One of the great tensions in the history of Black American politics is that between the drive for self-determination and the struggle for integration. Over the course of U.S. history, Black Americans have often renewed their focus on self-determination (in other words, controlling institutions and resources for themselves) precisely when white Americans resisted efforts at integration and inclusion. In response to the failed promise of equity, many of us echo Nina Simone’s sentiment when she sang, “You don’t have to live next to me, just give me my equality.”
I thought about this dynamic this week when I delivered the Metcalfe Lecture at Marquette University. It was a homecoming of sorts. I was born in Birmingham, but I attended preschool in Milwaukee. My mother and I traveled there with other Alabamans. Some were young adults who enrolled in school at Marquette, while others, like my mother, worked at the university. My mother reconnected with old friends and comrades in Milwaukee. She had been there before I was born as a graduate student and an activist who walked and worked alongside Father Groppi, an Italian American priest and civil-rights organizer best known for leading fair-housing marches.
My memories of Milwaukee are sensory and impressionistic. Our upstairs neighbor made pasta almost every night, and I can still smell her cooking. We had stained glass in our kitchen and bay windows in my bedroom, and the colored light that shone inside was exquisite. I ate vanilla long-John doughnuts many mornings sitting at the lunch counter at Walgreens, with my mother and her friend Terry and Terry’s son, Peter Joseph. In the afternoons, I wandered around the offices of Marquette’s Equal Opportunity Program, often finding my mother’s friend Professor Bob Lowe who had previously taught at Miles College, a historically Black college in Fairfield, Alabama, and who pretended he didn’t know how to read (I tried to teach him frequently).
Our community was both racially integrated and specifically focused on racial justice for Black Americans. My mother enrolled me in preschool at the Urban Day School, which was founded upon the closing of another school, Saint Benedict the Moor, in 1967. Saint Benedict’s was distinguished as the alma mater of the comedian Redd Foxx; Harold Washington, the first Black mayor of Chicago—and jazz musician Lionel Hampton. It was a Catholic mission school, with a specific focus on the Black community in Milwaukee, which largely comprised migrants from the South (there were other similar mission schools in other U.S. cities), and it was the first coeducational boarding school in Wisconsin.
Urban Day, in contrast, was a nonsectarian private school formed by social activists who had been involved in the multiyear struggle against de facto public-school segregation in Milwaukee. There were enormous resource differences between Black and white public schools, and when busing was implemented as a way to address school segregation, Black students got placed in segregated classrooms and activities in predominantly white schools. In 1964, 10 years after the Brown v. Board opinion that declared de jure school segregation unconstitutional, local organizers founded the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (MUSIC) to challenge persistent and deliberate public-school segregation. The MUSIC led a series of school boycotts in 1964 and 1965, and opened up alternative Freedom Schools for children who chose to stay out of public schools.
Urban Day emerged from the freedom-school concept. The founders sought to provide a high-quality education to children in the local neighborhood, one that was comparable to the private Country Day Schools in the suburbs. This was Urban Day.
It was an overwhelmingly but not exclusively Black school when I was there. My classmates included the children of Arnold Mitchem, the man who created the concept of “first-generation” college students and founded the Council for Opportunity in Education. The federal government would adopt the first-generation frame in the Higher Education Act extension in 1980. But when I was in school, we were mostly just neighborhood kids who benefited from adults who were committed to giving us a high-quality education when the city of Milwaukee refused. Self-determination was pursued when integration was refused.
Russell Rickford’s excellent book We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination traces the larger movement of independent Black schools that emerged in the ’60s and ’70s. He described the schools as exercises in the decolonization of the mind. My own experience at Urban Day was short but powerful. It is where I learned to love school. I remember my teacher Mrs. Talbert most. She was kind, the color of ebony wood with a perfectly round afro, and she taught us to write in cursive in preschool. I loved the times when I had dinner at her house. Largely because we moved to Massachusetts when I was 5, and I attended private schools there, I wouldn’t have another Black teacher until my freshman year of college.
In later years, Urban Day would become a school in the crosshairs of the debates around school choice. It became a charter school in the 1990s, and ultimately closed in 2016. The building is now used for yet another school. Its story is part of the history of Black education, integration, and self-determination across multiple generations. It is also part of a lesser-acknowledged story of what happened during the Great Migration of African Americans out of the U.S. South. Generally speaking, the Great Migration was a movement of African Americans seeking better work opportunities, and, for some, a way out of Jim Crow (though the Midwest was in many cases as segregated and unequal as the South). But it also included a migration of political organizers who devised various organizing strategies to confront racial injustice in their new locales.
Organizers built hubs in all the various cities and often crossed paths in multiple places. People we knew in Birmingham overlapped with people in Milwaukee, who overlapped with Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also Chicago. And in each place, I was surrounded by adults who were trying to figure out how to create a new world for us children, a world that protected us from the viciousness of racism and allowed us as much promise as possible.
The apartment building where we once lived in Milwaukee has been torn down for a Marquette University building. But that old Urban Day building remains, and the struggle continues.