Cultural anthropologists' book celebrates ethnic diversity in Milwaukee's south side
by Monique Collins and Michael Lenoch
A woman with a heart of gold and delicate voice, Jill Florence Lackey discovered her love for studying and celebrating ethnic groups in America at a young age.
She was born in St. Paul, Minn., moving later in her childhood to what is now known as Lincoln Village, where UrbAn’s Old South Side Settlement Museum is located. Lackey said, when she lived in the neighborhood, it went by a number of names, including Kosciuszko Park neighborhood, St. Josaphat neighborhood and the south side Polonia.
Outside of her home life, the diverse groups she learned about in school enthralled Lackey. Sitting at a table in the museum, surrounded by ethnic drawings and artifacts, Lackey recalled learning about the Laps, the Mbuti, American-Indians and other groups. The table is not the first thing drawing your eye when you enter the museum, but it is the communal gathering for museumgoers to share their cultural experiences with others.
“My teachers would make it very interesting for me,” she said. “That’s why we want to work so hard at UrbAn to develop more youth programming because I think it is at that age where you get the interest or you don’t get it.”
Lackey’s father was an ethnic artist and part American Indian and her mother was a German Jew. Her parents’ diverse background played a large role in her knowledge of different groups.
“I wouldn’t say my parents were hot on ethnicity, but my father educated me a lot on (it) and he would point out the differences in the (group).”
Although her community looked at her cultural roots in shame during her childhood, Lackey has always had an intense passion for learning about these different groups.
“I grew up during the “melting pot” era when everyone was just trying to be American and deny ethnicity,” she said. “My parents downplayed their backgrounds, as did others around me.”
This only intrigued her more, encouraging her to ask questions about the city’s cultural backgrounds. She earned her doctorate degree in urban cultural anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Lackey, 69, is the founder of Urban Anthropology Inc. (UrbAn) in Milwaukee. Since retiring, Once the organization’s executive director and principle investigator, Lackey has stepped down from her position as its director and focuses on researching the city’s various ethnic groups, using her findings to give presentations to surrounding residents.
Lackey admits that her hobby is her work; she still researches different ethnic groups and cultures every day. In her spare time, Lackey does free genealogy work for residents.
Lackey’s newest book, “Images of America: Milwaukee’s Old South Side,” focuses on the various ethnic groups in the city’s south side throughout history. The book features 200 photographs and art forms documenting the city’s early Polish settlements of the 1840s.
Co-author Rick Petrie is the executive director of UrbAn and instrumental in forming communal unity and arranging Lincoln Village’s events such as Ice Skating at the Kosciuszko Park Lagoon.
Lackey and Petrie, 58, took over the writing of the book, along with her colleague Barbara Nelson. A group of scholars in public history and anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee initially proposed the book.
Alice Kehoe, adjunct professor of anthropology at UW-Milwaukee and Lackey’s former colleague at Marquette University, works on UrbAn’s executive board and has known Lackey for several years. She said Lackey’s commitment to celebrating and preserving ethnic diversity in the city has not gone unnoticed.
Kehoe said Lackey’s book, UrbAn’s programs and the its proximity to a neighborhood landmark – St. Josaphat’s Basilica –- displayed Lackey’s work for the community.
Kehoe doubts Milwaukee’s South Side would ever have found another outlet for its cultural history without Lackey’s hard work and commitment.
“Dr. Lackey’s unwavering dedication to effectively helping people in lower-income neighborhoods and her valuable oral histories and vernacular architecture has shown others that neighborhoods and ethnic groups are interesting and vital to our city’s good health,” Kehoe said.
In 1999, Lackey founded UrbAn to share her knowledge of cultural groups with Milwaukee residents. An avid traveler who boasts visiting every U.S. city with a population more than 150,000, she said she never thought of opening UrbAn in any other city.
“Milwaukee was always my choice city,” she said.
Nelson, 64, has lived in Lincoln Village for 33 years. She has been a volunteer for UrbAn for 10 years. Nelson said Lackey’s connection to the city motivated Lackey to found UrbAn.
“It’s kind of evolved as she was getting toward retirement,” Nelson said. “I think it was her long-term plan for her life, after she retired.”