The Digital Sixties: Bridging Generations and Scholarship in Online Archives – Part 2

Continuation of a three-part series! The social movements of the 1960s are increasingly documented in digital collections, providing teachers, students, scholars and everyday people new insights into the tensions, conflicts and transformations of those turbulent times. This three-part series explores archiving projects housed at Midwestern universities and consider their value inside and beyond academia, and their relevance for current racial justice efforts, particularly Black Lives Matter. Each digital collection documents different dimensions of 1960s social movements and cultural transformation and considers their value to both scholarly and popular audiences. The first installment of this series is from the University of Iowa; the next two will feature holdings from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Part 2: March on Milwaukee
By: Abigail Nye, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Archives

Early in the evening of Monday, August 28, 1967, over one hundred members of the Milwaukee Youth Council of the NAACP gathered at their headquarters at 1316 North 15th Street, picked up signs hand-lettered with slogans like “We Need Fair Housing,” and, led by Father James E. Groppi, a white Roman Catholic priest who served as their adviser, headed toward the 16th Street viaduct. At about 6:30 p.m. they were greeted at the north end of the viaduct by almost another one hundred supporters and crossed over the viaduct to the nearly all-white south side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There the marchers met resistance.
-Margaret Rozga

It was 2007. Jasmine Allender, a UWM faculty member, was attending funerals for activists who led those efforts in 1967. Worried that younger generations might lose their connection to that history, she approached the UWM Archives with the idea of creating a digital archive about Milwaukee’s civil rights movement.  The resulting project was a collaborative effort between archivists, history faculty, digital collections librarians, and many talented graduate students.

The March on Milwaukee digital collection was launched in 2010 and included selections from selected papers of individuals representing a variety of positions on the civil rights issue, photographs, unedited footage from the WTMJ-TV news film archives, and oral history interviews. The site also includes contextual materials, including “Key Terms” to describe significant people, places, events, and organizations; a timeline; a bibliography of relevant published sources; and a map highlighting important locations.

In 2016, the collection underwent a major refresh as we added new materials recently acquired collections. We made significant improvements to all of our streaming media, which includes film footage and oral history interviews. We added some additional film footage that had been digitized for use in a documentary about Vel Phillips produced by Wisconsin Public Television.  We moved all streaming media to a mobile-friendly platform because the native streaming application in CONTENTdm failed to work on mobile devices and some operating systems.  We continue to add oral histories and other content as it becomes available.

While Milwaukee celebrated the 50th anniversary of its Fair Housing Marches in 2018, the documentary evidence around the 200 consecutive nights of marching has become even more relevant in 2020.  2020 brought two significant and interrelated issues to Milwaukee: the pandemic and the fight for racial justice.

When educational institutions switched to virtual learning in March 2020, the UWM Archives quickly pivoted to online instruction, leaning heavily on our digital collections.  Our most popular digital resource is our March on Milwaukee collection; over the years we’ve built up a wide array of sources and contextual timelines, maps, and key terms.  While scholars from around the globe consult the collection in their study of the northern civil rights movement, March on Milwaukee is ultimately a teaching resource.  Both K-12 and university students access the primary sources for class assignments and personal projects.

It’s not just students who are learning from the collection, however.  The protests that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s death were informed by the lessons from activists that are documented in March on Milwaukee. When reporters interviewed Milwaukee activist leaders like Khalil Coleman, they emphasize that Milwaukee’s history of protesting injustice set the groundwork for this latest, long-term movement. “This isn’t by accident that this movement popped off in Milwaukee,” Coleman said to a Milwaukee Magazine reporter. “This is not a fly-by-night thing. This wasn’t a situation where we all woke up one morning and George Floyd was dead, and everybody just took to the streets. These were strategically planned and executed to be sustainable.”

This spring, Milwaukee 9th graders are engaging the March on Milwaukee digital collection in a project to democratize local history-telling.  Through the hard work of archivists and historians, younger generations are connecting to their city’s past and drawing inspiration for the future.

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