I'm going to try to get a 'brand new' post up soon, but in the meantime here's another college-era project.
ps. Fred - long time no hear. Drop me a line, will ya?
When writer/historian John Gurda was working on a project several years ago he took in some photos for processing. One of the workers at the lab pointed to a photo of a South Side bartender. “That looks just like someone I knew back home in Alaska,” the man said. “Was he Polish?,” Gurda asked. The man shrugged. “I didn’t know what anyone ‘was’ until I came to Milwaukee,” he said.
“In Milwaukee ‘ethnic’ is anyone,” Gurda said in a speech at Centennial Hall, 733 N. Eighth St. “The title ‘ethnic Milwaukee’ is almost redundant.”
Gurda, who holds degrees from Boston College and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is vice president of the Milwaukee Public Library Board of Trustees. He was appointed by Mayor John O. Norquist to the board in January of 1993. He has studied his hometown of Milwaukee for more then 20 years, and has written several books concerning the city.
Gurda views Milwaukee as a combination of united but distinct ethnic groups, as “the mosaic it is rather than the (traditional) melting pot.” Ethnic, said Gurda, means simply “roots”. “(In Milwaukee) the roots are certainly deep but is the tree still alive?” Gurda said. Too often, he believes, ethnicity is seen as something of value only to people of color. Lately however, Gurda has seen a change in Milwaukee.
“(In the) last 15 to 20 years there is….strong evidence there is a reawakening of (ethnic) pride,” Gurda said. He points to popularity of ethnic festivals - eight including the new Asian Moon- as one such example. “Attendance at (all eight) the festivals totaled about 500,000 people, which (shows) the continuing importance of ethnicity,” Gurda said.
Milwaukee has been diverse since pre-European contact. According to Gurda there were “dozens of tribes” in the Milwaukee area before contact. “(Although) by 1700 the most important tribe was the Potowatomi,” Gurda said. By 1940 however most Native Americans had been “removed” West. In there place came Yankees of English decent.
“We don’t usually think of the English as an ethnic group,” Gurda said. He believes their importance can ot be denied. “They called the tune to which the rest of us have danced.” Gurda said.
By 1850 however two-thirds of Milwaukee’s population was foreign born. These first true immigrants were of Irish and German descent. By the 1860’s the Germans had become the majority, a fact which has not changed even in the present. “There are more Schmidt’s (in the phone book) than there are Smiths,” Gurda said.
Later in the century, as Milwaukee converted to a manufacturing base, a “constant infusion of new blood” brought Poles and Italians to the city. In 1866 St. Stanislaus Catholic church was built by Polish immigrants. “(It was) the first Polish church in any American city,” Gurda said.
After World War I, a wave of nativism, or anti-immigrant feelings, closed Milwaukee to European workers. To meet the need for workers, African-Americans and Hispanics, especially Mexicans, were recruited to work in Milwaukee factories.
“The roots of African-Americans in the Milwaukee area are…deeper than most people realize,” Gurda said. The first African-American church in Milwaukee was built in 1869- a mere three years after the Poles built St. Stanislaus and nearly half a century before most churches were built.
“The fastest growing group since 1980 has been Southeast Asians,” Gurda said. Their culture is vastly different than what they encounter here, their language is unknown, the climate different. In short, they are not that unusual.
“The same pattern holds true for virtually all the groups that have made their home here in the last 150 years,” Gurda said.
“(It’s) an old story that is constantly renewed…and still in the process of telling,” Gurda said.