By Gina Barton
When Milwaukeeans refer to the city’s “black mayor,” they usually aren’t talking about Marvin Pratt, who led the city for four months in 2004 after Mayor John Norquist resigned.
They usually are talking about Reuben Harpole Jr., the longtime community activist and educator. He also is nicknamed “the source” and “the connector” because of the way he has led the African-American community and brought together city residents of all races to help those in need.
Reuben isn’t the only Harpole who has made a difference. His wife, Mildred Harpole, has spent 40 years serving the community on numerous volunteer boards. During her career at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, she worked to promote fair housing and end homelessness.
The two, who married in 1959, will be honored Wednesday — Reuben’s 79th birthday — with the city’s Frank P. Zeidler Public Service Award.
“I just think they’re a godsend to the Milwaukee community. We’re so blessed to have such caring, smart, intelligent leaders — and not just leaders in the sense of being potentates, but those who inspire their friends and neighbors and the next generation to reach greater heights,” said Art Heitzer, a local attorney and activist who chairs the Zeidler award committee.
The couple were chosen to receive the award because their efforts mirror those of Zeidler, who served as Milwaukee’s mayor from 1948 to 1960. Zeidler, a socialist, long served as “a voice for social justice and public service,” according to a news release.
While working as director of fair housing and equal opportunity at Milwaukee’s HUD office, Mildred Harpole helped city residents prepare for welfare reform and worked to update national fair housing standards.
As national president of the Eta Phi Beta sorority in the 1990s, she worked to connect African-American women so they could overcome racism and reach their full potential.
“Mildred Harpole’s more than four decades of service to the City of Milwaukee has yielded opportunities for growth and improvement for many citizens in need,” Ald. Robert J. Bauman said in a statement.
Reuben Harpole worked as an outreach specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for more than 30 years, beginning in the 1960s. There, he helped create an urban research center that provided black students with educational opportunities.
In 1998, he went to work for the Helen Bader Foundation, where he spearheaded the selection for 758 grants totaling more than $6.4 million.
Along the way, he volunteered for numerous causes.
“You would have trouble finding any important institution in black Milwaukee — America’s Black Holocaust Museum, Harambee Community School, Harambee Ombudsman Project, the Community Brainstorming Session — that Harpole either didn’t help start or wasn’t a major factor in moving things forward,” former Journal Sentinel columnist Eugene Kane wrote in 2009.
Harpole also helped bring peace back to Milwaukee after the 1967 riots, Kane wrote.
Harpole served in the Army during the Korean conflict and once met Benjamin Mays, mentor to Martin Luther King Jr.
He said in a May interview with the Journal Sentinel that he has always had hope for the future. The solution to ending racism in Milwaukee and around the country, he believes, is education.
“The ones that will solve the problems will be our children, the children of the United States,” he said. “Black and white, Hispanic. The answer is in education. It has to be the children who will study.”
Annysa Johnson of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
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