Black History in Wisconsin
Before World War I and before the Civil War, before the Germans and the Yankees and even the lead miners had arrived in our state, African Americans were living and working in Wisconsin. This page leads to original documents, pictures, eyewitness accounts, and other primary sources you can examine online that reveal Wisconsin's black heritage. Besides those linked below, other documents can be found at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.
Martha and Notley Henderson
The Wisconsin Historical Society possesses one of the nation's largest research collections on African-American history. Very little of this is available online; Freedom's Journal, the first African-American periodical, is a notable exception. Our other black periodicals are described on the African-American Newspapers and Periodicals page. You can search these paper collections in the Library Catalog (books and other publications) and ArCat (unpublished manuscripts and archival materials).
- The Fur Trade Era
- The Early 19th Century
- The Civil War Era
- The Later 19th Century
- World War I and After
- The Civil Rights Era
1. The Fur Trade Era
The earliest record of African Americans in Wisconsin comes from a 1725 speech by a chief of the Illinois Indians. In the speech, he reported that their enemies, the Fox Indians, had massacred four Frenchmen and "a negro belonging to Monsieur de Boisbriant," celebrating the victory at Green Bay under the eyes of French officials. Several 18th-century records of African-American baptisms, marriages, and burials in the upper Great Lakes also survive, though none have been traced specifically to within the boundaries of modern Wisconsin. In 1746 the commander of the French garrison at Green Bay brought a black slave with him, and when the French surrendered Wisconsin to the English in 1760, the peace provisions allowed Charles de Langlade and other settlers to retain their "negro and Pawnee" slaves. Historian William Smith estimated that at that time "the French population of the whole Illinois country, from the Mississippi eastward to the Wabash, was probably not less than five thousand persons, including about five hundred Negro slaves."
Not all African Americans involved in the fur trade were slaves, however. About 1791, two free black traders opened a post at Marinette, near the mouth of the Menominee River. Between 1779 and 1800, a black fur trader named Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable
prospered at Chicago, and was well known to Wisconsin's first white settlers. A British naval officer who captured him during the American Revolution reported that he "in every respect behaved as becoming a man in his situation, and has many friends, who give him a good character."
1746: French Captain De Velie has a black servant with him when he confronts the Fox Indians at Green Bay [Grignon, 204-205]
1760: French governor general says Charles de Langlade and other settlers in the western Great Lakes will be allowed to keep their black and Pawnee slaves under the terms of surrender to the British [Grignon, 220]
1791 or 1792: Two African-American fur traders settle among the Menominee at Marinette [Grignon, 265]
1799: Green Bay fur trader Baptiste Brunet cruelly mistreats an African-American boy who he had purchased from a St. Louis slave trader [Grignon, 258]
2. The Early 19th Century
When white settlers streamed into Wisconsin to mine lead in the 1820s and 1830s, those who came from southern states often brought slaves with them. Although some were freed in Wisconsin, others, like a woman in Grant County ironically named "America," were eventually sent back into slavery in the South. A slave named Paul Jones, finding himself on free soil in Wisconsin, even sued his master in 1846 for back wages.
When Wisconsin was preparing to become a state in 1846, leading citizens drafted a constitution that would have allowed African Americans to vote. This was too radical an idea for the time and was rejected by voters — all of them white, by definition. Not until 1866, when Ezekiel Gillespie, a leader in Milwaukee's black community, sued for the right to vote and carried his case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, were African Americans able to cast ballots in the Badger State.
1830s: Slaves are brought to southwest Wisconsin by lead miners from the South.
Davidson, J. N.
1846: A slave in Grant County sues his owner for wages
1846: The proposed state constitution would have allowed African Americans to vote:
1846: Debates about suffrage in the Constitutional Convention
3. The Civil War Era
In 1840 fewer than 200 African Americans lived in Wisconsin. By 1860 that number had swelled to nearly 1,200. During the Civil War, a large number of new black residents arrived from the South as northern troops swept through slave-holding states. During these decades, a large number of white settlers from New England, New York and Germany with radical political opinions, including opposition to slavery, entered Wisconsin. They formed abolitionist groups, helped southern slaves escape through Wisconsin to Canada on the Underground Railroad, and founded the Republican Party. In the best-known abolitionist incident, former slave Joshua Glover was sprung from jail by a sympathetic mob, and when the prosecuted ringleader carried his case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, justices declared the federal Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional.
When the Civil War broke out, African Americans were not permitted to serve as soldiers, though some joined regiments as non-combatant laborers. But on January 1, 1863, President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation made it possible for black soldiers to enlist in Union regiments, and over the next two years 272 Wisconsin men of color did so. Another 81 from other states who enlisted in place of white draftees were credited to the Wisconsin rolls, bringing the total number of Wisconsin black troops to 353. Groups of men enlisted not just from cities such as Milwaukee and Janesville but also from Grant and Vernon counties, where communities of former slaves had taken up land (see below). Most of Wisconsin's black soldiers were concentrated in Company F of the 29th Infantry Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops, though many also served in other units. Company F of the 29th arrived in Petersburg, Virginia, on July 22, 1864, in the heat of battle; 11 of its 85 men died the first week. Thirty years after the war, 45 black Civil War veterans were still living in Wisconsin.
1840: A former slaveholder explains how he became an abolitionist
1842: The first fugitive slave escapes through Wisconsin:
1850s: Recollections of some Underground Railroad escapes in Wisconsin
1854: A poster advertising an abolitionist rally in Milwaukee
1854: A short history of the Joshua Glover case
1854: The Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects the Fugitive Slave Law
1861: Janesville residents refuse to give up a fugitive slave
1862: A former slave fights alongside Wisconsin troops
1864: The roster of company F., 29th Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops
1865: Biography of the commander of the 29th Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops
1888: A Wisconsin commander of black troops from New York reviews the history of African- American soldiers in the Civil War
4. The Later 19th Century
In Wisconsin, as elsewhere in the nation, the decades following the Civil War were a time of struggle for black Americans. Despite strong statewide support for the Union cause, most Wisconsin residents were not sympathetic to the plight of African Americans. In 1861, for example, a black man accused of murder was dragged from the Milwaukee jail by a white mob and lynched; in 1863 petitions to outlaw further black immigration into Wisconsin were introduced into the state Assembly several times. Segregation motivated by racial prejudice was supported both by mainstream public opinion and by Wisconsin's laws.
Despite this harsh climate, Wisconsin's black communities continued to grow. One was in Milwaukee, where the African-American population rose from 304 in 1880 to 980 in 1910. In December 1889 Milwaukee black leaders called a state convention that demanded an end to legal segregation in public places and state employment. One its organizers, William Green, became the first black graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School and a prominent attorney for black Milwaukee residents. Between graduating in 1892 and his death in 1911, he argued for civil rights in the press and in the courtroom.
Two other black communities thrived far from urban centers. The larger of these was located in the Cheyenne Valley, in rural Forest Township, Vernon County, where several families of free blacks and escaped slaves had settled before the Civil War. They lived alongside Norwegian, Irish and Bohemian immigrants from Europe., and the residents often shared tools and labor and even intermarried. The second community was in Grant County, where 35 free blacks were counted in the 1860 census. Most lived in the community of Pleasant Ridge, in Beetown, where the first African-American settlers had arrived in 1848. The Cheyenne Valley and Pleasant Ridge both sent soldiers to the Civil War, and welcomed former slaves from the South into their communities after the war. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the younger generation grew up and left for jobs in Milwaukee, Chicago, or Detroit, annual reunions were held to celebrate their traditions; the last occurred in the 1940s.
1847: Milwaukee's black citizens fight for suffrage, 1847-1869
1846-1929: A review of voting and civil rights legislation during the era of blatant segregation
1850: Letters from families in Pleasant Ridge
1866: Ezekiel Gillespie sues for the right to vote
1870: The history of two rural black settlements in Wisconsin
5. World War I and After
In 1910 less than 3,000 African Americans were recorded in the Wisconsin census. Almost all lived in cities and faced very limited employment opportunities since most factories were segregated. Job opportunities during World War I attracted some African Americans to the Milwaukee area, but by 1930 the black population had increased by only 7,000. Unlike neighboring states, Wisconsin did not experience a sizable interwar migration from the South primarily because its agricultural and skilled manufacturing jobs offered few opportunities to rural southern blacks. Most Wisconsin farms were owner operated and had relatively little demand for hired labor, and the skilled jobs in much of the state's industry were already taken by earlier immigrants. Widespread white prejudice and segregation in housing and employment also made Wisconsin an unattractive destination.
When the Depression hit after 1929, African Americans in Wisconsin suffered in large numbers. As late as March 1940, 45 percent of Wisconsin's black population was unemployed, compared to 13 percent of whites. While World War II's critical wartime industries temporarily provided employment, housing segregation and other forms of discrimination continued. In the 1930s William Kelley of the Milwaukee Urban League began a decades-long fight for black teachers in the public schools. Initially, white officials only agreed to employ black teachers in schools with many black students, but after the 1954 Brown decision the hiring of teachers became better integrated.
The large-scale migration of black citizens to Wisconsin only occurred after WW II. Between 1940 and 1960, Wisconsin's African-American population increased by nearly 600 percent, from 12,158 in 1940 to 74,546 in 1960. Drawn to jobs in industrial cities during the war, many African Americans stayed to raise their families. Most of these new residents came from Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee, and increased opportunities for manufacturing jobs and high wages brought more and more southern black migrants to Milwaukee in the 1940s and 1950s. Racial discrimination and segregation continued unabated, however, especially in Milwaukee where ties of ethnicity and religion had established highly insulated residential patterns for more than a century.
1923: An African-American baseball team tours Wisconsin
1924: The Ku Klux Klan rallies in Madison
The Schomburg Center's exhibit, "The African-American Migration Experience"
6. The Civil Rights Era
In the 1950s and '60s Milwaukee was one of the most segregated cities in the nation, even though by the 1960s African Americans accounted for 15 percent of the population. Most lived in the "Inner Core," a near north neighborhood, where frustration with limited job opportunities, poverty and segregation made the neighborhood a site of increasing volatility.
Because the city was so segregated geographically, its schools did not integrate following the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. In a 1960 survey the NAACP found that schools in the central city were 90 percent black. On August 28, 1963, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Milwaukee organized the first civil rights demonstration in the city. A year later, in May of 1964, they organized a boycott of the black schools that drew the participation of more than half of the African-American students. The following year Lloyd Barbee filed a lawsuit that challenged segregation in the Milwaukee Public Schools, charging that the school board practiced and allowed discrimination. Not until 1976 did the courts finally rule that Milwaukee schools were illegally segregated, and it took until 1979 for the school board to implement a five-year desegregation plan.
Desegregation of housing was the second major issue facing Milwaukee's civil rights leaders. Alderperson Vel Phillips first introduced open housing legislation in March 1962, and continued to submit it to the city council despite being repeatedly voted down. After five years of opposition by elected officials, Milwaukee's NAACP Youth Council marched to Kosciuszko Park in August 1967 to protest the Common Council's refusal to pass an open housing ordinance. Marchers were met with the wrath of 3,000 to 5,000 white residents who shouted obscenities and threw objects at the marchers, particularly focusing on Father James Groppi. Groppi, a white Catholic priest, had played a central role in dramatizing the segregated housing situation in Milwaukee through his frequent demonstrations and arrests. The Kosciuszko Park violence came close on the heels of eight days of rioting that had followed arrests at a downtown entertainment spot, in which four people were killed and more than 1,500 arrested. In April of 1968 the federal open housing law passed, preventing racial discrimination in 80 percent of the nation, and the Milwaukee Common Council finally approved a local equivalent making segregated housing illegal. But in the years that followed, suburbanization perpetuated segregated housing as whites increasingly moved out, leaving the inner city to African Americans — a trend that persists to this day.
1961: Milwaukee civil rights leader Vel Phillips
1964: Milwaukee civil rights leader Lloyd Barbee
1966: Father James Groppi leading Milwaukee civil rights demonstrations, 1966-1969
1966: Pictures and documents from civil rights movement in Milwaukee in the 1960s
1968-2000: The state of public school intergration