Early History of Race Relations

Jun 11, 2009

Milwaukee has long been known as one of the most segregated cities in the country. This morning, WUWM begins to explore whether that reputation still holds true today. During our Project Milwaukee coverage, we’ll look at the state of race relations in the city, how they’ve improved and where there’s still room for growth. WUWM’s Erin Toner begins our series with a view on the early history of blacks and whites living together in Milwaukee.

Joe Trotter was a college student in Kenosha in the 1960s, during the height of Milwaukee’s civil rights struggles. He became fascinated with the city, especially the black experience. Trotter wrote a book on the topic in 1985.

“I’m very happy that I chose Milwaukee because it is a very, very interesting case study of black life in this country,” Trotter says.

Trotter now heads the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He divides early race relations in Milwaukee into three phases – and in each one, Trotter says, there was both extreme prejudice against blacks, and examples of cooperation between the races. Trotter says the first wave started in the late 18th century when blacks first arrived here.

“This generation of African Americans were people who actually came there with their employers. They lived in hotels and business establishments and they worked in the domestic and personal service sectors. And yet, those 200 African Americans were very active in the abolitionist movement. They actually joined forces with white allies and actually played a role in the development of what we now know as the Underground Railroad,” Trotter says.

That network provided hideouts for runaway slaves from the South, until they could settle in free communities. But despite such alliances, blacks could not vote in Wisconsin, hold public office, or serve in the militia until after the Civil War. Trotter says whites did not seem to correlate working to emancipate slaves with helping them gain full citizenship rights in Milwaukee.

“In fact it was easier for some people to view enslaved blacks who were trying to escape southern plantations more sympathetically than they could a free black who was disenfranchised in Milwaukee,” Trotter says.

Trotter’s phase two of early race relations extends from the end of the Civil War through 1915, when Milwaukee’s black population grew to around 1,000 – less than 1 percent of the city’s population. Trotter says even though many of these new migrants were better educated or even held political office in the South, most ended up working low-rung jobs in Milwaukee because of growing discrimination. And even those job opportunities soon dwindled.

“For example, the Plankinton House, one of the major employers, you know, hotels, employers, of blacks, dismissed black workers and replaced them with new immigrants who were coming in as a result of this second wave of great migration from European countries. And they said black people were no longer efficient, no longer taking care of business. They needed a white workforce. So there was a racism going on in Milwaukee by the 1890s that was closing down opportunities for blacks,” Trotter says.

Trotter says establishments such as restaurants began turning away black customers, and interracial couples were harassed. But even during those hostile times, there was a thread of cooperation. “In this period, blacks and whites collaborated on passing a Civil Rights bill in 1895 that was designed to stop excluding blacks from public accommodations on the basis of their race. And then phase three…,” Trotter says.

The "Great Migration" of blacks from the deep South, lasting from 1915 to 1930. Trotter says these migrants came to find better jobs and a higher quality of life. But in Milwaukee, they found widespread discrimination, including housing laws that forced blacks to live in segregated areas. Still, Trotter says, the black community grew.

“It builds new churches, established new fraternal orders, new political organizations. This is the era of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP, the National Urban League, black participation in the organized labor movement of the 1930s,” Trotter says.

Trotter says those new political organizations also included white members who worked to fight prejudice. The historian says he studied this early period of race relations in Milwaukee to find out how it compared to other northern industrial cities that had larger black populations. He found similarities and also interesting differences. For one, he says, blacks in Milwaukee supported the city’s Socialist mayor, Daniel Hoan, despite the party’s racial bias. And Trotter says Milwaukee’s black community faced less overt racial violence than what was occurring in cities such as Chicago and Detroit. Yet race relations here began to mirror those of other large cities during the 1950s and 60s, as Milwaukee’s black population swelled.