We're used to tales of crime and blight on the North Side. Here, a nationally acclaimed photojournalist tells a different story, of people who came to Milwaukee for work and created a strong community with a Southern tinge.
I document addiction and poverty, traveling to different parts of the United States to visit communities affected by both. When I arrive in a new city, I ask, “Where is the place NOT to go?” Then I go there. When I came to Milwaukee last September, I was told, “The North Side is where people get shot,” so that’s where I spent a week in September, walking around and talking to whoever would talk to me, an outsider asking to capture snapshots and glimpses into people’s lives.
I’ve listened to a lot of stories, and specifically, a lot of stories of frustration. But in Milwaukee, I heard more than what’s typical, and with greater consistency. On those first days, shortly after the uprising in Sherman Park, an older man standing in the rubble of a burned-out gas station told me, “Police are constantly humiliating everyone here, but mostly the young people.” When I wanted to take a photo of a street memorial – a collection of liquor bottles surrounding a street lamp – a friend of the victim stopped me: “I am protecting and honoring him,” he explained. “Cops don’t do right in most situations. You journalists don’t, either. How you all are doing us young black kids out here is ridiculous.” After a week of hearing about jobs lost, and seeing the empty lots where factories once stood, I started to understand the animosity.
But I also saw a strong sense of community, unlike some neighborhoods I’ve visited in other cities. The burned-out gas station was across the street from Sherman Park: green, beautiful, and filled with families. On the same block as boarded-up storefronts were family-owned businesses: Scruggs & Sons Shoe Repair, Coffee Makes You Black and Brew City Barbering, sporting a bright pink new coat of paint.
I soon noticed that almost every older resident I met had come from Mississippi or Louisiana or other parts of the South, as part of the post-World War II migration to the North – part of the Great Migration – looking for work in the then-booming factories. Confined to Milwaukee’s North Side by racism, the transplants put their spin on Milwaukee traditions and, in doing so, created their own. They built taverns – ones that opened at 6 a.m. for the third shift, celebrated and elevated the Packers, and filled the walls with hunting trophies from weekend trips to the lake regions up north. Their jukeboxes reflected their roots, loaded with blues, soul and funk rather than rock or pop. They built congregation after congregation, most dedicated to the evangelical faiths brought from the South, rather than the more restrained Lutheranism and Catholicism that dominated Milwaukee. They build a friendly, very Southern community in a very Northern city.
Drawn in by that dynamic, I returned for another week in the neighborhood, this time mostly just to talk and listen about things beyond the frustrations. I heard a lot about God and gratitude. I heard, and saw, a lot about the value of community. Here is a little of who I met and what I learned from ordinary people who let a stranger with a camera into their lives.
On an early January morning, a retiree plays slots at Caspar’s Lounge, each loss punctuated with a cry: “Right church, wrong pew!” At night, her spot is taken by George Johnikin, his Packers hat pulled low. The retired Teamster is recovering from a massive stroke. “I was in the hospital 41 days. But I came back. Anyone can come back if they got enough people around.”
Caspar’s is a corner bar, the ground floor of a home, painted Packers green-and-yellow. It opens at 6 a.m. every day, as it has for over 40 years, to serve retirees and night-shifters. Neighbors come and go all day, each welcomed with a shout. They play slots, watch TV, gossip and listen to gospel, soul, funk and country on the jukebox.
Luther Brown, 69
Luther Brown is the owner and operator of Caspar’s – “As much as it is operated or owned,” he laughs. He is clear, though, that he doesn’t put up with any funny business: “If you don’t behave properly, you are not allowed in here.” Born in Halls, Tenn., he worked the land, running machinery until he was 18, and then moved to Milwaukee. “Why?” He scans the bar. “Same reason we all came here. To better myself.” His uncle Caspar owned the tavern then, and he started working there, eventually taking over the business when his uncle died. He works every day, unless he is hunting. “Make sure you mention I am an outdoorsman. Hunting, bow hunting, fishing. It is my passion,” he says, pointing to the taxidermy-lined walls, filled with trophy deer and fish. A patron at the bar holds a package of venison, one of the perks of being a regular at Caspar’s.
Frank Cameron, 70
Frank tends bar in the afternoons and nights, taking over from Luther. Born in LaGrange, Ga., as one of 10 kids, he’s the son of a millworker dad and homemaker mom. “We grew up poor in name, but my parents owned their own home. Every Thursday, Dad came home with his check. We used to run to the end of the street to meet him, because that day we could go shopping for candy or cookies.” His sister married a man who moved to Milwaukee for a job. So at age 11, he moved to be with them. “I wanted to go to a place that I had opportunity to do more. When I got to Milwaukee, I felt more freedom. It was different. Things were mixed. There were integrated schools. Racism is always going to be around you, but I felt more comfortable with my surroundings in Milwaukee.”
George A. Watts, 80
When I mention that so many people I’ve met in Milwaukee seem to have come from the South, George Watts (above, right) takes a moment to consider. “You know, I have never met an older black person born in Milwaukee. We all came from other places. Factories got us off the farms and up here.” Watts was born in the small village of Bonita, La., into a family of nine kids. “We owned our own farm, so we had it good, but I suppose by today’s standards, we would have been considered poor,” he says. “At 10 I started working in the fields. When I got out of college, I wanted to start my own farm, but I didn’t have the money to do so. I planned to go north to Milwaukee, where one of my sisters was, and stay five years and earn enough money to come back. But I ended up getting married and staying 54 years! Worked at A.O. Smith as a mechanic before retiring. Never did go back to do the hog farming like I had intended.”
Scruggs and Sons Shoe Repair occupies the lower floor of a house on a quiet commercial stretch of North Teutonia Avenue, just beyond a large cemetery. Across the street is Young’s Bar, and further up the block is Catfish Lounge.
Scruggs is an old-fashioned cobbler shop, with a row of four seats up front against a wall hung with inspirational posters.
Rossette Williams, 67, is getting her boots shined by Donald Adams, 57. She is retired after 39 years at General Electric, where she blew glass to make specialty parts. She is originally from Charleston, Miss. “My parents were looking for better jobs, better schools, and better homes.”
I ask her about racial attitudes in both. “Here you have more indirect prejudice,” she says. “In the South you already know where you stand.”
Wanda Scruggs, 70
Wanda Scruggs sits behind the counter fixing shoes, her work interrupted constantly by well-wishers. A man peeks his head in the door: “I just want to come by and say Happy New Years!” She isn’t one to smile much; it disrupts her work. She is constantly busy – either working on shoes, talking on the phone to a customer, or cashing someone out at the front desk. Scruggs started working in her father’s shoe store early. She left to spend a few semesters at Milwaukee Area Technical College, but came back because she had small kids to raise. She took over the business when her father died in 1976. “How did I do it all? Lots of hard work and lots of faith in God. You can depend on him when nobody else shows up.” I comment that it sounds like a hard life. She smiles a touch. “Oh no. I have been gifted. I have no regrets – I do miss my grandson who was taken from me. But otherwise, no regrets. God and life is good.”
Two McDonald’s on the North Side serve as meeting places for retirees drawn by cheap coffee and free WiFi. In the Capitol Drive location, Henry Tablers, 79, chats with Winston Williams, 84. Both grew up on Southern cotton farms (Henry in Lee County, Miss., and Winston in Turrell, Ark.), and both came to Milwaukee for jobs. “Did I grow up poor?” Henry says with a smile about his childhood. “Ha. Damn poor. Cotton picking poor. But we worked hard. We didn’t rob or steal.” At the North Avenue McDonald’s, the old-timers tend to congregate in the afternoon. Someone brings a boom-box and home-made CDs filled with old blues. The DJ takes a seat and spins tunes for the rest, making this perhaps the rocking-est McDonald’s in the North.
Joseph Webb, 92
A regular at McDonald’s, Webb arrives daily at noon and stays till almost 3 o’clock, spending the afternoon sipping coffee and chatting. He grew up on a farm in Mobile, Ala., and left in 1943 to join the military. He was discharged in Madison, made his way to Milwaukee, and never moved back South. “Milwaukee had plenty of jobs then, and I did plenty of them! I worked at International Harvester, Walgreens (dishwasher), L.J. Mueller Furnace Company. I was a country boy, so then I liked and preferred Alabama, but the livelihood was here in Milwaukee…. Do I miss Alabama now? Ha! No. Looking back, there was nothing but bad there.”
The Clinton-Rose Senior Center is in a newish building situated on the edge of a park on Martin Luther King Drive. When I enter, a sharply dressed older fellow carrying a pool cue case follows behind me. He heads up the stairs to a large pool hall, where he joins a group of men shooting stick and spinning off-color tales of past glories.
Downstairs, the conversation is more refined, but here, too, it is often wrapped around the past. Like in much of the neighborhood, the South figures prominently in the stories being told.
Vertaree Jenkins, 70
Vertaree Jenkins spends her morning at the Senior Center with other older retirees who, like her, are originally from the South. She is one of 14 kids born in Okolona, Miss. “Dad was a sharecropper, mason, carpenter, preacher, a ‘jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.’ My mother passed 6 months after my birth. I wouldn’t say we werepoor – we had horses and mules, and we could shoot rabbits, squirrels, and possums for all the food we needed.” As her sisters and brothers moved north, she moved as well, at 14. “I didn’t want to come here. Milwaukee was cold. The people were cold, too. Milwaukee was very racist, but my concern was survival, and the good jobs were here.” She stayed, working at JCPenney and the courthouse, and raising her son, Desmond. In 1961, she found God. “He helped me stay focused and away from the drugs that had swept over this community,” she says.
Nettie Daniels, 69
Nettie rushes from the Senior Center to her church just up the block, to collect boxes of food to distribute. She loads them into her car, which has the vanity license plate KOSY MS. “People think I mean Cozy Miss, but it is short for Kosciusko, Mississippi, the county I was born and raised in.” One of five children, she came to Milwaukee at 17. “I came here for the jobs. I even turned down a college scholarship to come here, because we knew the only good jobs was up North, and I could sew so that is what I got jobs doing. At Jack Winter, at Hertz Shoes, at Weyenberg shoes. Later I got a job at Briggs & Stratton. When they moved [jobs] overseas, I took a buyout and finally, 32 years later, got myself a college degree at MATC Downtown.” ◆
Tune in to WUWM’s “Lake Effect” March 1 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.
Photos by Chris Arnade