This 4,000 ft viaduct was built in 1929 and renamed the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge in 1988 to commemorate the historic march that occurred here in 1967. At the tie of the march, Milwaukee was in the midst of a heated debate about open housing laws that symbolized the spread of the Civil Rights Movement to northern cities such as Milwaukee. In 1967 James E. Groppi led a march with organized by the NAACP Youth Council. The viaduct and bridge often called the "Mason-Dixon line" of Milwaukee, represented the racial residential divide between the white residents on the south side and the African Americans on the north side. By this time, Father John Groppi had become one of the most outspoken activists for ending residential segregation in a northern city. With a small number of other white activists, the NAACP Youth Council and many of the city's young black members began a march that crossed the bridge which served as the symbolic division of the city. With media coverage and counter-protesters, the black youth marched into the white neighborhood to protest housing discrimination and practices that led to the intentional division of the city into white and black neighborhoods.
The 16th Street Viaduct, also known as the 16th Street Bridge and officially known as the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge since 1988, stretches from Clybourn to Pierce Streets. The bridge covers an eighth of a mile and stretches across the Menominee River, railroad tracks, and the Hank Aaron State Trail. The bridge was refurbished in 1986 and part of a larger viaduct that crosses the industrial area in this part of the city.
The bridge was the site of a major event in Milwaukee's Civil Rights Movement. In the 1960s, the city did not have an open-housing ordinance in place and banks, real estate agents, and white neighborhood organizations took steps to intentionally restrict housing options for African Americans. This led to the development of segregated housing and ultimately divided the city into the north side, which was primarily comprised of African Americans, and a white-dominated south side. Father James E. Groppi, a leader in Milwaukee's Civil Rights Movement, called the 16th Street Viaduct the "Mason-Dixon line" that separated the two halves of the city.
With Groppi as a mentor and leader, the march was only possible through the support of the NAACP Youth Council. Members of the organization, with the help of adult leaders in the NAACP, staged a march down the length of the 16th Street Viaduct. The marchers traveled from Clybourn Ave to Kosciuszko Park at S. 10th St. and W. Lincoln Ave on the south end of the bridge. With a permit in hand to have a picnic at Kosciuszko Park, 200 demonstrators marched down the bridge on August 28, 1967.
A crowd of counter-protesters met the demonstrators along the way and at the Park, where the group was surrounded by approximately 5,000 people and 125 police officers armed with riot gear. The Milwaukee Journal reported that
"the shouts of the spectators and the marchers set up a din so loud that
a person had to shout to be heard two feet away,"
"Several spectators held up a Confederate battle flag."1
Fights ensued as the protestors made their way back to the bridge, and sixteen people were arrested along with two serious injuries. A second march was held again the next evening, with 13,000 counter-protesters armed with "eggs, bottles, rocks, firecrackers and beer cans," according to the Milwaukee Sentinel. That night saw more than twenty injuries and 45 arrests.
These marches led the way to more than 200 marches and demonstrations across Milwaukee to demand an open-housing ordinance. In December of 1967, the ordinance was enacted. In 1988 the bridge was renamed the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge in commemoration of this important event.
1. Foran, Chris. Marching across Milwaukee's 'Mason-Dixon Line' — in 1967. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. August 25, 2015. Accessed July 10, 2019. http://archive.jsonline.com/greensheet/marching-across-milwaukees-mason-dixon-line--in-1967-b99562092z1-322893761.html.
16th Street Bridge (Viaduct). March on Milwaukee. . Accessed July 10, 2019. https://uwm.edu/marchonmilwaukee/keyterms/16th-street-bridge-viaduct/.
Manning, J.R.. 16th Street Viaduct. Bridgehunter. July 10, 2008. Accessed July 10, 2019. https://bridgehunter.com/wi/milwaukee/bh36855/.