Date of Award

May 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science


Urban Studies

First Advisor

Arijit H. Sen

Committee Members

Jenna M. Loyd, Aaron Schutz


Activism, Community, Grassroots, Renewal, Revitalization, Urban


Many researchers and scholars have explored the Black urban experience and have often chosen to focus on the systemic and institutionalized forms of racism that affect different aspects of Black lives. Descriptions of central city lives as told by Black central city residents are starkly similar to the descriptions of Black residents of industrialized cities throughout the United States. Fragments of the Black urban experience are contained in discussions of the effects of urban renewal efforts, including “redevelopment” and “revitalization,” beginning most heavily in the 1940s. Looking back at urban renewal designs and strategies from the 1940s through the 1980s is crucial to beginning to understand the entirety of the Black urban experience. Much of the literature on urban renewal focuses on the ramifications of legislative programs and the factors that influenced decision making at multiple levels, primarily the individual, the community, the larger city, and within public and private spheres. These pieces, however, do not tell the entire story, and tend to leave out the influence that grassroots and community groups within central city Black neighborhoods had over the revitalization of their immediate environments. While some scholarship does engage with Black agency, it, again, tends to focus on what is happening to local Black populations, not on what is being done by Black community members. This thesis focuses on a particular Black community and how their actions created change and, thus, contributes to the evolving discussion of the Black urban experience.

It is important to investigate Black grassroots and community groups in order to come to a fuller understanding of a crucial piece of the Black urban experience and to challenge a still predominant viewpoint that the Black urban population was largely idle in terms of taking action to influence their surroundings. In addition to exploring this marginalized history, this thesis seeks to add to the narrative of Milwaukee’s Black population, whose voice has repeatedly and intentionally been overpowered, and to expose a small portion of the structural and institutional racism and disadvantage those in power have historically exposed this country’s Black population to.

In order to accomplish these objectives, this thesis will examine the creation of Milwaukee’s Bronzeville, the subsequent destruction of this community that accompanied urban renewal efforts, and the response of Black residents to this destruction. This thesis will focus on the Walnut Area Improvement Council, Inc., whose primary goal was to save the integrity of a particular Black neighborhood through the preservation of housing and the integration of residents into decision-making roles. To fully understand how Milwaukee fits into the narrative of urban renewal experiences in the United States, preeminent scholars such as Gilbert Osofsky, James R. Grossman, Arnold R. Hirsch, Thomas J. Sugrue, David M.P. Freund, Katherine McKittrick, and Mindy Thompson Fullilove will be referenced as they have laid the groundwork for how certain decisions came to be racialized to harm Black central city residents and the effects that urban renewal efforts had on existing Black communities. In addition, scholars that have studied the City of Milwaukee, such as John Gurda, Joe William Trotter, Jr., Patrick Jones, and Paul Geib, will be utilized to piece together pieces of the Black urban experience that, to an extent, have already been explored. Archival materials from governmental entities and the Walnut Area Improvement Council, Inc. will be utilized to showcase first-hand accounts of events and to emphasize the narratives of this particular Black community.

These existing documents and pieces of scholarship help to uncover one community’s response to central city revitalization efforts in the post-industrial city of Milwaukee. They are pieced together to expose a contradiction to the predominant view of the Black population while emphasizing how outside factors work together to negatively influence environments and populations deemed unfit or undesirable. Instead of perpetuating the acceptance of erasing certain components of the Black urban experience, this research project seeks to give space to discuss the activism among Black residents that took place in one urban setting while advocating for the inclusion of Black histories into the history of Milwaukee. It is the hope of this author that this research project will encourage future scholars to engage with the Black urban experience in a way that emphasizes the activism of the Black community and exposes racism within structural and institutional entities that subdue and omit the Black voice.