If you have ever been to Summerfest, any other summer festival or a Milwaukee Bucks or Marquette Golden Eagles half-time show, then you have likely seen The Milwaukee Flyers Tumbling Team.
Perhaps you were at a youth rally, a block party, a church gathering or even a Milwaukee Police Department event. Black boys stacked on top of each others’ shoulders, ready for one or two of their tumbling team to fly over them. Eight-year-olds performing back handsprings or full twists or forward flips, slicing their way through the air in between thick Double Dutch ropes. I recently sat down with founder and chairman Charles Grant to learn more about the Flyers, why he formed the popular tumbling team, how they’re handling the pandemic and what’s in store for their future.
Through The Milwaukee Flyers program, founded in 2005, these young tumblers not only learn how to wow crowds with aerial wonders but also develop self-discipline, personal responsibility and integrity, three of the core principles of The Milwaukee Flyers. Thanks to Grant, 44, about one hundred youth, ranging in age from 8 to 25, have garnered pride and respect within the Milwaukee community over the years. Currently, twenty are on the team, whose 2020 season has unfortunately been put on hold because of the pandemic.
Even with everything up in the air, the Flyers are still moving forward with plans to build the youth a permanent home. For twelve years, they practiced at the Martin Luther King Community Center on Vliet, then fixed up the old gym at New Hope Church in 2017. Grant says that they’ve outgrown both of those spaces.
The new 9,375-square-foot facility, designed by Ken Dahlin from Genesis Architecture, LLC, will be located on Green Bay Avenue near Capitol Drive. Currently in the early phases of fundraising, Grant says, “I’m excited because we hope to expand the program with open practices, training for new kids and competition gymnastics for kids who might not be into the entertainment aspect of the Flyers but who want to learn gymnastics.”
Black-owned JCP Construction is reportedly interested in taking on the estimated $1.5 million project, though nothing has been finalized yet. The team is accepting donations on their website.
Q&A with Charles Grant
How has the pandemic affected the Milwaukee Flyers?
Charles Grant: Our last practice was in March, and even though we did do one show at Elim Tabernacle, a church event in July, the kids are so down. They’re used to being out and about. The summer was kind of depressing for them. I mean, you take tumbling away from them and what do they have? I used to talk to them periodically when we could still show up for practices, but now the only thing I can ask them is “What are you guys doing now?” And they say, “Uh, playing video games.” Which is so sad because they’re used to being on the go and performing with the cheers and applause. Usually, we’re flying high from June to October. Right now, they’re kind of lost.
What was your experience like growing up?
Charles Grant: I grew up in the Cabrini-Green Homes public housing project in the inner city of Chicago with my mother, three brothers and my sister. That was an eye-opener for me in terms of segregation. 99% of the residents were Black, so we really didn’t see any other race unless, like me, we went to the Gold Coast where I’d shine shoes at 9 years old. I was really good at it – a little hustler. But yes, it was rough. So many kids lived without their fathers, who were either dealing drugs, in jail or dead. Sometimes you’d go to school at 9 am and there were gangs and shootings on your way. There’d be dead bodies lying outside our apartment. And when you were going home, nine times out of ten, the elevator wouldn’t work, so you’d have to climb the stairs ten, twelve, sometimes sixteen flights of stairs, going down dark hallways. It was scary not knowing what could happen.
It was like everybody was crying out for help. I also witnessed first-hand many instances of police brutality. We kids back then – and our kids now – feared the police. They look at them as the enemy, which is sad. But I get it. The police would not even come inside Cabrini-Green. Here they are, supposedly to protect the community, and yet the police officers were afraid to come in. And if they did come in, they looked at you like you were a bad child or a gang member – they’d already labeled you. It was almost like a death trap. You’re crying out for help, but there’s no help but the gangs, which you saw as your “police” protection.
But the gangs had territories, like the white buildings and the red buildings. You couldn’t cross over into their territory or something bad would happen. However, Jesse White, who was my elementary school gym teacher, lived on Sedrick Avenue in Cabrini-Green and started his famous Jesse White Tumbling Team. If you were a kid wearing one of his red uniforms, that uniform was another kind of protection since his team would perform all over the place. The kids, many of whom were in gangs, of course, could then travel into different gang territories without problems.
Jesse has been the 37th Secretary of State of Illinois since 1999. Even now, at 86, he’s still performing. I mean, he’ll still do an occasional handstand, but to do that in your 80s is amazing. So I saw how his program kept kids off the street, kept them out of harm’s way. I was infatuated with what he was doing and looked up to him as a father figure and role model. I tried out for gymnastics, but it wasn’t for me. He had all kinds of other cool things to try out like drumming and ballet to keep kids like me away from the gangs and the violence of the inner city, but those things weren’t for me, so I know I tested the waters about where I was supposed to go or not go – and got jumped because of it.
Luckily, my two younger brothers Allen and Terrell tried out and they made the Tumbling Team when they were 8 or 9. It was inspiring to watch them be part of that team and keep out of harm’s way: I saw them take their gift and utilize it to entertain thousands across the Chicago area. But when they turned 14 or 15, they were scouted out by Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and traveled the world with them for five years. Yes: they ran away to join the circus! I was always intrigued, so infatuated by their lifestyle. Here I was, living in poverty, in and out of jail. I so needed to find some kind of purpose and hope for my own future.
Where did the genesis of the Milwaukee Flyers come from, and what was the turning point for you?
Charles Grant: Like I said, I kept being in and out, in and out of jail. Eventually, then, I told my brothers that we needed to formulate something like Jesse White’s program here in Milwaukee. I told them how I had followed their journeys and the places where they went and the people that they came in contact with. I convinced them that this would be a good fit for the Milwaukee community – and we started the Milwaukee Flyers in 2005. We reached out to Jesse to ask him for his blessing and gave us advice, mats, shoes. Anything that I need or want, he’s still one phone call away. Not only did I want to provide positive experiences for Milwaukee kids, I also wanted to break the generational curse in my family. We all grew up amid gangs and drugs, we all experienced run-ins with the law. I was growing tired of our old lifestyle and was looking at this as an outlet for us, not just for the community. I wanted to create something other than the negative image we were putting out there in the world.
What are some of the individual stories that the Milwaukee Flyers are most proud of?
Charles Grant: You know, the average African American boy wants to become one of three things: a rapper, a football player or a basketball player. Not a baseball player and certainly not a gymnast. So early on, only a few kids were interested. But then they started coming out of the woodwork and I was surprised how many Black boys were really good at gymnastics. When we started, Curtis, who was about 9 or 10 – the same age as my brothers when they met Jesse – was struggling, in and out of Roger’s Memorial for anger issues and other things. So me being there to push him, provide him with help, was necessary. We were able to encourage him to finish high school, then raised enough money for him to go to college in Manitowoc. And now he’s completing his college degree and is a father.
Another one is Ivron, who joined the Flyers about ten years ago. I’ve admired his growth, watching him develop from a kid with low self-esteem, with no confidence in who he was. I can tell, though, that by being part of The Milwaukee Flyers, he developed strengths. At Bradley Tech, he was great at football, his grades were pretty good and his mother was persistent in pushing him to succeed. I recently was able to reach out to him to follow up with “What’s next?” Right now, he’s looking at trade schools.
As for me, I was a high school dropout, but I eventually went to Literacy Services of Wisconsin to get my GED. After that, I went to MATC to get a degree in Business. I keep hungering, though, for more success, for more being around positive people and energies. So I’m currently taking online classes for Psychology. I think it’s because, working with kids, I want to be able to understand them and identify the things they’re going through, to relate to them and articulate how they’re feeling. Lots of them have depression, lots of them are foster kids. So I want to connect with them not only on a physical fitness level but on a mental level.
How do these kids do it, how do they fly through the air with such ease?
Charles Grant: Thankfully, these kids are fearless. I see their hunger. Of course, we practice safety first, but they come in so eager, so determined. Some learn overnight, others take years to perfect their routines. And it helps that I keep being a role model, leader and comforter, with love, guidance and hope. It helps that I give them a platform to continue using their gifts over and over and over again. I tell them, “We’re always here, even if you take a break from the Flyers.” And I’ll always be here for my family, too. One of my younger brothers is currently incarcerated, and another brother was just released from prison after 24 years. So I’m trying to be a positive influence in both my families right now. It’s hard, especially because everyone is looking to you to be perfect. To the Flyers, of course, I am. But, humbly, I’m not. I’m just Charles. And no matter what, we’ll continue to find a way to fly. The sky’s the limit.
Michael Snowden, Lee Matz, and Pat A. Robinson