Sports

The Great Migration of Henry Aaron

The baseball superstar came to Black Milwaukee when Black Milwaukee needed him most.

Aaron poses in his uniform, holding his bat over his left shoulder
Henry Aaron of the Milwaukee Braves, circa 1954. Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Earl Ingram Jr. never forgot Henry Aaron at his brother’s bedside.

Donald Ray Ingram was 11 in 1965 when doctors at Milwaukee’s Children’s Hospital discovered a cancerous tumor at his brainstem. His prognosis was terminal. Donald’s wish was to meet his hero Hank Aaron, and the Milwaukee Braves star gladly obliged. “He visited my brother quite often,” said Earl Ingram, now a radio host in Milwaukee. “But he visited a lot of children in the hospital and he didn’t make a big deal out of it because that’s who he was.”

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Over the course of several months, Hank Aaron and Donald Ingram would develop a strong bond talking baseball in between cancer treatments. Donald died in 1966. Aaron, who himself died in January at age 86, “was a hero to Milwaukee’s Black community,” Ingram said. “Boston had Bill Russell. Philadelphia had Wilt Chamberlain. Louisville had Ali. And we had Aaron.”

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When Aaron joined the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, he was accidentally part of an enormous societal population shift as thousands of Blacks were moving to the city from the South to find employment. From 1950 to 1960, Milwaukee’s Black population grew 187 percent to 62,500, with new residents coming from places like Aaron’s home state of Alabama. During the Great Migration and for decades afterward, nearly every Black man, woman, and child in Milwaukee was forced to live on the city’s north side. Discriminatory housing practices like racial covenants, discriminatory lending practices, and white fear and bias created a city within a city. The racist housing laws from six decades ago are so deeply embedded in Milwaukee’s fabric that even today it’s one of the most racially segregated cities in the nation and one of the worst places to raise a Black child.

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“He left a racist place in Mobile, Alabama, and I’m sure when he came up north he thought he wouldn’t have to experience that, but at times it was worse here for him,” said Ingram. “In the ’50s and ’60s, it didn’t matter where you lived—racism was everywhere, and it was often overt.”

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After powering the Braves to a World Series championship in 1957, Aaron was the city’s first Black superstar athlete, and everyone wanted a piece of him. In those early years of the national civil rights movement, Aaron—despite his laid-back demeanor—wasn’t the type to just shut up and play. In Milwaukee, he learned from his elders about what his role should be in the Black community. One of his mentors was Vel Phillips, a small woman but a giant in Milwaukee’s fair housing and civil rights movements. The first Black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School and the first Black person (and first woman) on Milwaukee’s city council, Phillips introduced ordinance after ordinance to make housing discrimination illegal in the city, only to see them shot down by white council members.

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Phillips and Groppi smiling and shaking hands amid a crowd
Vel Phillips and Father James Groppi at a fair housing rally at St. Boniface Church, Milwaukee, 1967. Wisconsin Black Historical Society/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Phillips and her husband, Dale, took Aaron under their wings, mentoring him on Milwaukee’s history and civil rights at their home on Summit Avenue by Lafayette Hill on the north side. (The house had previously belonged to Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier, who frequently clashed with Phillips.) Phillips educated Aaron on the racially restrictive covenants that excluded Black families from residential areas in the city. Similar discriminatory laws, instituted to halt school desegregation and subvert open housing policies, expanded to Milwaukee’s suburbs. Phillips instructed Aaron on how to use his star power in the civil rights movement and to fight against those practices.

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In 1960, Aaron campaigned for then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, a proponent of the civil rights movement, in a highly contested presidential race, helping the Massachusetts senator win Wisconsin’s presidential primary. Kennedy, touched by Aaron’s support, wrote the right fielder a letter thanking him. But for the most part, Aaron was a quiet advocate, and that led to the perception among some activists that he wasn’t doing enough at a time when public voices in support of civil rights were needed.

“He was not as vocal compared to other Black athletes on civil rights issues,” said Mikel Holt, associate publisher of the Milwaukee Community Journal, the state’s largest Black newspaper. “I sense he felt uncomfortable speaking out during that time. His wife was more vocal than he was.”

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Holt, who has written his “Signifyin’ ” column addressing racism for four decades, added that this had a lot to do with Aaron’s roots. “He was a quiet country boy, but he knew who he was,” he said. “He would not have made it if he would have blown up like I would have.”

“He often spoke out about racism he witnessed,” said Reggie Jackson, a Milwaukee historian. “So when people say Mr. Aaron was quiet and he didn’t speak out enough, they really didn’t know the real Hank Aaron. He just wasn’t the kind to yell and get in your face.”

Ingram Jr. said it’s unfair to say just because Aaron was Black, he needed to be more outspoken.

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“That just wasn’t who he was,” agreed Ingram. “It’s a mistake to say that just because he didn’t scream about racism that he didn’t care. He cared, but he did things in a more dignified way.”

Bud Selig agrees. The former Milwaukee Brewers owner and baseball commissioner shared a friendship with Aaron spanning six decades. “He wondered how other players would react to him, and he always felt concern that he didn’t do enough,” Selig said. He pointed out the power of Aaron’s community work, through volunteering, financial donations to local charities, and—later—through his own charity, the Hank Aaron Youth Fund, which gave scholarships to hundreds of Milwaukee students.

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It was through his connection to the community that longtime Milwaukeeans remember him today. Aaron purchased a brick home on 20th and Capitol, on the city’s north side. In the early 1960s, that neighborhood was nicknamed “Blackfish Bay” because it was where affluent African Americans lived—a pun on the rich white suburb of Whitefish Bay, just on the other side of the Milwaukee River, where police frequently hassled Black visitors.

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“How could you not love him?” said Tommie L. Booker, 87, who came to Milwaukee from Alma, Georgia, in 1955. “He was just a mile away from where I lived, so I would see him all the time.” Booker recalled conversations with Aaron’s father, Hank Sr., in which Booker teased that Hank’s younger brother and Braves teammate Tommie Aaron would be even better at baseball.

Booker remembered that each time he ran into Aaron around town, he’d say “Hey Hank,” and Aaron would reply with a wave or a smile. “He was really one of us,” Booker said. “You could speak to him like you would to anyone else. He wasn’t stuck up at all, and I say that’s because of his humble beginnings that were similar or worse than most of us.”

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Black baseball fans supported the team and Aaron by taking buses or carpooling from the north side to County Stadium for Braves games. For many it was their first time attending a professional sporting event. In the late 1950s, bleacher seats at Milwaukee County Stadium were $1, and the crowds at the park mirrored the city: Blacks sat with Blacks in the right field bleachers, and whites sat elsewhere. Milwaukeeans cheered the Braves in unison, but right after the game, fans would leave County Stadium and go right back to their segregated neighborhoods.

The issue of segregation in neighborhoods and even among fans at games during the ’50s and ’60s bothered Aaron, according to Selig. “I wish I had a good answer,” he said.

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After six years of struggle, Vel Phillips’ fair housing ordinance finally passed in 1968, two weeks after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. By then Hank Aaron was gone, along with the Braves, who’d moved to Atlanta in 1966. Milwaukee’s next Black sports superstar, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, led the Bucks to the 1971 NBA championship but demanded a trade in late 1974. After growing up in New York City and attending college at UCLA, he felt that Milwaukee was not compatible with his lifestyle.

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So it was meaningful that in the spring of 1975, Aaron returned to town, joining the brand-new Brewers to close out his Hall of Fame career. Selig recalled opening day of that season, when County Stadium fans, Black and white, sang “Hello, Henry!” to the tune of “Hello, Dolly!”

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Aaron smiles in his Brewers uniform
Henry Aaron of the Milwaukee Brewers circa 1975. Bettmann via Getty Images

During his second stint in town, Aaron frequented Mr. Perkins Family Restaurant. The diner had just opened a few years before, serving soul food on Atkinson Avenue near Aaron’s old house at 20th and Capitol. It was not uncommon to see Aaron in the diner, which served Southern staples like fried pork chops, greens, smothered chicken, and hot water cornbread. (Back in the minor leagues, a teammate said of Aaron, “The man ate pork chops three times a day.”)

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Aaron often shared his views with other men at Moore’s Barbershop. “It was a therapy session, much like it is today,” said Clayborn Benson, executive director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society, whose father owned the shop and cut Aaron’s hair. “As Black men you sometimes just have to have a place to get things off your chest.” Conversations ranged from who had the best high school baseball team in the city to the role of Black leaders and the Black church. Nothing was off-limits, but the conversations stayed in the barbershop among the men.

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Then there were the private conversations a barber and his client have between a hot towel on the face. I suspect it was then that Aaron shared stories of the racist hate mail he received from white baseball fans while chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record.

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I was too young to see Aaron play, but he was one of my father’s favorite athletes. Pops believed in supporting strong, positive, Black athletes—especially the ones who spoke out against racism and injustice. So as a child I remember our coffee table being lined with old Jet magazines featuring Muhammad Ali and Aaron on the covers.

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My father, now deceased, often talked about seeing Aaron around town after the slugger moved to Milwaukee. For my father, Aaron was bigger than life. A player who came to Milwaukee as a youngster and filled out into a man.

In all my years of living in Milwaukee, I only met Aaron once. It was at a fundraising event organized by Vel Phillips. She got Aaron to fly in from Atlanta and called me at the last minute to ask if I wanted to cover the story.

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I told her I would stop over at the event, which started when my shift at the newspaper ended. I brought a baseball I’d caught in the stands during a game at Miller Park the year before. I didn’t think Aaron would sign the ball, but I figured I would try.

When I got to the Hyatt hotel, folks were decked out in evening gowns and tuxes. It was a casual Friday at work, so I was way underdressed, but that didn’t stop Phillips from meeting me at the door. I asked her if she thought Aaron would sign my baseball.

“For me,” she said, “he will do anything.” She led me over to Aaron. “Hank, can you sign this baseball for James? I know his parents and I’ve known him forever,” she said.

Without hesitation, Aaron took my ball and then he shook my hand.

I was tongue-tied because I was face-to-face with my father’s hero. The only thing I could say was “Thank you, Mr. Aaron.”

His reply: “Call me Henry.”

He said: “The work is not done.”

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