St. Benedict the Moor parish has its roots in Bronzeville, a name given to the African America neighborhood where the church is located. Marquette University had its beginnings at the location, but after M.U. moved, the property became the home of St. Benedict the Moor Parish and boarding school. Bronzeville no longer exists as it was because of its destruction by urban renewal projects and the construction of a freeway through the area. A renewal is well underway. The boundaries of Bronzeville were: North Avenue, State Street on the South, Third Street on the East and 12th Street to the West. (Ivory Abena Black, p. 11) In his promotion of urban renewal, Mayor Frank Zeidler in 1959 decried the wretched living conditions of the inner city of which Bronzeville was a part. (Gurda, p. 365)
The Parish sponsored boarding school for African American children boasts of famous students such as Lionel Hampton, Red Foxx, Harold Washington (the first and only Black Mayor of Chicago), and N.B.A. basketball star -“Downtown” Brown. A hospital, St. Anthony, was built next to the church to service the community. (1930 ). Twins were born to baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron and his wife Barbara at St. Anthony’s but only one of the twins survived. (1957) (Bryant, p. 224)
Aaron lived in Bronzeville with other black ball players because of Milwaukee’s very rigid unwritten discrimination code which still exists. A 1955 Milwaukee Human Rights Commission reported on Milwaukee housing:
All those restricted within the arbitrary confines of the racial ghetto must find shelter as best they can within its circumscribed bounds. (Bryant, p .94)
A St. Benedict the Moor parishioner remembered Marquette Olympic champion of the 30’s, Ralph Metcalf, jogging from Bronzeville to the Marquette campus.
A generous white woman who volunteered to teach sewing at St. Benedict the Moor school is remembered commenting on Aaron’s move to an adjoining suburb – “They are where they are supposed to be. Just because he is rich and famous doesn’t mean he can live in Mequon.” White ballplayers lived and were idolized in the suburbs. Warren Spahn lived in Wauwatosa.
The legacy of racism in Milwaukee appears in many forms. The dirtiest jobs were given to blacks and immigrants. Immigrants were able to advance from these positions but not blacks. (W. Ozzane, p.162)
During the Great Depression there was competition for jobs. A 1934 strike at Wehr Steel Foundry involved white workers insisting that blacks not be hired. Blacks trying to cross the picket line were met with violence with the police supporting the white pickets. Wehr sponsored a black baseball team. (Trotter, Jr. p. 162, photo of the team p. 147) A parishioner’s father worked at Wehr and was told to expect a long strike.
Historian John Gurda reports that Milwaukee reached its pinnacle of prosperity and population in 1960 and the years just before and after. (Gurda, p. 354 ) The success story is memorable because of Big League Baseball. The Braves won the World Series in ’57, the National League Pennant in 58, and tied for the National League championship in ‘59.
But there is more to the story. In 1958 a young black man, Daniel Bell, was shot by a Milwaukee police officer at the outside edge of the Bronzeville neighborhood. Despite protests the officer was exonerated; he and his partner claimed that the young man threatened the officers with a knife. In 1979 one of the officers involved confessed that a knife was planted on the victim. The young man’s family received some monetary compensation from the city. We continue to suffer similar tragedies as the movement of history is not guaranteed to be progressive.
A MOVABLE LITURGY
A group of 40 parishioners attended the play presented by First Stage Theater – Welcome to Bronzeville. After the play we went to a central city restaurant for dinner. The venue for the play was the Todd Wehr Theater provided by the Wehr Foundation from surplus profits from the blood, sweat and tears of blacks at the Wehr Foundry.
Reaction to the play was positive. Bronzeville was depicted as a loving hard working family community gifted with a taste for music and camaraderie.
Survival in a racist city was and is heroic, but the play emphasized family – and kids growing up. The lovable child actors were superb. Famous jazz singer Billie Holiday was shown to have been required to live in a private home because of the segregation at Milwaukee hotels. The play depicts the positive influence of police sergeant Felmers Chaney. A St. Benedict the Moor parishioner agrees. He was black and was trusted by the community as were other black policemen. The white policemen were not trusted. Chaney later became an official of the NAACP and a civil rights leader.
DINNER AT THE TANDEM (1848 W. Fond du Lac, Milwaukee)
After the play we went to dinner and discussed our experience.
As in the Bronzeville of the past, we connected with each other, blacks and whites, over good food and music. We remembered Bronzeville, the tragedies and the joy, parishioners who have passed – Club owner Bonnie and Pedro her husband, the Alumni of St. Benedict the Moor. We gave thanks for the memories of Bronzeville; the spark of the divine in a racist city. We gave thanks for the jazz, the good food and camaraderie hosted by Kokomos, Thelma’s Backdoor, Moon Glo, and the Flame. Bronzeville wasn’t the Harlem Renaissance, but that’s OK. Bronzeville’s Hank Aaron batted 393, and hit three home runs in leading Milwaukee to victory over the New York Bronx Bombers in the 1957 World Series.
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This article is the view of a longtime St. Benedict the Moor parishioner based on interviews with other parishioners, on published material and on parish members attending the play – Welcome to Bronzeville – performed by First Stage Milwaukee.
Black, Ivory Abena, Bronzeville A Miwaukee Lifestyle, Publishers Group, Milwaukee, 2005
Bryant, Howard, The Last Hero – A Life of Henry Aaron, Pantheon Books, N.Y. 2010
Gurda, John, The Making of Milwaukee, Milwaukee Historical Society, 1999
Ozanne, Robert W. The Labor Movement in Wisconsin, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1984
Trotter, Jr. Joe William, Black Milwaukee, University of Illinois, 1988