Father Groppi and Open Housing Marchers

PEOPLE who have taken part in protests and group actions report a kind of euphoria – some say it’s as powerful as falling in love. “Action fever,” they call it.  Milwaukee audiences are sure to feel some emotional heat if they attend March On Milwaukee, Margaret Rozga’s dramatic memoir. The scene with Christmas carolers outside the home of the landlord who refused to rent to Ronald Britton, a black Viet Nam vet, is guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat. Perhaps a blush to the cheek. The play will be presented at 7 pm on Thursday, September 27 at the Humphrey Scottish Rite Center, 790 N. Van Buren St. It will kick off a weekend of events commemorating the open housing marches of 1967.  March on Milwaukee is directed by Andre Lee Ellis, known for his early involvement with Hansberry-Sands Theatre Company, including three years as artistic director. Ellis has worked in New York, Atlanta and Phoenix. Locally, he has coordinated the Garfield Avenue Blues, Jazz, Gospel & Arts Festival and the Miss Juneteenth Pageant. He produced the city’s Martin Luther King Day celebration for eight years. He’s enjoying himself. “This will be the first play I’ve directed in Milwaukee for five years,” Ellis commented. And it may well be the first of many such ventures. “I hope this will help kick off my Andre Lee Ellis & Co.” The show’s producer is Mario Hall, community organizer for the YMCA-CDC at Northside. “We’re hoping this production will help people understand what went on in Milwaukee during that time,” Hall said, noting that many people think the civil rights movement was something that happened “down south.” The Freedom Marches in Milwaukee addressed a problem still with us today, observed Hall, the need for decent housing for everyone. March On Milwaukee was first staged in April at UW-Waukesha, where author Margaret Rozga teaches English. She was married to civil rights leader James Groppi from 1976 until his death in 1985 at the age of 54. Events of the play center on the 1967 protest marches in support of an open housing ordinance brought before the Common Council by Vel Phillips, Milwaukee’s first African-American – and first female – alderman. Phillips introduced the ordinance in Common Council chambers month after month, year after year. Each time she was the only alderman to vote for it. Her cause was soon joined by Father Groppi, a white priest at St. Boniface Church and advisor to the Milwaukee chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council. Groppi also helped organize an all black male group called the Milwaukee Commandos, formed to help quell violence during the Freedom Marches. Andre Lee Ellis There was plenty of racial unrest in the summer of 1967. At the end of July riots broke out, and Mayor Henry Maier declared a state of emergency and 24-hour curfew, and called in the National Guard. The curfew continued for the next nine days. By the time the violence was over there were four dead, more than 100 hurt and 1,740 arrested. Many Milwaukeeans have vivid memories of this time. Play director Ellis was growing up in the old Lapham Park housing projects. He remembers Dr. Bop, the DJ on WAWA radio, announcing the curfew. “We had to run to Coleman’s grocery store and get back before 7 o’clock,” he remembers. “We were scared the army men would get us.” Ellen Warren, a cast member who grew up in St. Francis, has different memories. “Everything I heard was through the media. They portrayed the Commandos as violent thugs.” She says the play is showing that the Youth Council and the Commandos were unequivocally against violence. “It would be fabulous if everyone in Milwaukee could see this play,” Warren said. “It shows the actual intent and behavior of the marchers – the non-violent stance they took throughout the action, in contrast to the media presentation.” March on Milwaukee will kick off a full weekend of events. The play will be on Thursday night, Sept. 27. On Friday, Sept. 28 the March On Milwaukee Exhibition will open at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society/Museum at 2620 W. Center St. There will be a full day Community Conference at UWM on Saturday. A commemorative event at the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge (16th Street Viaduct) will round out the weekend. Comedian and activist Dick Gregory will make several appearances during the weekend. Ellis is hopeful that the events will help bring a new point of view to our community, but he’s not unrealistic. “In 2007, forty years later, the most we seem to be able to get done is the naming of a bridge,” he commented. “But can we bridge the gap that was the main reason for the marching?” Editor’s Note: Ellen Warren, frequent contributor to Riverwest Currents, and Nik Kovac, Contributing Editor, are both cast members of the upcoming production of March on Milwaukee. Find complete details for March On Milwaukee at MarchOnMilwaukee.org

March on Milwaukee: 40th Anniversary of the Open Housing Marches Calendar of Events

{tab=Dramatic Presentation}March On Milwaukee: A Memoir of the Open Housing Protests • Written by Margaret Rozga • Directed by Andre L. Ellis Humphrey Scottish Rite Center, 790 N. Van Buren • Thursday, September 27, 7pm • Tickets: $10 Kick off the weekend with a memoir written by the widow of open housing advocate James Groppi. For information and tickets: Mario Hall • 414-374-9444 • mhall@ymcamke.org {tab=Exhibition}March On Milwaukee Exhibition • Wisconsin Black Historical Society / Museum • 2620 W. Center St. • Opening: Friday, Sept. 28, 5:30-8:30 pm The Wisconsin Black Historical Society/Museum hosts a new exhibit dedicated to the history of civil rights in Milwaukee. The permanent exhibit of the 1967 open housing marches offers a glimpse into what it was like to be there. Clayborn Benson, Executive Director of the museum, is inviting area social studies teachers to incorporate field trips to the exhibit as part of their curriculum on Wisconsin history and the civil rights movement. There will also be a smaller traveling exhibit to take to schools, libraries, and other public venues. Thanks to Ellsworth Brown, Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society and Robert Teske, Director of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, who have agreed to donate staff, time, and resources to this exhibit project. For information contact Clayborn Benson • 414-372-7677 • contact@wbhsm.org {tab=Conference}March On Milwaukee Community Conference • September 29, 2007• 9 AM -5 pm • Sessions 7-9 pm Evening Keynote UWM-Union, Ballroom • 2200 E. Kenwood Blvd. • Free • Register by Sept. 15 The community conference will unite community members with historians, policy analysts, politicians, activists, teachers and students in a discussion about segregation and other forms of social inequity in Milwaukee. Conference panels will be divided by theme, each introduced by a separate speaker. Each session will end with a discussion period. Registration for the conference is free, but please register by September 14. Space may be limited for those who do not register by the deadline. {tab=Bridge Event Commemoration} James E. Groppi Unity Bridge • 16th Street Viaduct • Sunday, Sept. 30 1-5 pm • Free and open to the public. The March On Milwaukee project will mark the 40th anniversary of Milwaukee’s open housing marches with a public commemoration on the site of the most famous of these marches, the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge. {tab=Learn More}