Jeramey Jannene

Portion of Highland Ave. Will Honor Civil Rights Activist

Juanita Adams was non-violent protest leader in 1960s.

By - Dec 28th, 2022 11:00 am
Highland Community School, 1706 W. Highland Ave. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Highland Community School, 1706 W. Highland Ave. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The City of Milwaukee is assigning the honorary street name of Juanita Adams to a one-block stretch of W. Highland Ave. between 17th and 18th streets near Highland Community School. The street sign will honor the late Civil Rights activist who once fought against the school’s construction.

Adams, who was Black, moved from Memphis to Milwaukee in 1959 with her husband to escape Jim Crow laws in the south. “Several years passed before we began to notice the segregation that no one talked about” in Milwaukee, Adams wrote in a 2014 autobiographical account. “Subtle, quiet injustices were happening all around us.”

She helped found the Milwaukee chapter of Congress of Racial Equity (CORE) and, in 1963, represented the city in the March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. In 1964, working with Lloyd Barbee, she was arrested for peacefully protesting the segregation present at Siefert School.

But it was in 1965 that Adams made frontpage news. While six months pregnant, Adams pushed her body onto a cement mixer being used to construct MacDowell School. Adams and three other protesters who formed a human chain were arrested, while CORE national director James Farmer looked on. CORE was protesting MacDowell’s construction because it was to be de facto segregated and serve an overwhelmingly Black student body.

The building is now occupied by Highland Community School, a Milwaukee Public Schools‘ charter directly run by the district and well-regarded for its diversity and performance. In a twist, Adams’ great-granddaughter is a student at the school, whose racial demographics now mirror the city at large. An addition was completed at the school earlier this year.

“We are really excited about this opportunity,” said her daughter Sheila Adams Gardner in an appearance before the Public Works Committee on Nov. 30. The family petitioned the city for the honorary street name and will cover the $100 cost of fabricating and installing the two blue signs atop the green Highland signs.

Adams withdrew from her public protesting actions in 1967. In a 2014 letter published by the Wisconsin Black Historical Society she said she was concerned about a move away from non-violent protest and felt a need to spend more time with her four daughters.

“This certainly seems to be a worthy candidate for an honorary street name,” said Alderman Robert Bauman. The council unanimously approved the honorary name on Dec. 13.

Adams Gardner said after stepping back from civil rights protesting, Adams stayed active by volunteering with nonprofit groups including the Sojourner Family Peace Center and New Testament Church.

“We just wanted to honor her commitment to volunteerism,” said Adams Gardner.

Adams passed away in 2016 after a brief battle with cancer.

She will be honored alongside her ex-husband, Cleotha Adams. In 2021, the city assigned an honorary name to N. 5th St. between W. Locust St. and W. Center St. for Cleotha. He still operates Adams Auto Body Shop, 2719 N. 5th St., in the middle of that two-block stretch. The couple divorced in the 1970s.

The couple’s oldest daughter, Patricia Cifax, rose from a classroom teacher to principal at MPS and now works for the City Forward Collective.

Oral History from Wisconsin Black Historical Society

Wisconsin Historical Society Interview With Adams’ Daughters


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Related Legislation: File 220727

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