Simon Balto

Simon Balto is a Ph.D. candidate in the Departments of History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin, where he studies African American History and the African Diaspora throughout the Americas. His current research interests focus primarily on the relationships between policing, race, and migration in twentieth century urban America.



"'Every Decent Citizen': Jazz, Sex, and Policing in Postwar Milwaukee"

This paper explores two distinct but related sectors of the socio-racial landscape of working-class Milwaukee in the late 1940s and early 1950s. First, it explores a handful of alternative, off-the-books jazz clubs in Milwaukee’s black working-class neighborhoods. Although there existed “legitimate” social clubs and jazz joints in the city’s small, middle-class Bronzeville neighborhood, many Black poor and working-class Milwaukeeans eschewed those in favor of cheaper, less regulated clubs. The fact that these clubs drew an interracial clientele in a decidedly segregated city ultimately precipitated considerable social anxieties across cross-sections of Milwaukee. Yet such anxieties paled in comparison to the panic that emerged in the early 1950s over interracial youth “sex parties” between white women and black men, which officials and the public variously blamed on “beboppers,” Communists, and other similarly unsavory influences.

This paper thus also engages the ways that politicians, newspapers, many members of the local white public, and segments of the black middle class responded to the perceived moral “crises” represented in these social and cultural activities. To their detractors, these jazz clubs and youth parties were rife with sexual, moral, and legal improprieties. Their demands that the legal mechanisms of the city be employed to stop them recurrently slipped into more sweeping condemnations of black working-class morality. The paper thus also provides insights into the ways that those in the mainstream narrated putative black working class failure, which in turn contributed significantly to the shaping of the city’s racial landscape in the years to come.