Mildred L. Harpole died last week at 84. She will be missed in the Milwaukee community.
The year is 1964. Brown v. Board of Education was supposed to have integrated American schools over the past decade. But most school districts didn’t put the work in to make sure white and black kids actually ended up sharing a classroom. Segregation was still very much a reality.
In 1960, a survey of Milwaukee Public Schools found that inner-city schools were still 90% black. And the non-white students who went to majority-white schools were often segregated within the schools themselves and still weren’t served in cafeterias.
That’s what led to the boycott. And Mildred Harpole was at the center of it, and she didn’t let children fall behind.
Harpole died last week, only a couple days after collapsing at church. Her husband of 60 years and two kids stood by her side as she faded at Ascension St. Luke’s Hospital.
Harpole married her husband, Reuben, in Cleveland in 1959 after he returned from serving in the armed forces in Korea. They moved to Milwaukee soon after.
On May 18, 1964, a one-day boycott was organized. Sixty percent of Milwaukee’s inner-city children stayed out of school. That’s 11,000 kids missing class for for equality. The next year, with little overall changes in the public schools, another three-day boycott was held.
During those four days, Freedom Schools were set up across the city, where dozens of parents and clergy became impromptu teachers who worked with thousands of youths, talking about the effects and systems of racism that brought about this mess.
Harpole was an educator with a law school education. In fact, she was the first African American woman in Milwaukee to receive a law degree. She kept on teaching during the peaceful protest.
“I did it because I felt that our youngsters have a lot going for them, and that they shouldn’t lose not one minute in their quest for learning and for education,” she said in a 1995 interview from an oral history project recorded in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries’ archives. “I didn’t feel that it was productive for children to sit home or be on the street during the boycott, even though I believed in what the boycott was all about.”
She would go on to become president of the Eta Phi Beta sorority, chair the Harambee Health Center (now known as the Isaac Coggs Heritage Health Center) and was the administrator of the Harambee Community School.
Her lifelong devotion to Milwaukee’s youth and vulnerable earned her too many honors to list, but they included the Vatican II Award from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the Harpoles have been lifelong Catholics and the Frank P. Zeidler Public Service Award from the City of Milwaukee.
Credit She Deserves
Mildred Harpole’s insights were instrumental in two books:
More than one Struggle: The Evolution of Black School Reform Milwaukee by Jack Dougherty, 2004
The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency of Milwaukee by Patrick D. Jones, 2009
Friday, Nov. 1: From 4-8 p.m., Harpole’s family will be receiving visitors at Northwest Funeral Chapel, 6630 West Hampton Ave.
Saturday, Nov. 2: At 12:30 p.m., Funeral Mass at St. Francis of Assisi, 1927 Vel Phillips Ave.
To follow the funeral mass, from 2-6 p.m., a gathering will be held at Wisconsin Black Historical Society/Museum, 2620 West Center St.
A Lovely Milwaukee Magazine Throwback
In February 2000, Reuben Harpole shared the story of how he fell in love with his wife as part of a “How They Met” cover story in MilMag. Here’s what he wrote:
I was at MATC. I was playing around, dating all kinds of gals — just looking — but known only to God, I was praying for a wife, a real wife. My friend Arthur knew her. He and another friend decided to match me up. I was poor — I didn’t even have a suit. I borrowed my father’s. I didn’t want to go by myself, so I told a friend from out of town I was fixing him up. He’s a guy, I thought, who really could stand up to her. His name was Julius Caesar.
‘I can’t handle this,’ I thought. ‘She’s too smart for me.’
At her dorm, word went up to Mildred that Julius Caesar was here to see her. The students cracked up.
She came down. She was beautiful — one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. I knew she was the one. Julius brought her a dozen red roses. I was so scared I split and left them. After that, I kept bumping into her. We saw each other five or ten times over two or three months. It still wasn’t serious. I got Cidled to the service. I left it ambiguous with her. I felt I was too young. I hadn’t had enough experience dating. Those were all excuses for me not doing what I was supposed to.
I was in boot camp at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. It was 1957. I heard, ‘Hey Harpole, phone.’ It was her. It was Valentine’s Day, February 14. She was in law school in Washington, D.C. I thought when I left that was it, and I was glad. When she called I had to get serious with myself She said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘How’d you get my number?’
She made it clear there were a lot of guys after her — she had been holding back from dating others. She just wanted me to make the decision. I, right there on that phone, I made the commitment. I proposed to her.”