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The Old South, Up North

Times Staff Writer

The jeers and taunts, the hate hit them as they reached the bridge. Bricks flew. They kept walking, crossing “the line between Africa and Poland,” marching though the white neighborhoods on the other side of the Menomonee River.

The black men and women of Milwaukee marched again the next evening, and the next, vowing that they would not remain cooped up in the “Negro district.” They marched for 200 days before the city and its suburbs finally passed laws granting blacks the right to live where they wanted.

Thirty-five years later, the region remains divided, the races separate and the housing the most segregated in America.

The furor over GOP Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott’s praise for a former segregationist candidate for president has focused attention on the long history of racial division in the South. These days, however, the gulf between white and black is widest in the North.

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In Milwaukee, where 37% of the city’s 600,000 residents are African American, the disparities between the races are among the greatest in the nation. The inequities are glaring in nearly every social index: income, child poverty, education, even access to home mortgage loans.

Blacks in metropolitan Milwaukee earn just 49 cents for every dollar that whites earn, far below the national average of 64 cents to the dollar.

As a result, 44% of the city’s black children live in families scrambling to subsist on incomes below the poverty line. Only 10% of white children are equally poor.

Even middle-income African American families face inequities: They are denied home loans three times as often as middle-income whites, the biggest racial gap in America.

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Milwaukee is home to three-quarters of Wisconsin’s African American residents, so the racial disparities statewide show up starkly in this sprawling city of smokestacks and steeples.

The state does extremely well, for instance, in graduation rates for white students. But just 41% of black students finish high school -- the lowest rate in the country.

“When you look at our city, you don’t see the blight and decay that exist in other cities,” said Ralph Hollman, president of the Milwaukee Urban League. “So it can be easy not to recognize our problems. But when you look at the statistics, you see.”

The latest statistic comes from a new Census Bureau report that names the Milwaukee metropolitan region the most segregated in the nation, based on an analysis of where blacks and whites live and how isolated each race is from the other.

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Mayor John O. Norquist disputes the Census Bureau’s conclusion, arguing that analysts unfairly compared his city with others with far smaller black populations.

But when independent demographers measure Milwaukee against metro areas with racially diverse populations, the same picture emerges.

This city on the glittering shore of Lake Michigan ranks high in every measure of housing segregation, at or near the top of lists dominated by Northern cities: Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Newark, N.J.

The gutsy marches of 1967 and 1968 may have earned blacks the right to live in any neighborhood, but very few have ventured into the suburbs.

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In the city too, they remain in traditionally black neighborhoods north of the Menomonee River. Whites live in the south, joined by a growing number of Latino and Asian immigrants.

Woodrow Reed, now a middle-age car mechanic, crossed the river on those marches as a defiant black teen. He is proud, even now, of the victory. But he has long since retreated to what he calls “the heart of the ‘hood.”

He does not stray south of the river, does not cross the wasteland of the Menomonee River Valley, with its tangle of railroad tracks and old brick smokestacks. He stays where he feels comfortable.

“I’m back where I came from,” Reed said.

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John Logan, a sociologist, sees similar patterns in cities across the Midwest and the Northeast.

They have maintained, he said, “almost an iron curtain” dividing black neighborhoods from white.

In contrast, several Southern and Western cities with substantial African American populations have drawn note for their integration -- among them, the Raleigh-Durham region of North Carolina; Tampa, Fla.; Norfolk, Va.; Augusta, Ga.; and in California, San Diego and Riverside.

For blacks to be evenly integrated through the Milwaukee metropolitan region, 82% of them would have to move.

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To achieve such balance in the region around Augusta, Ga., just 45% of blacks would need to move.

To take another index of segregation: Blacks in Riverside or San Diego are more than twice as likely as blacks in Milwaukee to be exposed to whites.

Fifteen-year-old Naomi McBride, who is black, is asked if she ever sees whites in her impoverished north-side neighborhood.

“If you drive around,” she suggests. She sounds dubious.

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“You can basically take a marker and map out the white boundaries and the black boundaries,” said Genyne Edwards, 29, a black lawyer who recently returned to Milwaukee after nine years.

To be sure, some residents refuse to accept the calcified patterns of segregation.

One of the few whites left in the Rufus King neighborhood in northern Milwaukee is a 70-year-old woman who has lived in her bungalow since 1941.

The woman, who would not give her name, resisted the “white flight” in the 1970s, and she now waves cheerily to her black neighbors as she tidies up her lawn. “I don’t see that we have a problem in this city,” she said.

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Lisa Freeman, 25, a black woman who lives on the south side, agreed: “To me, it’s a big melting pot,” she said.

Civil rights activist Marion Heaney wishes she could believe that.

Heaney, who is white, helped elect the city’s first (and for a dozen years, only) African American council member in 1956.

In the half-century since, the rigid segregation she fought so hard has barely eased, she said. “I don’t think people on this end of town would be very happy to have a black family move in,” Heaney, 78, said as she walked her terrier near her south-side home.

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“My kids go to school with some colored kids, but people in my generation don’t accept them as much,” agreed Cheryl Fabian, 39. Although she has lived in Milwaukee all her life, Fabian, who is white, has ventured to the northern side just a few times, to drop off toys for needy children at Christmas.

To explain the stubborn legacy of segregation in the Midwest and Northeast, demographers cast back to the 1920s and 1930s, when African Americans began moving in large numbers to the great hubs of the industrial age -- Northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee.

Factory foremen welcomed their labor. But real estate agents refused to sell them homes outside a few designated blocks. As late as the 1950s, even the federal government offered home loans only in neighborhoods without any “incompatible racial or social groups.”

In Milwaukee, blacks were crammed into the oldest neighborhoods in the central city, into the narrow row homes that even then were beginning to sag with rot. The segregation was ruthlessly enforced. Several suburbs passed laws banning blacks from walking the streets at night.

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During that era of legal discrimination, most blacks in the South lived in rural areas. It was not until the late 1980s that an extraordinary boom in the Southern economy -- coupled with the collapse of many Rust Belt industries -- began to lure blacks by the millions to Southern cities. Reversing the “Great Migration” of the 1930s, African Americans flocked to such newly vibrant hubs as Atlanta, Dallas and Charlotte, N.C.

“That rapid growth makes it easier to integrate because it creates new residential developments that don’t have reputations as black or white neighborhoods,” said Logan, the sociologist.

Indeed, just 15% of black newcomers in the South choose to settle in central cities. Overwhelmingly, they opt for the suburbs, integrating them as they move in and creating a strongly multiracial middle class, according to William H. Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan.

But as the South has surged, the Midwest has stagnated. Blacks in the Rust Belt are falling further and further behind. In Milwaukee, even African American families that could afford to move to the suburbs often end up in downtrodden city neighborhoods -- sometimes by choice and sometimes because they feel unwelcome anywhere else. Less than 2% of the suburban population is black.

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The result: Black families earning more than $60,000 a year are just as segregated as those earning less than $30,000.

Upper-middle-income blacks live in neighborhoods where, on average, one in five families falls below the poverty line. Whites with similar incomes live in neighborhoods where just 4% of residents are poor, according to Logan, who studies segregation at the University of New York in Albany.

The median value of a white-owned home in the Milwaukee metropolitan area is $137,000. The median value of a black-owned home is $58,400.

“I don’t have a problem with separate but equal. It’s just that this isn’t equal,” said Ruben Hopkins, 43, a financial analyst, who is black.

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Parsing the statistics, it can be hard to untangle cause from effect, hard to know whether to blame the segregation on poverty, or the poverty on segregation. Demographer Roderick Harrison, who studies these issues at Howard University in Washington, D.C., suspects that blame is due all around.

“When you have these disparities” in income, education and housing, “it feeds the stereotypes: Black people equal poverty, crime, welfare -- all the things that whites moved out to the suburbs to escape,” Harrison said. “That increases white resistance and fear to having even middle-class blacks move into the suburbs.”

And that increases segregation -- which in turn widens the gulf between black and white, by keeping African Americans from better schools and jobs in the suburbs.

“It’s pretty simple: America has had a racist strain for as long as it has been a society, and Milwaukee, as a part of America, is going to have that racist strain too,” said John Gurda, a local historian, who is white.

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Gurda points out, however, that the Milwaukee neighborhoods where blacks tend to cluster are not stereotypical slums.

The largely black north side features several suburban-style developments -- ranch homes with wood decks and broad lawns, quite similar to working-class subdivisions on the mostly white south side.

The north side offers as well elegant Victorian houses painted shades of sherbet, new single-family homes and tidy duplexes dating from the 1920s. In Sherman Park, the most integrated north-side neighborhood, graceful brick mansions sell for up to $300,000, a fortune for urban Milwaukee. In the poorest, most dangerous north-side neighborhoods, bullet scars pock the peeling paint on some homes. Iron grates guard many windows -- when there are windows, instead of stretched plastic. But there’s virtually no graffiti and very little trash. Vacant buildings are securely boarded up.

Thanks to aggressive city marketing efforts, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard -- once a thriving black business district -- is reviving from seedy disrepair, attracting young professionals of all races to the funky Bean Head Cafe and the Ponderosa steakhouse.

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An ambitious school-choice program lets students attend class anywhere in the city, or even in any suburb with open seats. Some families deliberately choose schools on the opposite side of the city to expose their children to diversity, making the elementary schools more integrated here than in a dozen other cities.

Yet racial tensions persist. The police chief, who is black, has been engaged in a war of racially charged words with the mayor, who is white. This fall, a white radio host proposed banning African American kids from a suburban mall, after police had to break up a crowd of black youths turned away from a sold-out movie.

“Milwaukee still has a long way to go,” Gurda said.

Mayor Norquist says he’s committed to erasing the racial inequities, and he points out that black household incomes rose much faster than white incomes in the 1990s. But he insists that most of the problems originate beyond the city’s borders.

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He blames the suburbs -- all but two are at least 85% white -- for failing to build low-cost housing, for failing to welcome minorities, for failing to support a light-rail system that would ferry urban workers to outlying jobs.

In the suburb of Menomonee Falls, village president Joe Greco responds that his community, although 97% white, has “done our part” for diversity by offering affordable housing, including a trailer park and modest ranch homes priced at about $120,000.

“The housing is here. I don’t know what more we can do,” Greco said. “We don’t get into social engineering.”

Back in central Milwaukee, however, engineering has its appeal. A new organization called Young Professionals of Milwaukee recently gathered more than 300 men and women of all races to talk frankly about their city’s reputation. Each agreed to make at least one lunch date a month with someone of a different background.

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“We’re hoping lots of little conversations will add up to big change,” said one of the group’s leaders, Jeff Sherman, who is white. “That may be overly optimistic. But at least it’s a start.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Most-segregated areas

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Many fast-growing Southern cities are increasingly integrated, but some Northern metropolitan areas remain strongly segregat-ed. Here are some other statistics related to segregation:

Black populations of the 10 most segregated metro areas (plus L.A.):

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1. Milwaukee

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Percent black: 16%

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2. Detroit

Percent black: 23%

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3. Cleveland

Percent black: 19%

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4. St. Louis

Percent black: 19%

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5. Newark, N.J.

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Percent black: 23%

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6. Cincinnati

Percent black: 14%

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7. Buffalo, N.Y.

Percent black: 12%

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8. New York City

Percent black: 24%

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9. Chicago

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Percent black: 19%

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10. Philadelphia

Percent black: 21%

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19. Los Angeles

Percent black: 10%

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Percentage of black population that would have to move to be evenly spread throughout the metro region:

Milwaukee: 82%

Los Angeles: 66%

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Percentage of suburban residents who are minorities:

Milwaukee: 6%

Los Angeles: 69%

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How much black households earn for every dollar white households earn:

Milwaukee: $0.49

Los Angeles: $0.62

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Percentage of suburban residents who are black:

Milwaukee: 1.6%

Los Angeles: 8.3%

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More-detailed information on other cities and suburbs available at www.albany.edu/mumford/

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Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research, University of Michigan Population Studies Center


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