James Groppi Papers, 1956-1989


Father James Edmund Groppi, Roman Catholic priest and civil rights activist, was born in November of 1930 in Milwaukee, one of twelve children of Italian immigrants, Giocondo Groppi and his wife. He attended Mount Calvary Seminary at Mount Calvary, Wisconsin, from 1950 to 1952; and St. Francis Seminary at Milwaukee from 1952 to 1959, and in June of 1959 he was ordained to the priesthood. He began his duties as a priest at St. Veronica Church, Milwaukee, in 1959. In 1963, Father Groppi was transferred to St. Boniface Church, a predominately Black parish in the inner city of Milwaukee. It was while serving at St. Boniface that he received national attention for his work in the area of human rights. After leaving St. Boniface in 1970, Groppi was assigned to the pastoral team of St. Michael Church, Milwaukee. Here he began looking for new outlets for his intellectual energies, applying to graduate schools of political science and law. In 1970 he was accepted at the Antioch School of Law, but dropped out in 1972 with one year of training left; that same year he also left St. Michael Church. From 1975 to 1976 he worked for the Tri-County Voluntary Service Committee where he was responsible for recruiting and supervising VISTA volunteers in Racine, Kenosha and Walworth Counties. He rose again to public attention when he joined Marlon Brando to mediate the clash between the Menominee Indians and the Alexian Brothers at the Alexian Monastery in Gresham, Wisconsin, in 1975.

Groppi's early civil rights activity includes participation in the 1963 “March on Washington,” work with the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) movement in Mississippi during the summer of 1964, participation in the “Selma Montgomery March” in March of 1965, and work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference voter registration project led by Martin Luther King Jr. during the summer of 1965. That same year he became the advisor to the Milwaukee chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council and began protesting segregation in Milwaukee public schools. In his capacity of NAACP advisor he organized an all Black male group called the Milwaukee Commandos. They were formed to help quell violence during the “Freedom Marches” and, with the NAACP Youth Council, mounted a lengthy, continuous demonstration against the city of Milwaukee on behalf of fair housing. Two of the Commandos eventually became bodyguards to Father Groppi. While assistant pastor to Reverend Eugene Bleidorn at St. Boniface, Groppi was also second vice president of Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (1965-1966), advisor to the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council (1965-1968), and organizer of the “Welfare Mothers' March on Madison” (1969).

The period 1967-1969 saw Father Groppi rise to national notoriety with such actions as his “Freedom Marches,” and picketing the Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, home of circuit court Judge Robert C. Cannon to protest his membership in the white-only Fraternal Order of Eagles. Later Groppi joined demonstrations at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. He received both physical and moral support from such human rights activists as Dick Gregory and Martin Luther King Jr. and, although he was arrested on numerous occasions for standing firm in his beliefs and was often vilified, he was instrumental in dramatizing the segregated housing situation in Milwaukee. This last led to enactment of an open-housing law there; and Groppi could believe that he had raised the consciousness of many to other inequities as well.

On April 22, 1976 Groppi married Margaret Rozga, who had been his secretary while at St. Boniface. Holding a doctorate in English, she was later to teach English at a Milwaukee university. The Groppis' first child, Anna, was born in February 1979. Deprived by the Roman Catholic Church of the right to exercise the functions of the priesthood of that church following his marriage, Groppi attended the Virginia Theological Seminary (Episcopal) in Alexandria, Virginia, during the fall of 1978. Beginning in January 1979 he continued his preparations for the Episcopal priesthood working for St. Andrews Church, an inner-city parish in Detroit, Michigan. Still unsettled in his thoughts and feelings about Roman Catholicism and whether it was spiritually possible for him, because of his lifelong commitment to the Roman Catholic Church, to continue toward conversion to the Episcopal priesthood, Groppi returned to Milwaukee and resumed his former position as a Milwaukee County transit bus driver in the summer of 1979. Father James Groppi died in November of 1985.