Top

Racial Change at St. Elizabeth’s

by Tom TolanPart 3 of 6 in a series. Open Housing Protest March

In the early 1960s, St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church — now St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church, at 128 W. Burleigh — was a relatively thriving parish, with a school attended by more than 1,000 children. Most parishioners were of German ancestry — many descended from “St. E’s” founders — or Polish families who had migrated from the east side of Holton. African-Americans were a definite presence, but they were less numerous in the parish than in the neighborhood. Fewer than 10 percent of the 1,056 pupils at St. Elizabeth’s in 1963 were black, and most of their families could be classified as middle-class. Carl Diederichs, who came to the parish as a Capuchin brother in 1966, described the position of the priests there as one of acceptance — if blacks could fit in with the white parishioners. “The attitude then was, ‘We don’t see color,'” he said. “That meant that they would accept blacks if they fit into the ethnic, Saturday-night bowling-alley crowd, which not many did.” Some parishioners were considerably less tolerant. Reuben Harpole, a black Catholic and now a program director for the Bader Foundation, remembers sensing hostility from some white members during Mass. “They’d turn right around in church and say, ‘Why don’t you niggers get out of here and go to your own church?'” Harpole recalled. Several African-American parents who sent their children to the parish school can also recount instances of discrimination or at least condescension involving the nuns of St. Elizabeth’s. There were positives, too: An interracial discussion group, Project Friendship, attracted both black and white parishioners. Meanwhile, however, a mood change was sweeping Milwaukee’s African-American community. Black leaders were becoming more militant, challenging the status quo with increasing frequency. Milwaukee’s first civil rights demonstration took place in the summer of 1963. Other actions followed, and by the end of 1964, several white Catholic priests from north side parishes were getting involved. In January 1965, a group of them drove together to a march in Selma, Alabama, a crucible of the American civil rights movement. Their trip was a conversion experience, and the priests returned to Milwaukee passionately committed to social justice. The priests included Father James Groppi, assistant pastor at St. Boniface Parish, on 11th and Clarke Streets; Father Matthew Gottschalk, a long-time advocate for Milwaukee’s black community; and Father Patrick Flood, who has since left the priesthood and worked on urban causes in Milwaukee and in Austin, Texas. There was also a priest named Austin Schlaefer, who was about to move to St. Elizabeth’s. Soon after Schlaefer made the move, other priests and brothers with liberal views on civil rights joined the pastoral team, and things began to change rapidly. Diederichs, then a Capuchin and now a diocesan priest, described the philosophy behind the changes. Other inner-city parishes, he said, had not tried to change with their neighborhoods as they shifted from white to black. They ministered instead to their long-time (white) parishioners until those people either left the neighborhood or died. The priests at St. Elizabeth’s wanted to serve the poor around them, even if the poor were not Catholic — and even if the decision alienated their older parishioners. “The whole idea,” Diederichs said, “was not to wait to become an island of whiteness in the emerging community… The role of the inner-city church is to accept blacks and their needs, and address their needs.” The first confrontation over this new philosophy took place in the fall of 1965. Milwaukee civil rights leaders organized a boycott of the city’s public schools because of what they saw as discrimination against African-American pupils — especially the practice of busing black kids from crowded central-city neighborhoods to outlying schools and teaching them in isolation from white students. The boycott, patterned after a similar one in the spring of 1964, was led by recently elected state Rep. Lloyd Barbee, through a group he founded called the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee. Several north side Catholic churches — including St. E’s — tried to join the boycott by opening their schools to black pupils whose parents were keeping them out of the public schools. Archdiocesan officials ordered the parishes not to participate. Still, the attempt was enough to anger many white St. Elizabeth parishioners. Their anger became more intense the next year, when Diederichs, who had just been placed in charge of the parish’s Catholic Youth Organization, decided to open it to non-Catholics, i.e., young African-Americans. Then, in the summer of 1967, Groppi began leading marches in support of an open housing ordinance proposed in the city’s Common Council. The ordinance, to prohibit racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, had been introduced numerous times by Ald. Vel Phillips — the first, and at the time the only black member and the only woman in that body. At the time of the marches, she was a resident of what’s now called Riverwest — living with her husband Dale and their two sons in a house in the 2200 block of Booth St. Phillips appreciated the support of Groppi and his NAACP commandos, and joined them on all but one of their marches. The marchers targeted the homes of aldermen who opposed the ordinance, including Eugene Woehrer, an active member of St. Elizabeth’s who lived on Booth and Burleigh. Father Schlaefer and other members of St. Elizabeth’s pastoral team joined the marches on Woehrer’s house, and the alderman and his more conservative allies were outraged. Finally, in the fall of 1968, Schlaefer and a group of parishioners decided to convert the parish school to a non-sectarian, private community school. Some staunch defenders of the parish school organized a boycott of the weekly collection envelopes, and St. Elizabeth’s revenues dropped dramatically. The parish-school faction also sent a petition to the archbishop requesting dismissal of the pastoral team, which was by now headed by Schlaefer. The petition was denied. The next fall, the building opened as St. Elizabeth Community School, with 500 students. In the school’s second year, its name was changed to Harambee Community School — a Swahili word meaning roughly “pulling together.” According to the official parish history, the conversion of the school was the last straw for many older white parishioners. St. Elizabeth’s membership dropped from 3,300 people in 1967 to 591 in 1971, or 82%. Meanwhile, the population of the surrounding area — bordered by Locust Street and Concordia Avenue between Fifth and Holton Streets — soared from 12 percent black in 1960 to 64 percent in 1970 and more than 80 percent in 1975. The controversy at St. Elizabeth’s was by no means the only factor contributing to white flight — and most likely not the biggest. Milwaukee’s famed “civil disturbance” shut down the city for days during the summer of 1967; the center of the violence was just south of the St. Elizabeth’s neighborhood — with two of the three deaths taking place in a house at Second and Center streets. In addition some block-busting was practiced by real estate agents who tried to persuade whites to sell their homes at low prices. Still, some white residents laid the neighborhood’s rapid transition squarely on the doorstep of St. Elizabeth’s rectory. In a 1969 newspaper interview, former Ald. Woehrer said the white exodus was due to the changes at the school. “This started it,” he said, “and from there it has been increasing.” Diederichs countered that the neighborhood would have changed from white to black sooner or later in any case. “It would have happened in five years,” Diederichs said. “We made it happen in two.” The late Schlaefer, who left Milwaukee after the turbulence at St. Elizabeth’s, didn’t buy even that. He attributed the neighborhood’s turnover to decisions by local financial institutions to stop lending money to whites. Whatever the reasons, Schlaefer — who also served inner-city parishes in Detroit, Gary, and Chicago — said he had never seen a neighborhood change as quickly as the one around St. Elizabeth’s. “There was a lot of suffering on all sides,” he said. “People lost their lifetime savings…. Within two years, we lived through about 200 years of history.” Riverwest: A Community History is due out this spring. The book’s publication is funded by grants from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the Harry and Mary Franke Idea Fund, the Inbusch Foundation and Outpost Natural Foods. Proceeds will benefit COA Youth and Family Centers. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 3 – March 2003

Related Reading: History of Civil Rights and Open Housing Movement in Milwaukee (UWM Library Archives) Freeways and Ghosts by Dan Knauss (Current Media) Read about freeway politics and civil rights, from the past to the present.


This is an excerpt from Tom Tolan’s Riverwest: A Community History, which will be published late this spring. Riverwest Currents plans to include further excerpts in the coming months.

Tolan wrote the history 20 years ago, as part of the Milwaukee Humanities Program, a federally funded organization based at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and he’s updated it over the last several years.

The Riverwest History Society, a committee set up solely for this purpose, will publish the book. Milwaukee historian John Gurda heads the committee and is also editing the book. Riverwest resident Kate Hawley is the book’s designer.

Money for publication of the book comes from grants from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Harry and Mary Franke Idea Fund, the Inbusch Foundation and Outpost Natural Foods. Proceeds from the sale of the book will benefit COA Youth and Family Centers (Children’s Outing Association), which helped revive the book for publication.

The Riverwest History Society is looking for photographs to use in the neighborhood history book. Family photos, pictures of businesses and of recreation, church, and ethnic events all would be helpful.

Of special interest are old photos from the everyday life of the Polish-American community surrounding St. Casimir and St. Mary of Czestochowa parishes; from the first integration of the neighborhood in the 1960s, and of the old St. Elizabeth’s Parish on First and Burleigh; from the Puerto Rican and larger Hispanic communities that arrived here in the 1960s and 1970s; and from the neighborhood activism and the counterculture movements of the 1970s and 1980s.

If you have old photos, please call Tom Tolan at 331-3510 or Kate Hawley at 372-8510.

Open Housing Protest March