One day, Patricia Diggs realized that she was talking to her sick father: who would preserve his story, his story, once he was gone? This nagging question led to another. Who would keep the stories of other black seniors in Milwaukee?
“We were talking about the good old days at Allis Chalmers and AO Smith (the major employers in the heyday of manufacturing in Milwaukee), and I stood there and thought, ‘Who’s going to write their stories?’ ”
That was in 2003, and these questions have been gnawing at his heart ever since. This led her to participate in the publication of a 2006 book by Ivory Abena Black on Bronzeville and a collaboration with Milwaukee PBS on the 2008 documentary “Punching In”, which examined how the loss of manufacturing jobs was hurting to the city’s middle class.
Telling the stories of African American families and businesses in Milwaukee in a new way is the goal of a project just launched by Diggs and Kitonga Alexander, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “Milwaukee Bronzeville Histories” is a website and mobile app that will allow people to learn about the past – and present – as they stroll through the North End. It went live in time for Bronzeville Week, which begins on Saturday.
After:What to know about Milwaukee’s Bronzeville Week, from entertainment and art to culture and commerce
After:Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood is on The New York Times’ list of places to visit this year
This story is part of our year-long effort to spotlight people, like Diggs and Alexander, who “weave” our communities together. Our Wisconsin Weavers Project is an idea borrowed from the Aspen Institute, a global non-profit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. Aspen started Weave: The Social Fabric Project in 2018 to help solve the problem of fabric breakdown. the social trust that has divided many Americans. Aspen works to find weavers, tell their stories, and offer them support and connection.
From Malcolm X to Larry Hill, a wealth of stories
Both Diggs and Alexander have strong ties to the city. Diggs was born and raised in Milwaukee before moving to work for years in public relations in Washington, DC, and now in Los Angeles, where she has her own creative agency. Alexander, also from Milwaukee, was a schoolteacher in the city for 12 years and also worked in social services. His doctorate at UWM focuses on Black Milwaukee history since the 1940s.
The website and app they created tell the stories of famous people who once lived in or near Bronzeville – martyr martyr Malcom X (who lived there for a few years in his youth), actor and singer Paul Robeson (he played for the Milwaukee Badgers, one of the first NFL football teams) and actress Hattie McDaniel (the first black actress to win an Oscar for her performance in ‘Gone with the Wind’, she stated that Milwaukee had been his “stepping stone” to Hollywood).
But they also tell more prosaic stories — about people like Larry Hill, who for years ran Larry’s Lunch-ette at 619 W. Walnut St., or Mattiebelle Woods, a prolific journalist who spent decades chronicling social life. of the black community of Milwaukee. When she died aged 102 in 2005, she was considered the country’s oldest working journalist. Or Cleveland Colbert, musician, upholsterer, crane operator and aviator who flew (against his will) during the Spanish Civil War. He was an early advocate of the idea that African Americans should own their own factories to provide jobs for the community. He was active in local politics and wrote a book in 1951 detailing his ideas.
The mission to tell their stories? Neatly connecting the past to the present and showing why Bronzeville mattered – and still matters.
Bronzeville lost and regained
Historic Bronzeville was bordered by North Avenue to the north, State Street to the south, Third Street to the east, and 12th Street to the west. But Walnut Street was its economic heart. In an era of rock-solid segregation, Milwaukee’s Bronzeville has grown into a vibrant, self-sufficient business and cultural community renowned for its nightlife and entertainment. Some of the best black American talent, including Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, have played clubs there.
After World War II, however, urban renewal and later construction of I-43 led to the destruction of hundreds of homes and severely disrupted the community. In recent years, Bronzeville is experiencing a renaissance along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and North Avenue, with millions of dollars worth of redevelopment including the new home of the American Black Holocaust Museum, Pete’s Fruit Market, the Bronzeville Center for the Arts and the relocation of the offices of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. The foundation helps fund the Bronzeville Stories website and app.
The app creates a self-guided walking tour of Bronzeville, featuring stories and maps that pop up to show where people lived or worked. There are two tours: one of historic Bronzeville and the other of the “new” Bronzeville sites, including the arts center and museum.
“I like to say these are people who came out of nowhere,” Alexander said. “They were people who took a community from survival to thriving. And that’s what we recognize about them.
Alexander says the spirit of people like Larry Hill, a WWII veteran who received the Purple Heart, lives on in the new businesses around the community. “Throughout the community, we see splashes of that spirit — one example is Sherman Phoenix,” he said, an entrepreneurial center at 36th Street and Fond du Lac Ave. which arose in response to the unrest in this region in 2016.
“Efforts like this are, we believe, the rekindled spirit of Bronzeville.”
Diggs says the goal is two-fold: to create a digital library for scholars and the community, “especially young people.”
“We see this as an opportunity for everyone in Milwaukee to be able to learn not only about old Bronzeville, but also about new Milwaukee,” Diggs said. “And so that’s something that we’re looking forward to, to really weave together those threads of understanding and community, which we all need right now.”
Alexander and Diggs hope this is just the beginning. They realize that there are hundreds of other stories like the ones they’ve collected so far. They would like to complete their collection.
As Alexander notes, “there is some interesting information sitting in someone’s attic right now.”