Jeannetta Simpson-Robinson Memorial Highway Unveiled
Over and over, I heard “It was a long time coming.” It has been 10 years since the law that created the “Jeannetta Simpson-Robinson Memorial Highway” was signed. This week we watched the signs go up. Erected along I-43, between North Avenue and the Keefe/Atkinson Avenue exits, we had a front row seat to Wisconsin history. This highway sign would mark the first time, in the state’s history, that a woman of color would have her name placed on a highway road sign.
Now, some of you may not know Jeannetta and naturally question, ‘What was so special about her?’ Sitting recently at the Northcott Neighborhood House, where the sign unveiling and dedication was held, the answers came quickly. Jeannetta was a Mississippi native that relocated to Milwaukee as a teenager and young mother. A high school graduate at the age of 16, she broke racial barriers in employment quickly. Starting in retail and then accounting, Jeannetta understood the power of education, opportunity and the need for second chances.
In the late 1960’s, Jeannetta was keenly aware of the disparities in treatment, housing, education and criminal justice systems. Disparate treatment was often the entry ramp to a life paved with challenges. Jeannetta realized she could provide an exit ramp, giving underserved residents much needed support. In 1970, she and her mother, Claretta “Mother Freedom” Simpson, founded the Career Youth Development (CYD) after-school program in their home. Word quickly spread, if you needed educational help, this was the place to go. CYD became a nonprofit umbrella organization, that at its peak, would offer 30 social service programs.
CYD served adjudicated juveniles in Milwaukee County and offered substance abuse treatment, alternative education and drug prevention programs. CYD operated a residential treatment center for youth, and an outpatient treatment center for AODA issues, and mental health services. During peak operation, CYD employed more than 160 staff members and had an operating budget of $3.5 million. Yet, this was just the tip of the iceberg. Mrs. Simpson-Robinson hosted a local television show for 30 years, helped to bring the Safe & Sound to Milwaukee and worked across partisan lines to advocate and secure resources for her community. She sent scores of children to camp and abroad and made sure they graduated from high school. Many of her former students are in business, educational and governmental agencies.
Sitting at the unveiling and dedication program, I looked around to see a cross section of elected officials, clergy, activists and community members that only Jeannetta could have brought together. Perhaps it was her determination, that mistakes don’t define people and disagreements didn’t define relationships. This was never more evident when she was able to offer forgiveness when her daughter and granddaughter were murdered. She created a support group for survivors of trauma.
Like the highway, which will hold the sign bearing her name, many people passed through Jeannetta’s life. On their journey, she helped fuel their soul, provided helpful markers and direction, and was always there. In fact, when she passed in 2008, she was facilitating a group for survivors of trauma. Her last breath and activity were spent doing what she did best and surrounded by the people she cherished. I look forward to folks seeing the sign, asking “Who is Jeanetta Simpson-Robinson” and being blown away by the answer.