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“I’m gonna die in this house”

Jeneane Roberts smiles and greets a young boy who eyes a carousel horse statue twice his height. The statue, standing in her front yard, is for sale, along with a few decorative tables, knick-knacks and women’s clothing propped up with hangers on the limbs of a small tree.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 18,” Roberts says.

“Milwaukee is very nice. Beautiful,” Jeneane says. “We used to be able to go to the Uptown Theater, walk down Lisbon Avenue. Never had to worry about anything.”

But over the last 10 years, she says she has noticed a change.

“It’s a shame now that the kids can’t do that. You know, you can’t even go out at night and go for a walk unless you have some man with you or at least two or three girls.”

Growing up, Roberts’ biggest dream was to have her own antique or thrift store. That dream has become a reality through her occasional rummage sales. She’s met many people, mostly kind customers. However, a city employee photographed a recent sale disapprovingly.

She adds, “They are warning me that I cannot have more than three rummage sales a year.”

The consequence, Roberts’ daughter Kim says, is a $500 fine.

“It’s already paid for in taxes and everything,” Jeneane groans. “Why should I have to go and get a permit to do this as long as I clean up my mess?”

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Roberts’ first encounter with death was when she was very young, losing her brother to a fatal automobile accident.

Most of her life in Milwaukee has been spent on the city’s far west side but there’s an especially strong bond between Roberts and her current residence, where she has lived for the past 30 years. It was here, back in 2009, where she took care of her mother in her final days.

“She died in my hands,” Jeneane laments. “So did my grandparents. Every one of them. I wouldn’t put them in a home.”

Roberts worked most her life running the tobacco counter at James Pharmacy in Butler, Wisconsin, until she got sick and had to retire. Now, at 74, she says she’s “really sick.”

Her daughters live with her now. She holds a lot of pride in them, the house and the yard they’ve helped decorate and maintain.

Her posture is ramrod straight and her smile fully engaged as she faces the white, two-story house. The front porch is adorned with pots of flowering plants and two chained-down, stone lion statues.

She boasts about her backyard, opening the small wooden fence. Roberts walks past a drained hot tub in slight disrepair, emerging into a spacious yard garnished with gardens, patio furniture and art, most of which was handcrafted by Bridgit, her other daughter.

“I am proud of it,” Roberts beams. “We all got our fingers into it. That’s why I want to stay here.”⬩

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Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that brings you the real stories of regular people. This work is supported by small, individual monthly contributions from people just like you; we need your help. Donations are tax-deductible.

“They knew I was gonna wake up soon”

Keon Hamler sits up against a pole near a bus stop at 27th and Kilbourn. The stout 22-year-old quietly watches the hustle and bustle around him, as people come and go.

“After I graduate, I wanna get into the music industry,” he says.

Influenced by members of his family, Keon was writing rap lyrics, making beats and recording music as early as 8.

Hamler has stayed “all around” but grew up on the east side of Milwaukee, staying, first, on Richards, then Concordia and 21st Street. And, from a young age, it’s been a challenge for Keon, who was hit by a car when he was 6.

“I was in a coma for about five days — they thought I was gonna die … That fifth day, I woke up.”

He doesn’t remember much from that time but wonders what it would’ve been like if he never would have woken up, and what the people in his life would be like now. He says the experience taught him to “always look both ways while crossing the street.”

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Keon, who attended Milwaukee High School of the Arts and graduated from Rufus King, was taking classes at MATC until about a year ago. He was working toward a degree in Music Occupations. “I didn’t have my money right, so I had to take off, get a job and get the money.”

Hamler hasn’t found it easy to settle down, moving around a lot. He just quit his job as a security guard at Rainbow because the place kept getting robbed, and he says he didn’t feel safe.

Still, he plans to get back to MATC by the fall.

“I write about my life, what I’ve been through, what I had to go through to be where I’m at right now,” Keon says.

“I just like to keep it real, ‘cause I came from nothin’.”⬩

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Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that brings you the real stories of regular people. This work is supported by small, individual monthly contributions from people just like you; we need your help. Donations are tax-deductible.

“We live the same, but we live differently”

Deon Bell quickly crosses State Street on a warm, sunny Friday afternoon, his phone in one hand and a bottle of pop in the other. He stops on the corner but can’t quite seem to keep still, moving and shifting, this way and that.

“I wanted to be alive when I was 21,” says Bell. “That’s what I wanted — that was my goal.”

He grew up a “little bit ‘a everywhere” — from the Lapham Park Housing Projects, to near 27th Street, and the south and west sides. It was like “visiting different states,” he says. “Everybody lives differently.”

Deon’s childhood was a bit of everything, too. Bell, whose only sibling is two years older and whose father was there “off and on,” said his childhood was boring. So, when he got a little older he started searching for something else.

“I got to a certain age and it was like the home life really didn’t matter no more,” he says. “I wanted to see what the streets was like. And, [my mother] wouldn’t let me do that, so I just had to run away a lot, or whatever the case may be.

“I wasn’t runnin’ away because it was a bad situation for me — I was runnin’ away because I wasn’t allowed to do what I wanted to do,” which, he adds, was “the opposite” of what his mother wanted for him.

At the time, he didn’t have any regrets. Bell describes the street life as “fun” and “carefree,” at least for a while. “[I] did what I wanted to do, didn’t have to answer to nobody,” he says. “Then … it started gettin’ me in trouble, I started goin’ to jail and catchin’ cases and stuff.”

“The streets don’t get you nowhere. But, back then, it was fun.”

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These days, Deon is father to a 6-year-old girl. He calls being a dad “wonderful.”

“It keeps you focused,” he says.

“She’s too young to judge you. She don’t care about your flaws and what the fuck you did or how imperfect you are … because what she sees is perfect. You know, so I watch everything I do around her,” Bell says. “I try to lead by example.”

He’s even apologized to his mom for what he put her through when he was younger.

Though Deon describes the job he works at a cleaning and assembly plant as just “a check,” he’s excited about the future, particularly being able to see how his daughter develops.

“She’s a product of me,” he says. “So, I just want her to be all she can be … and always think positive — no matter how much negativity she’s around, always think positive.

“Can’t succeed when you’re thinkin’ negative.”⬩

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Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that brings you the real stories of regular people. This work is supported by small, individual monthly contributions from people just like you; we need your help. Donations are tax-deductible.

“As soon as I could see over a counter I was working”

Lori Hill sits in a sun-faded red, cushioned patio chair in her backyard enjoying the sun before it sets on one of Milwaukee’s first 86 degree days of the spring. Birds gather and sing as they eat from a bird feeder hung from one of the trees bordering her backyard fence. Hill’s pit bull, Nicee, leisurely trots along, crunching the grass with her every step.

“When I was younger we did a lot of outdoor things, especially on nice days like this,” Lori says. “We went crabbing. We would just take little styrofoam cups and catch crabs.”

Lori grew up with two brothers — one older and one younger — in a small village called Suamico just 13 minutes away from her birthplace of Green Bay. She describes summers spent with the neighborhood kids, swimming and “coming up with fun things to do.”

She and her brothers would also visit their parents’ store, “Taste of Wisconsin.” The store, located in Green Bay’s airport, sold a variety of items, from wine to Packers souvenirs.

“We would go up there and be entertained while Mom and Dad would be working,” Hill remembers. “[We would] either be helping customers or coloring in the back or playing with different toys.”

The work her parents expected her to contribute to the family business only increased as she got older. At age 16, Hill was already driving long, highway commutes with giant truckloads of furniture for one of the several businesses her parents owned. She would eventually be given the responsibility of placing the orders, as well. Lori was included in all aspects of the family’s business; her father even consulted with her during times of hardship.

Though she moved out of her childhood home at 19, Hill was still entrusted with growing the family business. She graduated from high school and went on to enroll at Green Bay’s technical school. Initially, she studied marketing, a major she says her parents pushed her to pursue.

She graduated with two associates degrees, one in marketing and another in retail management.

“At [the] time I wanted to be a teacher, but I was discouraged from that,” Lori says. “I think my parents … thought ‘this is what we do, and you are to do those kind of things.’”

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When the Manitowoc branch of the family business closed down in June 2001, Lori gained the opportunity to strike out on her own.

At age 33, she made the move to Milwaukee with the plan to start a family with her significant other, who she had dated long-distance for two years prior.

“I got to experience a lot of things that kids my same age probably would never get the opportunity to do, yet I feel sometimes that we were kind of robbed of a childhood because we were being taught all of these different things,” Lori says. “But as I got older, I see how that has helped me to develop into an adult and be responsible. Not just as an employee but as a parent.”

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It was Lori’s significant other that inspired her to get into the field of Human Services.
She currently works as an IRIS (Include, Respect, I Self-Direct) consultant, helping disabled adults find ways to remain in their own homes. It’s work she feels she was meant to do, but the path wasn’t easy. She got another degree, this time from MATC, and “had to do not so desirable jobs with not the greatest income.”

But she doesn’t have any regrets.

“I feel my experience from previous work and life has helped me to be able to assist someone in this role that I am in now.”

She adds, “Sometimes you have to meet people, experience things, explore things.”

A small, curly haired boy slowly walks into the backyard and immediately finds comfort in Lori’s arms. He’s introduced as Eric, her 6-year-old son. She also has a 12-year-old daughter.

Hill says she looks forward to seeing her children grow and do the things they love.

Lori beams. “Motherhood has its moments but I wouldn’t trade it for nothing.”⬩

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Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that brings you the real stories of regular people. This work is supported by small, individual monthly contributions from people just like you; we need your help. Donations are tax-deductible.

“We teach everything”

Mohamud Suleiman stands near a playground in Wilson Park on a warm spring afternoon. He points out his three children — two girls, 6 and 4, and, the youngest, a 2-year-old boy.

“And, I’m waiting [on] another one … still hasn’t come,” he says.

Suleiman was born in Somalia, which has been in political turmoil for much of the last 50 years.

“My mom and my father just live in [a] small farm [on] the north side of Somalia … We catch whatever we have, we use whatever we can,” he says. “They had a good life.”

Mohamud played a lot of soccer as a child, he says. When he was growing up, he wanted to be a doctor, but was never able to get the education necessary to achieve his dream. Suleiman went from Somalia to Libya to Tunisia looking for work and opportunity. Eventually, in 2012, he came to the United States where, he says, “no matter who you are, no matter what color you are, no matter which religion you have, it’s the same deal.”

“When I see somebody’s losing their work, kid losing their education, I say, ‘Come on guys.’”

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At one point, he may have hoped to fulfill his own dreams but, these days, Mohamud is mostly focused on his children. He’s happy that he can provide them with the opportunity he never had.

“I kind of wasted my time,” Suleiman says.

“Sometimes, if you are a father, you should have to forget yourself — you should have to forget what [it is] you need, what do you want … you should have to look [to] the kids first. Family, kids, wife — when you resolve your home, try, after that, yourself.”

The ultimate goal is for his children to be successful. He says it’s important to provide kids with the time to do the things that will help them become whole people — sleeping, playing and reading — and to teach them the skills — like cleaning and cooking — to allow them to be self-reliant later in life.

The oldest, Mohamud says, is good at math, and her teachers agree. He says the 4-year-old might make a good doctor and the youngest one is good at counting, or maybe management. He says he teaches them all “how they can help the people,” and not just themselves, by what it is they do.

Suleiman is a big believer in marriage. He’s been married for 10 years and says that everyone should experience what it’s like to rely on someone else, to share the hidden parts of yourself with another person.

“We have a policy,” he says. “We have a respect for each other.

“You can see [in] America, or all over the world, they spend a lot of money [on] their marriage … and it’s [over] after three or four months — they’re done. That’s not marriage. They don’t understand each other before — they don’t understand life.”

He says marriage is “comforting” and that it’s made him a happier person. “Don’t worry about what you have, if you’re poor or rich … if you’ve got money or not. Money comes and goes.”

“Most important is respect, honesty, you know, don’t yell at each other without reason, give [your spouse] freedom … work together.”

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IMG_8549

Mohamud Suleiman, 33, watches his children play in Wilson Park on Milwaukee’s South Side. (Photo by Jabril Faraj)

At this point, Mohamud works for a company that provides transportation for medical patients. Looking forward, he has a couple different options and doesn’t know which is the right path. At least, his current focus on his children has allowed him time to reflect.

The 33-year-old says it’s too late to go to school for medicine or business, and muses about getting a four year degree. For now, he’s intent on learning the language in his newly adopted country, which he says is the key to understanding people.

He feels like a ship lost at sea, Suleiman says, but he has no doubt he is on his way.

“I don’t have, [at] this time, opportunity,” he says. “But I am awaiting the time I can make benefit. I don’t wanna go out of my street — I’m staying in my street, I’m fighting [in] my street, I’m finding the way I can resolve.”⬩

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Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that brings you the real stories of regular people. This work is supported by small, individual monthly contributions from people just like you; we need your help. Donations are tax-deductible.

Podcast: “The people are more important than making heroes of individuals”

Clayborn Benson, founder of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society, talks about the importance of preserving history in order to learn from the mistakes and accomplishments of the past, the true meaning of family and the power of discovering our hidden potential and identity.

“I knew nothing about my father, other than the fact that I was named after him,” says Benson. In the process of discovering his past, he says, “I went from a little shy young man to finding my own roots and my own understanding of who I was and the power that I had within myself.”

Listen below, or on Soundcloud.

Music by Pharaoh Mac & DMT

The historical society, established in 1987, is located at 2620 W. Center St. You can find more information on hours, exhibits and admission on its website.

Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that brings you the real stories of regular people. This work is supported by small, individual monthly contributions from people just like you; we need your help. Donations are tax-deductible.

“I want to go to Yale”

Novion Bailey balances on the back of a sepia colored, metal park bench in a small sitting area set within the sea of tan-bricked buildings that compose the Greentree & Teutonia Apartments. He laughs at his 3-year-old niece as she parades around him. The navy, turquoise and white hair beads that match her shirt — and, coincidentally, her uncle’s Nike tennis shoes — rattle with each step. She shows all her teeth in a smile and thrusts a stick high in the air, marching proudly as one might imagine a drum major would.

“Natalie is a character,” Novion chuckles. “This is the only time I get to enjoy the weekend with my niece and my family.”

Bailey spends his week at the Milwaukee Job Corps Center, where he’s finishing his high school degree and learning a trade. On weekends, he’s usually at his mother’s or with his sister (Natalie’s mom).

Novion grew up mostly in Milwaukee’s Uptown area, but moved around a lot as a child. He is the youngest of all of his siblings — three on his mother’s side and four brothers on his father’s. Bailey has barely seen his father in 16 years of life, and has only met one of those brothers.

“I don’t feel like I need him,” Novion says, of his father. “The people around me made me the man that I am today so that’s all I really care about.”

Bailey’s mother raised him, his brother and two sisters as a single parent. They didn’t have much money, which caused them to move around a lot. But money wasn’t all that was important.

“My mom is a great mother,” he says in a strong voice, eyes downcast. “She raised us up the right way.”

She was the one who instilled Bailey’s sense of moral values early on.

“Everyone shouldn’t be so cold-hearted and money hungry,” he says. “I know a lot of people here don’t have a lot of money and can’t make a lot of money … but if they had the mindset to go and make money instead of trying to take somebody else’s … it would be a better place.”

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Being in Milwaukee for his entire life, Bailey says this city is all he knows. Whenever someone asks how he is doing he responds “I’m good just staying out of trouble.” Trouble, he says, is rampant here, and takes some effort to avoid.

Instead of simply dwelling on the negativity he witnesses, Novion has set positive goals that he is determined to accomplish.

“In a good year, I see myself in college taking up engineering, math, science and poetic classes,” he beams. “Hopefully I will become an artist, like Kendrick Lamar. I really look up to him.”

Novion pauses to accept a pink-petaled flower Natalie picked from a nearby tree. She reminds him to hold on to it tight so the winds, which just started to pick up speed, don’t take it away. Clouds, darkened with the promise of rain, slowly roll overhead as Novion pulls up his hood.

“It might sound farfetched … but I [want to go] to Yale, Harvard, maybe Duke University,” he says confidently. “I might not be able to reach that goal but that’s something I look forward to.”

Bailey says he never had the luxury of someone to challenge him, or help him find his way.

“Nobody ever really told me that I should go to Harvard or I should go to Yale or even really said I should go to college,” he says. “I just always had that mindset.”

Novion stands up as small raindrops begin to fall. A smile wrinkles his nose, pushing up the tortoise-shell eyeglasses he wears. He calls for Natalie and, though she pleads for a few more minutes of fun, she eventually follows.

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Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that brings you the real stories of regular people. This work is supported by small, individual monthly contributions from people just like you; we need your help. Donations are tax-deductible.