A Legacy of Activism
Open housing marcher passes spirit of activism to daughter Ald. Chantia Lewis.
Milwaukee City Hall’s first-ever Black History Program was held in a packed rotunda on a gloomy day in late February. Ald. Chantia Lewis spearheaded the effort to honor strong-willed African-American citizens who have made a difference in the Milwaukee community.
Lewis braced herself before she spoke.
“She’s not only my mother, but many of you are like her,” Lewis said. “You work behind the scenes. You don’t like to be recognized.”
Lewis explained that her mother, Deborah Campbell Tatum, was one of the children who marched in the Milwaukee open housing marches 50 years ago.
“Everywhere she goes, she has this activism spirit,” Lewis said. “She gave me my spirit.” Tatum and Lewis embraced on stage, each holding the award.
Tatum said she felt God telling her that Lewis should go into politics.
“Chantia was just 10 years old,” Tatum said. “I told her, ‘Write it down, honey.’ I knew she wouldn’t, so I did. And I always remembered.”
Lewis served in the United States Air Force before being elected to the Milwaukee Common Council as alderwoman of District 9.
“I think I was 12 or 13 years old at the time,” Tatum said. “Father (James) Groppi came around to the classrooms at St. Boniface rallying kids to march with him because he couldn’t get much participation.”
The marches took place for 200 consecutive days over the 16th Street Viaduct. Thousands advocated for the Common Council to pass an open housing bill.
“We marched twice a day, from the North Side to the South Side and back,” Tatum said. “And I never missed a day, either.”
Tatum said she wishes she remembered more about that time. “I was just so young,” Tatum said. “But I knew right from wrong. I knew what being treated unfairly looked like. And I wanted to help change things.”
Lewis said she has always envied her mother’s “full-steam-ahead attitude.”
Half a century later, her daughter is making similar strides for change.
In addition to her role on the Common Council, Lewis has served for three years on the board of 9to5 Wisconsin, an organization fighting for women’s advancement. She was recently appointed to the 9to5 national board.
Tatum said she’s seen her passion for serving others come full circle in her grandchildren. “Chantia’s kids helped her campaign,” Tatum said. “They stuffed envelopes and knocked on doors. They know what’s right and fight for it, too.”
Tatum credits the open housing marches for making a difference in Milwaukee.
“We got the bill passed. It took a while, but we rallied and we made it happen,” Tatum said. “Now, I live to see it — all the results of all that walking.”
Earlier this year Lewis unveiled plans to revitalize the Northwest Side of Milwaukee, the neighborhood where her mother now resides. The plans include a re-imagined Northridge Mall, which has been closed and abandoned since 2003, and the area around it.
Lewis said she will continue to take strides for change, one foot in front of the other, just as her mother did.
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on eighteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.