Educational Segregation and Desegregation

Click the image to learn more. A woman and small child carry signs calling for the end of Milwaukee school segregation in 1964.

The Milwaukee metropolitan area is often classified as the most racially segregated metropolitan area in the United States. This segregated residence pattern resulted in racially segregated schools in the Milwaukee area.

African Americans began to settle in Milwaukee increasingly after 1900. Most rented homes in a nine-square block area north of downtown. They were employed in low-paying service jobs and were unable to afford homes in outlying neighborhoods. African Americans were also segregated through redlining, which made it difficult to obtain mortgages, and through restrictive covenants, which banned non-servant African Americans from residing in the covered area. Suburban zoning laws, which required new homeowners to buy large lots and build large homes, were an economic obstacle in moving to the suburbs. Most African Americans were, therefore, confined to the city of Milwaukee.[1]

Segregated residence patterns created segregated schools because most children were required to attend schools closest to their homes. By the early 1960s, some African Americans advocated desegregating the schools, but the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) school board and Superintendent Harold Vincent claimed they could do nothing about school segregation because it was the result of residence patterns, not school policy.[2]

Attorney Lloyd Barbee sought to prove that the school board and superintendent had actually engaged in deliberate segregation, beyond residence patterns. He started the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (MUSIC) in 1964 to organize against segregation. MUSIC conducted peaceful protest marches and school boycotts.[3] In Amos et al. v. the Board of School Directors of the City of Milwaukee, Barbee filed suit against the school board in 1965 on behalf of the parents of thirty-two African American students and nine white students. He argued that MPS deliberately promoted segregation in five ways. First, the school board established school boundary lines that resulted in segregation. If a school that had both white and African American students became overcrowded, the MPS administration shifted the school’s neighborhood boundaries to remove the white families, which reduced overcrowding but left the school almost entirely African American. Second, Barbee argued that the school board approved construction of predominantly black schools in black neighborhoods when it could have bused African American students to white schools that had vacant classrooms. Additionally, school administrators allowed white students to transfer but restricted African American pupils to segregated schools. White teachers were also much more likely to be granted transfers than African American teachers. Finally, MPS failed to integrate students who were bused “intact” with white students at receiving schools.[4]

Barbee used intact busing as his clearest example of deliberate segregation. Under this system, African American students who were coming from an overcrowded neighborhood elementary school boarded a bus at their school with their teacher and arrived “intact” at a white school that had a vacant classroom. Students were not allowed to integrate at the receiving school and were bused back to their neighborhood school at the end of the day—and even sometimes for lunch—for a total of four bus rides each day. From the 1958-59 school year through the 1973-74 school year, 509 classes were bused intact for all or part of a semester (counting semesters separately). Teachers said valuable class time was lost to bus rides, and they reported that their students felt isolated and not fully accepted at either their sending or receiving schools. Based on this evidence, Barbee argued that intact busing was psychologically damaging. He said it branded African American students as inferior, as they were physically separated from white students.[5]

The desegregation trial lasted until 1976. Small, incremental progress was made on desegregation during that eleven-year period. The school board hired a new superintendent, Richard Gousha, in 1967 to replace Harold Vincent who had retired. Gousha tried to improve the quality of education for African Americans and prepare the city for integration. He spoke to community groups in black churches, recruited more African American teachers and administrators, and engaged in curriculum reform to address the needs of African American students. Gousha stayed on until 1974, when he accepted the position of dean of the School of Education at the University of Indiana.[6]

Significant change did not come until 1975. The city’s African American population had increased to the point that three African Americans were elected to the fifteen-member school board. The new board members supported voluntary integration and formed a temporary coalition with moderate conservatives who wanted to hire a superintendent who would design a voluntary integration program. The moderates thought a voluntary program might avoid a mandatory program imposed by a judge. The school board chose Lee McMurrin, who was deputy superintendent of Toledo, Ohio, to be the new Milwaukee superintendent in 1975. He was chosen for the role he played in desegregating Toledo’s schools and for his congenial personality. McMurrin knew the court case would be decided during his tenure and would likely be in favor of Barbee’s clients, so he began to work on desegregation with parents and civic, political, and religious groups. McMurrin proposed a magnet school plan in which each high school and several elementary schools and junior high schools would specialize in a particular curricular area. College-preparatory programs would be placed in high schools that were predominantly African American to encourage white students to voluntarily ride a bus to a black school. That action would also open up spaces for African American students at white schools.[7]

As predicted, Judge John Reynolds ruled in favor of Barbee’s clients in 1976. Reynolds saw McMurrin’s plan as an acceptable means of integrating students. The plan was phased in from 1976 until 1979. (The individual school specialties are listed in the table.)

The new curriculum was mostly well-received. The fine arts program evolved into a network of arts-focused elementary schools, middle schools, and Milwaukee High School of the Arts in the 1980s. Gifted and Talented programs, language immersion, environmental education, and Montessori opportunities expanded. MPS also developed at international studies program. The computer specialty at Washington High School grew from five students in 1976 to six hundred in 1984. Other programs had waiting lists, attracting some suburban students.[8]

But the integration plan also had its shortcomings. It was often criticized as being expensive. By 1977, there were 668 buses taking fourteen thousand students to 102 schools at a cost of $6.8 million, including administrative costs.[9] Surveys showed that most Milwaukeeans professed nominal support for integration, but they did not want their children to be required to attend a school in another part of the city. White parents complained that they had not been given enough input into the planning process. Their children sometimes had to attend schools in African American neighborhoods if they were new to the school district. Usually, they were children who had attended parochial schools before switching to a public school. Some children, for example, attended a parochial elementary school but a public junior high school.[10]

Other white parents took their children out of public schools and sent them to parochial schools or moved to the suburbs. The white migration to the suburbs had begun years earlier, but there was a perception that the busing program accelerated it. Additionally, while some white suburban students chose to attend to city schools, there were not as many volunteers as MPS had hoped. Thus, educational segregation continued on a metropolitan scale, if not on a citywide scale. The State of Wisconsin tried to remedy this new situation through the Chapter 220 program which provided state funds to encourage interdistrict busing and interdistrict integration. Chapter 220 was successful in bringing some African American students into suburban schools, but few white suburban students registered in MPS.[11]

Milwaukee’s black community gave the integration program mixed reviews. Some of its leaders encouraged cooperation, but others said it placed an unfair burden on African American students. When too few African American students volunteered for busing, Superintendent McMurrin and the school board responded by closing some black schools. That action forced African American students to choose other schools. No white schools were ever closed to force white children onto buses. In other cases, black schools were not closed but were designated “citywide.” In these cases, all neighborhood students were removed from the school and were required to reapply under new admissions criteria. In the case of Rufus King High School, few neighborhood students were readmitted. Some African American administrators and parents complained that they had been asking for specialty programs for years but were denied them until it was necessary to attract white students. They alleged that MPS’s actions were psychologically harmful to African Americans students who were no longer allowed to attend their neighborhood schools. When McMurrin tried to remove half the students at North Division High School to make room for a medical and dental program with the intent of attracting white students, community activist and educational reformer Howard Fuller organized the Coalition to Save North Division. Fuller and his supporters successfully blocked McMurrin’s plans for the school.[12]

McMurrin resigned in 1987 and returned to Ohio, but his integration plan remained. However, fewer white volunteers were available for busing due to the continued migration of white families to the suburbs. Milwaukee would become a “majority minority” city by the end of the twentieth century. By the 1990s, some African American leaders, including Fuller and state representative Annette “Polly” Williams, questioned why African American students were being bused all over the city to other schools that were also mostly African American. Academic achievement sank as the city plunged into deindustrialization and poverty. Alternatives to the traditional public school system, including charter schools and tuition vouchers to private schools, were viewed by some people as a way to allow the African American community to exert some control over its children’s education.[13]

Suburban districts also became an option for Milwaukee children after 1997 under the state’s open enrollment law, which allowed any student to attend any school in the state as long as the school had room and the parents were willing to pay the transportation costs. Open enrollment did not bring transportation funds into the suburbs as Chapter 220 did, but it did bring other monies and was more flexible than Chapter 220. Open enrollment quickly eclipsed Chapter 220; the two programs enrolled more than 8,000 students in the 2011-12 school year. Charter schools and voucher schools enrolled another 32,000 students, leaving MPS with only about 78,000 of the city’s 119,000 school-aged children.[14] And children remain segregated on a metropolitan level: only 13 percent of MPS students were white in the 2015-16 school year.[15]

Table: Milwaukee Public Schools Magnet School Plan, 1976-1979[16]

Options for Learning program (one of each of these in elementary schools in every area of the city):
Multi-unit, individually guided education (IGE)
Basic fundamental
Open education
Creative arts
Gifted and talented
German language
Montessori education
Bilingual-bicultural (Spanish) centers
Schools for the Transition program (junior high schools):
Middle schools
Multi-unit, IGE
Basic fundamental
Open education
Gifted and talented
Career orientation
Bilingual-bicultural (Spanish) centers
High Schools Unlimited program:
Bay Viewvisual and performing arts (law, law enforcement, and protective service beginning in 1984)
Custerapplied technology
Hamiltonmarketing and business communication
Juneausmall business management
Rufus Kingcollege preparatory academy
Lincolnfinance and commerce
Madisonearth, energy, and environment (later, electronics)
Marshallcommunication and media
Milwaukee Trade & Technical
North Divisionmedical, dental, and health
Pulaskitruck transportation
Riversidecommunity human services and education (replaced by college preparatory program in 1984)
South Divisiontourism, food service, and recreation
Washingtoncomputer data processing
West Divisionlaw, law enforcement, and protective service (becoming Milwaukee High School of the Arts in 1984)
Vincentagribusiness and natural resources

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ John M. McCarthy, Making Milwaukee Mightier: Planning and the Politics of Growth, 1910-1960 (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009), 194-197, 207-212; Barbara J. Miner, Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City (New York, NY, and London: The New Press, 2013), 12-13, 111-112; James K. Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee: How One City’s History of Segregation and Struggle Shaped Its Schools (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2015), 11, 14-17; and Joe William Trotter Jr., Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-45, 2nd ed. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 24-25, 71, 358-365.
  2. ^ Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee, 18-21.
  3. ^ Bill Dahlk, Against the Wind: African Americans and the Schools in Milwaukee, 19632002 (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2010), 74; Jack Dougherty, More than One Struggle: The Evolution of Black School Reform in Milwaukee (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 104-105; and Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee, 23-26.
  4. ^ Amos et al. v. The Board of School Directors of Milwaukee et al., Civs. A. No. 65BCB173 (United States District Court, E.D. 1976), 780; Dahlk, Against the Wind, 33-41; Caroline Goddard, “Lloyd A. Barbee and the Fight for Desegregation in the Milwaukee Public School System” (Master’s thesis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1985), 54, 83-87; and Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee, 26-35.
  5. ^ Goddard, “Lloyd A. Barbee and the Fight for Desegregation in the Milwaukee Public School System,” 89-90; Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee, 11, 35-36; Milwaukee Board of School Directors, Proceedings of the Board of School Directors (Milwaukee: The Board of School Directors, December 2, 1959) (hereafter cited as Proceedings).
  6. ^ Dahlk, Against the Wind, 171-180; Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee, 43-44; and Proceedings, May 17, 1967.
  7. ^ Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee, 48-50.
  8. ^ Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee, 80-82.
  9. ^ Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee, 74.
  10. ^ Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee, 66-67, 95-96.
  11. ^ Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee, 83-87.
  12. ^ Dahlk, Against the Wind, 371-372; Dougherty, More than One Struggle, 159-193; Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee, 104-112.
  13. ^ Dahlk, Against the Wind, 404-455, 511-554; Miner, Lessons from the Heartland, 114-122; Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee, 125-156.
  14. ^ Dahlk, Against the Wind, 402-404; Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee, 156-157.
  15. ^ Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, “WISEdash,” last accessed May 16, 2016.
  16. ^ Nelsen, Educating Milwaukee, 76-77.

For Further Reading

Dougherty, Jack. More than One Struggle: The Evolution of Black School Reform in Milwaukee. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Goddard, Caroline Katie. “Lloyd A. Barbee and the Fight for Desegregation in the Milwaukee Public School System.” Master’s thesis, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1985.

Miner, Barbara J. Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City. New York, NY and London: The New Press, 2013.

Nelsen, James K. Educating Milwaukee: How One City’s History of Segregation and Struggle Shaped Its Schools. Madison, WI: Wisconsin State Historical Society Press, 2015.


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