Community leader and historian Reggie Jackson chuckles. “I was a nerd when I was a kid,” he says, sitting at a table in The Big Eazy, a restaurant on North Martin Luther King Drive. “I was always reading an encyclopedia because I had a thirst for knowledge, particularly history.” The brainy young Jackson studied history and political science in college, served as an electrician in the Navy for six years and, after he returned to Milwaukee, earned a business degree and worked as a special-education teacher. Meanwhile, he’d begun volunteering at America’s Black Holocaust Museum, then located in a low building on North Fourth Street, and soon he found his calling there: a job with a curious name, “head griot.”
A griot is a West African leader who is part historian, part storyteller and part social commentator. Last summer, Jackson found himself playing all three of these roles when conflict and unrest broke out in his own Sherman Park neighborhood. He responded by writing about it, with pieces appearing in The Milwaukee Independent online magazine that married historical research with his own observations and reflections about the police shooting and protests. “I spent some time tonight in a grassy area just north of the BP gas station [that was damaged],” Jackson writes in one article. “What I witnessed upon arrival was a group in excess of 100 holding hands, praying and singing together. The group was unusual because of its diversity. It was multi-generational and multi-racial. It was an amazing sight to see.”
Jackson started researching race relations well before becoming head griot in 2003: “In high school,” he says, ” I developed the idea of a mixed black-white social service agency I called ‘1955’ in honor of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” These days, he’s in demand as a teacher, for both children and adults, on how Milwaukee came to be known as the country’s most segregated metro area. Many residents point to 1960s freeway construction as the main force that sliced up neighborhoods, dividing whites from blacks. Jackson, however, argues that other factors laid the foundation, including restrictive property covenants banning nonwhites from certain neighborhoods, and the practice of redlining, which made it difficult for residents of minority neighborhoods to get mortgages. And white flight left “holes literally and figuratively in Milwaukee,” he says.
He talks to large groups at libraries, film screenings and university panels, where protests and videos of police shootings “have opened up conversations for the first time in a long time,” he says.
Jackson calls himself a “public historian,” which is someone who “shows how history impacted and continues to impact people on a daily basis. A public historian goes out to the public and brings them history where they live.”
The late Dr. James Cameron – who survived a lynching in 1930 at the age of 16 – founded the ABHM in 1988. It has existed online as a “museum without walls” since the closing of the physical location in 2008, but there are plans to open a brick-and-mortar space in Bronzeville by early 2018. Its exhibits span the shores of West Africa, America’s plantations, the lynchings of the early 20th century, the civil rights movement and modern-day issues, about which Jackson is an authority.
“The black holocaust is ongoing,” Jackson says. “Blacks are still being killed in record numbers. There is continued discrimination in housing and jobs, and schools are still segregated.” ◆
Since 1970, these suburbs have had the biggest increase in black population, though blacks remain in the minority.