It was not a freeway of love

September 2017

I grew up in Milwaukee dreaming. I dreamt that I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to be a scientist, a physicist, a chemist, an astronomer, a geologist, a marine biologist, an archeologist, a translator, a traveler. I wanted to study other customs, traditions and languages. I wanted to see them up close. I wanted to read and read and read! And did I read! I remember my favorite as a young child was the “Puff the Magic Dragon series.” I remember walking to the library on hot summer days and checking out the most books they would let me carry on my library card. I would then sit on the bench behind the library and read at least three books before going back inside to exchange them for more books. I loved to look at the pictures. I loved to say the words out loud. I loved to sit back and imagine. I loved to dream.

My mother got me that library card. She could see that I loved reading. At that time, it was pretty safe for a little girl to walk to the library on her own. I had an old knapsack that I found somewhere and I loved carrying books home. The librarian got to know me and referred me to special shelves that had the type of books l liked to read: space, planets, adventure, and fantasy.

The library was on the corner of 6th and Center. It wasn’t too long of a walk from 7th and Locust. My mother had taken me out as a younger child to school and walked me there, being sure to point out the stop lights and the “walk” and “don’t walk” signs. I was one of those kids that would not move until that light turned green and the sign said “walk.” But I was one of those kids for a reason.

One warm summer evening, my father was outside with other fathers. One lived on the same block as us, and the other lived across the street. It wasn’t unusual for adults to come out and stand on the sidewalk and talk. But the sidewalk was usually kids’ territory. We ceded it to the Dads, but we weren’t too far away, because as soon as they left, we would go back to our play.


I remember my father and the Dad from my block talking and hearing the Dad say, “that’s a shame.” And, “I know they won’t compensate you enough for that.” He was talking to a man who lived across the street. There were kids there, but we didn’t play with them that often. I don’t know, or remember, why. What I was hearing was that the city had notified him that he had to move. His house, along with those on that entire side of the street would be torn down for the freeway. This was the 1960s. Many of the people who lived in their homes were homeowners. But, the city was taking possession of their homes, and had given them a certain amount of time to move out. They would be compensated, but not for the true value of their home.

As kids, we heard about the freeway and were interested. We thought freeways were cool because you could drive fast and not have to stop every block. We had no idea what was really happening to our community, to communities across the United States, and particularly to African Americans.

Eric Avila wrote, in an  article for “To greater and lesser degrees, race—racial identity and racial ideology—shaped the geography of highway construction in urban America, fueling new patterns of racial inequality that exacerbated an unfolding “urban crisis” in postwar America. In many southern cities, local city planners took advantage of federal moneys to target black communities point-blank; in other parts of the nation, highway planners found the paths of least resistance, wiping out black commer cial districts, Mexican barrios, and Chinatowns, and desecrating land sacred to indigenous peoples. The bodies and spaces of people of color, historically coded as “blight” in planning discourse, provided an easy target for a federal highway program that usually coordinated its work with private redevelopment schemes and public policies like redlining, urban renewal, and slum clearance.”

The freeways were truly looked upon as an “urban” thing. People who lived during that time spoke out about them. Avila recounted this: “In a 1997 interview, for example, a former Overtown resident begged to understand why state officials routed Interstate 95 through the heart of Miami’s historic black neighborhood: ‘Now all you white folk . . . you tell me the justification. . . . If that isn’t racism you tell me what it is.’” In St. Paul, Minnesota, after Interstate 94 bisected the city’s historic black neighborhood, a former resident explained his belief that the “white man’s freeway” was built to “allow white people to get from downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis five, ten minutes faster.”

And so Milwaukee experienced the same, and the freeway also came to our urban area. It wasn’t long before the Dad from across the street was gone, as were all the other houses. Those homes were bull dozed. Warnings had gone out to us to not play in the big, open area. It certainly looked like a big, open play area to kids. But the word was out, and we complied. Sort of.

Freeway Encounters

One day one of my friends came running over to me and said my bicycle was on the entrance ramp to the freeway. I shook my head and said no, it couldn’t be because I hadn’t ridden my bike all day. She was persistent and gave me the color of the bike and exactly where it was. I began to wonder. The freeway was just a pile of mud, but they had cemented an entrance ramp. The ramp was almost directly across the street from her house, so she could actually see the bike. She took me to her house and I strained to see the bike lying on the ramp. It was my bike.

I went inside to tell my mother and she asked me why it was there. I said I didn’t know (an answer familiar to most kids). She told me to go get it. I asked her how did my bike get there? I then noticed my sister sitting very closely to my mother. I went outside and my friend was still there. She had already done her investigation. She told me that my sister was on my bike and she and one of her friends had gone down the ramp. She said the police drove down the ramp and my sister got off the bike, threw it aside, and ran home. My friend had to tell me this two or three times because I really couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I went back inside and told my mother. My sister denied it. But eventually she told the truth once my friend was asked to come inside and recount her story. But in the end, I had to go get the bike. My friend offered to go with me. She mentioned the whole time that I shouldn’t have had to go get the bike. Just as we reached the bike, along came a cop car. The police pulled up alongside us and wanted to know what we were doing. My friend, who was good at talking (remember, I’m the introvert), told the officer what happened. He didn’t care for what she was saying. She was truly a great kid, so what she was saying was well put together, from my perspective. I was happy she did the talking. I do remember nodding a couple of times to questions pointed directly at me. The officers were stern and no nonsense. They told us to get off the ramp and hurry up. My friend and I walked the bike back. By now, other kids were on the sidewalk and curious. My friend told them what happened. My sister never came out of the house. I remember putting the bike in the garage and I didn’t ride it again for a very long time. That was my first encounter with the police.

Once the freeway was finished, there was a bridge that crossed over it from 7th to 8th and Locust. I had to walk across that bridge every day to school. My sister and I attended a private school, St. Boniface. Yet, even had we attended a public school, we would have had to walk to school. There was no bussing in the 60s.

The westbound traffic on Locust that wanted to pick up I43 going north had to make a right turn. The entrance then and now, is on the left side of the street. The street was turned into a one way street after construction. Often, traffic would make a wide turn to get onto the ramp. As a pedestrian, this caused a problem. The good kid in me waited until the light turned green and the sign said “walk” before I could cross. Green also meant that traffic wanting to go onto the freeway could also go. This created a new situation for me: the hateful yelling and screaming of white people from their cars. It didn’t matter if I wanted to cross going west toward 8th street, or to cross the street going south on 7th; I still had to deal with that traffic. People would roll down the windows and yell hateful and racist names at me. I remember walking really fast, but it didn’t matter. They blew their horns. They made gestures with their hands. Their faces snarled. I was a kid. This was a new exposure to whites. Every morning going to school, I had to deal with this. I did not like my walk to school.

I remember being very happy when school let out. I wanted to get home as fast as I could because I really liked getting into my books. My walks would soon turn to dreams and I would look up in the sky and see the clouds and smile. I would take in a deep breath of air. When it was Fall, or Spring, and a little cool, it was a great feeling to have a bit of cool air go into my lungs. These were my moments of reflection and peace. Until I hit that corner. I could see the traffic coming at me and I could see the faces even better. They would pull right up on top of me and then blow their horns or try and drive around me. It was just me. Not a group of kids. Just me. But I kept to my rules: don’t walk until it says walk. What I did know, even as a young kid in grade school, was the importance of following the rules. If you deviated, you could be arrested. If it looked like you did something wrong, you could be arrested. What I knew was that the police could come at any time and arrest me. I knew that many black people were arrested for no reason. But if you followed the rules, you wouldn’t be arrested. That’s what I believed.
As I grew older and had conversations with some whites about the freeway, they were quick to point out that it was “expressway.” In a future column, I will write about language and how I encountered way too many whites who were quick to try and “correct” my English. What this did, of course, was to say that they were the owners of knowledge and rightfulness and only they had mastery of English.

I remember when someone first tried to say: ”Oh, you mean expressway?” And I remember replying, “No, I meant what I said, ‘freeway.” And then would come some snarky reply that there wasn’t a freeway because it wasn’t free. But more on the English language lessons later.

My walks to and from school were the same every day. Rushing to get across the street, and being yelled at, or blown at or cursed at. Except for one day. I had just finished walking across the bridge and was waiting at the next light, which was on the corner of 8th and Locust. There was a yellow house on the corner. That house is still there and still yellow. When the light turned green and the sign said “walk,” I walked across the street. What I didn’t notice until it was upon me was a woman lying on the grass. She was a white woman. She had on a dress and her legs where partly exposed. She looked big. Not in the sense of overweight, rather that she was an adult lying on the grass and her legs where twisted. I remember the feeling of panic come across me. Then, suddenly, cars were blowing at me, and windows had gone down. People were asking me, “is she dead?” I was terrified. I didn’t and couldn’t answer. I didn’t want to look at her. The light dragged on. When it finally turned green and said “walk,” I hurried across the street. I rushed down 8th street. I knew there was a pay phone in the middle of the block coming up. My mother had placed dimes in a little coin purse for me and told me to keep them in case I ever needed to call home. I got to the phone booth and then couldn’t remember if you put the dime in first or last. I tried both. Nothing happened. It kept making a busy sound. I remember my hands shaking. Finally the operator came on. I tried to tell her there was a dead woman. She quickly became rude and started yelling at me. I tried to tell her there was a dead woman. The operator was mean. I don’t remember all of the conversation. I do remember my dime coming back. I was shaking and scared. I remember trying to call home and tell my mother. The phone rang and rang and no one answered. I stayed in that booth for a while. I wasn’t sure if I should go home or go to school.

I went to school. The introverted little girl sat all day with that image in her head until she got home that night. There were no friends at school: nobody wanted to talk to someone who didn’t talk. I told my father. He quickly became upset that I had to see that. He was also upset over the way the operator handled me, and he was upset that I tried to call home and no one answered. I felt better when I saw his reaction because he verbalized everything I couldn’t. This was a terrible sight. My father was a civilian who worked for the Police Department. My uncle (his bother-in-law) was a cop. My father found out that the woman had actually been killed (I was never sure if she was really dead, or hurt). I felt for her, as she was left lying on that big mound of grass, in the cold, and all of those cars passing by, passengers staring at her and then rushing to get onto the freeway.

Back to top
Back to Growing up Black and Quiet in Milwaukee

Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on September 15, 2017

Legal Information |  Designed and built by Emergency Digital. | Hosted by Steadfast Networks