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Feature

Through the Eyes of Children

A Website Looks at Milwaukee's History

By Lisa Rogers | HUMANITIES, September/October 2001 | Volume 22, Number 5

As America changed from a rural to an urban society in the last century, the lives of its children changed. A new website in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, tells childrens’ stories in their own words. They remember their parents and uncles coming to this country as immigrants, Italians moving into neighborhoods where Irish and Germans had come before, and the struggle to keep bread on the table as families learned the ways of a different world. Rose Carini tells about a tragic time: the deaths of her two-and-a-half-year-old sister and eight-month-old brother nearly ninety years ago. “There was an epidemic. Now, I don’ t remember if it was the measles or scarlet fever, but they died, I think, in 1912. My mother lost two children within hours. My little sister died in the late afternoon. My little brother died during the night.”

Anthony Dicristo remembers hard times in general: “In all my years, I never had a toy. And when I talk about a toy, I’ m talking about a bicycle, roller skates, nothing. I would ask my dad . . . He’d say ‘Son I’d love to do it. I can’t. ‘Let’s say five dollars. ‘For five dollars I can get forty pounds of spaghetti and I gotta feed the family first.’”

These oral histories are being gathered by an associate professor of history at Marquette University, James Marten. “I think children’s issues often loom more important in urban areas,” says Marten. “Certainly in the last one hundred fifty years -- the period we cover on the website -- social issues often appear first and, perhaps, more deeply, in cities: immigration and diversity, the expansion of schools, child labor, government programs.” Marten directs the Children in Urban America Project (CUAP), a digital archive of primary sources telling the story of Milwaukee through the experiences of childhood. From its beginnings in the 1830s as a trading post on Lake Michigan, Milwaukee attracted immigrants to work in its foundries, factories, and rail yards. By 1860, half of its residents were born outside the United States. Today some 70 percent of students are of African American, Hispanic, or Asian descent.

Politics, too, shaped the lives of Milwaukee’s children. Socialist administrations ran the city from 1910 through the Depression and introduced wide-ranging reforms, among them new child labor and education laws. The documents available on the CUAP website offer visitors glimpses into the city’s past, from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first. One of the oldest Milwaukeeans to recount his childhood experiences for the archive is Guiseppe Balestrieri. He was born in Milwaukee in 1900, the second son of an Italian fisherman who emigrated from Sicily. He talks about how his education was interrupted to help support his family: “Oh, I must have been about thirteen or fourteen years old .... I had three different jobs. I used to work at the factory from eight to four. Four-thirty to six-thirty I would deliver telegrams, and on Saturday I would work in the shoe store to clean the shoe store.”

The atmosphere of the Old Country lived on in many neighborhoods during the first half of the twentieth century. In the Third Ward, Italian was spoken in homes and on the street. Parents and older children attended night school to learn English; younger children went directly into local public school. There they found friends among the other immigrant children from countries across Europe.

“My mother one morning told me I had to go to school,” recalls Rose Carini. “She said, ‘This is our home and we’re not going back to Italy ... you have to learn to read and write ... seeing that we’re going to be citizens of the United States.’ Well, my mother and dad, I used to try to help them as best I can, but then when we got in the older grades, one day the principal of the school came in the class and said, ‘The school board allows your mothers and fathers to come and learn how to speak English.’ Well, my father couldn’t come because he was working, but my dad told my mother, ‘Now you go.’”

The sense of community was strong. Sam Pupero talks about the Third Ward: “There was one particular grocery store about three blocks from our house, and my mother would send me there. And I would walk those three blocks and say hello to everybody, every house where they were sitting on their porch, until I got to the grocery store and back. And they knew that I was going to the store. They knew what I was buying. That’s how intimate it was.” Some customs have survived into the twenty-first century. One is the Festa Italiana, Milwaukee’s oldest and largest ethnic festival. It is centered around the Church of the Blessed Virgin of Pompeii, affectionately known as the Pink Church.

Sam Pupero recalls: “They would have mostly the food stands in front of the church on Jackson Street...And the people would just come down and just walk around. And that would go on until maybe ten o’clock at night ... and then the fireworks would go off, and then Sunday they would have a big procession. That was the highlight of the festival.”

Catherine M. Balestrieri remembers, too. “I was always in the procession and ... my mother would dress me up in white, and dresses all starched, you know, and real fancy like that. I would go with a little bouquet of flowers, would walk in the procession, all little girls.”

The story of newer immigrants is included on the website. One of them is Milan Melman, whose family arrived in Milwaukee from Moldova in 1992, when he was fifteen. In the end it was a job at the Sears store that helped him feel at home in America. “I had to sell things,” Milan Melman remembers. “I had to learn different English, so I could talk with regular people and not sound stupid.”

His reminiscences and others are supplemented on the website by essays, newspaper and magazine articles, government reports, photographs, and contemporary art. “It brings together a wide range of manuscript sources from several archives, articles from newspapers available only on microfilm, oral histories and memoirs from our own files, and so forth,” says Marten. “They simply wouldn’t be able to access these sources easily or coherently.”

The website covers play and leisure, health and welfare, schooling, and work. A fifth section, “Through Children’ s Eyes,” allows children to describe their lives and adults to reminisce. Each section can be searched independently.

In schooling, one section covers the years of school integration in Milwaukee from the 1950s to the 1980s. Documents illustrate how the controversy affected children and their parents, beginning with a school board response in 1964 that found that the landmark Supreme Court decision of a decade before did not apply to Milwaukee. The board found “there is no analogy between the Brown case where the ethnic separation was ‘solely because of race’ and the situation in Milwaukee where the ethnic ratios result solely because of residence of pupils in the school districts.” The failure of the Milwaukee government to move quickly on integration prompted a boycott of public schools in 1964 in favor of “freedom schools” hosted by community churches. Despite a 1966 governor’s report saying “segregated schooling, no matter what its cause, is educationally unsound for white and Negro alike” and an independent consultants’ report recommending far-reaching changes, legal battles went on into the mid-1970s.

The website will soon have a range of documents related to the freedom schools. Another subject will be the city’ s Roman Catholic schools.

The CUAP archive describes itself as an educational tool to “help students become their own historians.” Its primary audience consists of students and teachers at middle school, high school, and college levels. However, it is also reaching out to the general public and asking Milwaukee residents, young and old, to participate by writing memoirs or organizing a project.

Marten and his staff hope to locate, and digitize several thousand source documents for the website over the next two years. The project, as they see it, is more than a collection of documents. “Once the website is completed,” explains its brochure, “that process will not end; each new class of middle-and high-schoolers and each new student in university history courses will be able to undertake that same scholarly journey.”

About the Author

Lisa Rogers is a writer in Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Funding Information

The Children in Urban America Project at Marquette University in Milwaukee has received $210,000 in NEH grants to collect source materials and develop a website. The URL is http://134.48.55.172:8000/cuap/index.html.