Frustrations over fair housing for African Americans reached a boiling point in Milwaukee in the summer of 1967.
More than 50 years after one of the city’s most well-known protests led to change, Black people in Milwaukee continue to face disparities in equal housing rights.
Amid the civil rights movement in the summer of 1967, the effects of long-term discrimination and segregation amongst Black Americans spilled into the streets of Milwaukee.
“My problem was being told that I couldn’t live in a place,” said Joe Baring.
Baring was 20 years old when he joined Milwaukee’s NAACP chapter as the fight was on for fair housing rights. He helped organize a peaceful march from the mainly Black north side into the predominantly white south side to make a statement.
“On Aug. 29, we went back across that bridge and we’re singing songs and enjoying ourselves and we get to Kosciusko Park and there are 13,000 white people there. Bricks and bottles and bats and you name it,” Baring recalled.
Baring said his protest group was met with violence and police brutality. Despite the immense opposition all the way up to the mayor and police chief, activists like Baring led demonstrators on the streets for 200 straight days.
Baring said he was arrested four times and was beaten by counter-protesters, all while stores were looted and businesses burned.
“People understood you were putting your life in jeopardy when you went on the march,” He said.
Baring said their main goal was to back Vel Phillips. The city’s first female and Black common council member introduced fair housing proposals several times in the ‘60s. Her white counterparts on the council rejected her push.
African-Americans remained largely confined to living in one section of the city, from Holton to 20th and Capitol to McKinley. Steve Schaffer with the Milwaukee County Historical Society said state law enabled this to take place.
“It did not address individual homes, duplexes where the owner lived there, or multi-units of four or more. So, it basically dealt with commercial property so it had no impact at all on African Americans,” Schaffer said.
After the protesters marched for more than half a year, Milwaukee’s common council ultimately reversed course offering Black people and other minority races fair housing laws in 1968. It was the same year federal mandates enforced equal housing rights.
“Over the years this has progressed and we’ve changed now from a slammed door to what we call a revolving door. So there are other guises that are put up,” said Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council CEO Bill Tisdale.
Tisdale said his organization is in place to break down the barriers of housing discrimination that still exist today. Tisdale said they receive between 150 to 250 housing discrimination complaints each year ranging from home rentals and sales to insurance.
“It’s more let us check out your credit score, your credit’s not good. You can’t afford this unit,” he said.
Whenever the organization receives a complaint, Tisdale said they launch an investigation to test the landlord’s or seller’s practices by sending equally qualified Black and white people in to see if they qualify to become a tenant or buyer.
“We basically provide the evidence because generally, people don’t have witnesses when they encounter these situations. So it’s your word against the landlord’s word,” Tisdale said.
Tisdale said Milwaukee has come a long way since the forced segregation of the ‘60s, but he said housing discrimination for Black people sadly is still often hidden in plain sight.