Father James Groppi

Father Groppi
(WHS Collections)
"All that it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing." Edmund Burke

What does it mean to be brave? As Father Groppi led his followers across the 16th Street Bridge, he could see the angry mob ahead. Thousands of white men and women were waiting. They began yelling insults, throwing bottles and stones, and threatening the marchers. But they kept marching. Father Groppi and others would march for another 200 nights. They wouldn't stop until fair housing came to the city of Milwaukee.

James Groppi was born on November 16, 1930. His parents emigrated from Italy. James grew up in Bay View, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee. He had 11 brothers and sisters and worked at his parents’ grocery store.

James graduated from Bay View High School. Then he went to seminaryHe wanted to become a Roman Catholic priest. James paid for seminary by driving buses in Milwaukee. After he graduated, Father Groppi worked at St. Boniface Church. This church was in Milwaukee’s Inner Core. White leaders in Milwaukee kept black people stuck in the Inner Core. The Inner Core was run-down. Homes were falling apart. Schools were in bad shape. There were few jobs.

Freedom House Burning
(WHS Collections)
Father Groppi had marched down south with civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The marches were part of the civil rights movement. His time down south convinced Father Groppi that changes were needed back home in Milwaukee too. He decided to do what he could to help his city.

Back home, Father Groppi became an advisor to the Youth Council of the NAACP. The NAACP used nonviolent protests. They demonstrated against unfair laws. People wondered why a white priest cared so much about equal rights for blacks. Father Groppi did not care about the color of someone’s skin. He believed everyone should be treated fairly.

Riots broke out in Milwaukee in 1967. Four people were killed. Something had to change. Father Groppi led 200 nights of marching. He marched with Vel Phillips and many other civil rights workers. Vel was on the Milwaukee City Council. She was trying to get a Fair Housing Law passed, to make sure African Americans could live wherever they chose. The marchers left the Inner Core and crossed the 16th Street Bridge. Every night their march ended in South Milwaukee. Angry white men and women lined the streets. They swore at the marchers. They threw rocks and bottles at them.
(WHS Collections)

In 1968, Milwaukee passed Vel Phillips’s Fair Housing Law. But Father Groppi did not stop helping people. He led a march for people on welfare. He supported American Indian rights. He marched to end the war in Vietnam.

Later in life, James Groppi left the priesthood and got married. He and his wife had three children. He went back to being a bus driver in Milwaukee. After he died, the 16th Street Bridge was renamed the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge in his honor. Father Groppi never stopped helping people get where they needed to go.

Read more about Father James Groppi in the Badger Biographies book Father Groppi: Marching for Civil Rights, available now from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.