents. Given the rich folk background, the African heritage and ethnic pride, the African-American artists had an aesthetic and a message to impart. Art, the essence of the civilized world, would be final proof that this “New Negro” had something positive to contribute to American life but also had indeed, ascended to new cultural heights.

Among the artists who achieved international fame during the Harlem Renaissance were the sculptor Meta Warrick Fuller, painter and book illustrator Aaron Douglas, and painters Palmer Hayden and William H. Johnson. Though from very different backgrounds, they were united by a powerful desire to portray the African-American experience in their art. Campbell and Dirskell note that African-American artists emerged for the first time as an identifiable force and a vital part of American culture.

Cultural Conservation

These brief case studies point toward a positive outlook for Milwaukee — toward a more profound dialogue and cultural conservation strategies that can make a difference. Stuart Hall states that “popular culture carries that affirmative ring because of the prominence of the word ‘popular’ and, in one sense, popular culture always has its base in the experiences, the pleasures, the memories, and the traditions of the people. It has connections with local hopes and local aspirations, local tragedies, and local scenarios that are the everyday practices and the everyday experiences of ordinary folks.”

Urban conservation and the issues relating to historic environments are as wide ranging as they are complex. Each town or city is unique.  Aylin Orbasli, in Tourists in Historic Towns: Urban Conservation and Heritage Management, argues that solutions must fit the specific context and be sensitive to the place and responsive to the needs of the local community.

An in-depth view of the cultural conservation of Milwaukee’s Bronzeville district will require time, comprehensive research, and money. Anything else falls short of conservation.

WeekinBronzevilleIn the urban environment, question of ownership accompany any discussion of culture and heritage. The physical relics of history, including buildings, are owned in ways that a historic town as an entity is not. But culture can represent ownership to the local community through attachment and belonging. The designation of an urban place as a World Heritage Site introduces a new international level of ownership for heritage. It also highlights a growing inside-outside tension of use and decision making, particularly where the future of historic sites are concerned. Society’s identification with ownership of heritage is the primary factor in motivating urban conservation, but financial support that enables implementation.

This brings us to a point of controversial conversation about what to do about Milwaukee’s Bronzeville right now. We do have options: We can raise awareness of cultural growth opportunity and promote the idea of both creative preservation and urban conservation, or we can do little or nothing and let the nature of culture take its course. The development of urban conservation is not well recorded, and its impact frequently ignored. At the same time, as Orbasli notes, “cultural tourism” has grown.

In a recent lecture entitled Picturing Milwaukee at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Art 100 Arts and Culture class, Arijit Sen, Associate Professor of Architecture, UW-Milwaukee, stated, “We have to change the way we realistically look at cities” to fully understand how we could skillfully use cultural conservation to our benefit. Professor Sen went on to say that “to be able to employ a useful application of cultural conservation” would be his dream.  Still, private developers stand to gain from the seized land. The art of a culture can help to inform citizens and clarify the distinctions between things taken away and the artificial things that might replace them.

Tourism is moving from being an “add-on” benefit of redevelopment to playing a significant role in conservation and economic regeneration. It is true that urban heritage has been conserved as a result of tourism interest, but a considerable amount has been destroyed because of it. Fad conservation and the prevalence of “pastiche” in new developments are becoming a common features of tourist environments. Medieval towns and nineteenth-century industrial heritage centers are beginning to look very similar, with newly laid cobbled streets, catalogue “heritage” street furniture, retro architecture and retail chain outlets.  Conservation in the interest of tourism often ignores the depth and dynamism of the urban environment in favor of the re-creation of sterile and “experience-able” settings, according to Orbasli.

Hope generates ideas, and ideas generate action. This core idea of using Milwaukee’s Bronzeville as a case study for cultural conservation could very well serve as a gift to Milwaukee, a creative contribution to establish the cultural conservation going forward. We have to move beyond the concept of cultural conservation and pitch in to offer solutions. Creative strategies can come from the most humble of places to help us understand and improve public attitudes about cultural conservation over time. Good ideas can lead to positive change. By sharing experiences and presenting them in creative ways, we can serve the greater good.

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“To give back meaning to the people is a way of going public, that by piecing together fragments of memory shared, might make whole again something lost.”Charles Merewether, The Spirit of the Gift

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Mutope Johnson is a Milwaukee artist, graphic designer and scholar. A Bronzeville-themed painting is now on view in the Wisconsin 30 exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum. This story is adapted from a paper Johnson wrote for the Reading and Research graduate seminar in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Department of Art and Design.

 Bibliography

Adams, Larry, personal interview, February 2013.

Jones, Seitu, personal interview, February 2013.

Assmann, Jan. “Foreword.” Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination. First ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. Vii. Print. 

Boyd, Michelle R. “Introduction.” Jim Crow Nostalgia: Reconstructing Race in Bronzeville. Vol. 2. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2008. N. pag. Print.

Campbell, Mary Schmidt., and David Dirskell. Preface. Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America. Harlem: Studio Museum, 1994. Print. 

Geenen, Paul H. Milwaukee’s Bronzeville, 1900-1950. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub., 2006. Print. 

Hall, Stuart. Social Justice, Spring-Summer 1993 v20 n1-2 (11). 

Harpole, Rueben, personal interview, April 2013.

Sen, Arijit, personal interview, April 2013.

“Impact of school desegregation  in Milwaukee Public Schools on quality education for minorities… 15 years later.” (Washington, D.C., The Commission, 1992). 

Lawrence W. Levine, “Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom [Paperback].”

Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom: pg. 4.

Marks, Carole. (The Great Migration: African-Americans Searching for the Promised Land, 1916-1930 by Carole Marks, University of Delaware.

Merewethers, Charles “The Spirit of the Gift” (1994) in Felix-Gonzalez-Torres, Amanda Cruz et al (eds.) Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.

Mullen, Bill. “Artists in Uniform: The South Side Community Art Center and Defense of Culture.” Popular Fronts: Chicago and

African-American Cultural Politics, 1935-46. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1999. pg75. Print.

Orbasli, Aylin. “Introduction.” Introduction. Tourists in Historic Towns: Urban Conservation and Heritage Management. First ed. London: E&FN Spon, 2000. Print. 

Reuther ,Rosemary Radford, Liberation Theology, (Ramsey, N.J. Paulist Press 1972 pg. 127. 

Stange, Maren. “Introduction.” Bronzeville: Black Chicago in Pictures, 1941-1943. New York: New, 2003. Xv. Print. 

Tylor, Edward. “Primitive Culture.” Primitive Culture 1920 [1871]. New York: J.P. Putnam’s Sons. Print. 

United States. Wisconsin. City of Milwaukee. The Department of City Development. Land Redevelopment. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Web.

What Is BLACK MIGRATION IN THE 1920S? Black History in America, n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2013.

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One Response to “Bronzeville: The old heart of Milwaukee’s African America could beat again”

  1. roy evans says:

    I am 66 today and old enough to say, “Mutope I am proud of you for publishing such a Great article.” Born in Milwaukee(1947)we lived in a trailer camp for black veterans next to the Carver pool until we moved to the heart of Bronzville (13th and Vine) where we lived for 18 years(Lloyd St., Roosevelt and North Division,until the freeway tore the community apart. It was a deliberately planned travesty from which we(all of Milwaukee) have never recovered.)
    I know Bronzville. It had vision, values, power, respect and great culture which was a gift of racism and segregation.
    The new Bronzville is a good idea but I don’t see it capturing anything that made the original Bronzville the powerful and great place that it was. First of all it can’t be done when most of the current Bronzville commercial properties are owned by white surburban joint ventures and foreigners that don’t even live in the city let alone Bronxville? (Do you think I could ever open a gas station, nail salon, liquior store, corner store or chicken joint in Brookfield?)As blacks,in Milwaukee, we don’t own ourselves or our community. Unlike the 50′s and 60′s when blacks owned, prospered and economically controlled Bronzville, blacks don’t currently have enough substantative business or economic interests or political power to make it a real Bronzville. If we don’t get back to being black in the protection of our culture we will always have to celebrate someone else’s. (I sat on the Inner City Arts Board.)Our culture is who we are but I only see a token of who we are in the proposed Bronzville. The original Bronzville was really a “concept” not a “thing.” I can’t say that about the current project. HOTEP, Roy Evans, Esq.

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