Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Black History in Wisconsin

Black History in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
Enlarge Martha and Notley Henderson, 1900 ca.  WHI 4175.

Martha and Notley Henderson, 1900 ca.

Studio portrait of the Hendersons and their children. They were early African American settlers in Madison. View the original source document: WHI 4175

African Americans have been living and working in Wisconsin since the 18th century. The state's black population continued to grow slowly throughout the 19th century. Job opportunities in the 20th century led to significant African American settlement in Wisconsin, primarily in the southeastern part of the state, especially after World War II.

Below is a overview about Black history in Wisconsin.

  1. Fur Trade Era
  2. Early 19th Century
  3. Civil War Era
  4. Later 19th Century
  5. World War I and After
  6. Civil Rights Era

1. 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" at Green Bay.

Several 18th-century records of African-American baptisms, marriages, and burials in the upper Great Lakes also survive. None of these events have been traced specifically to within the boundaries of modern Wisconsin.

Slavery in Early Wisconsin

Some of the first African Americans in Wisconsin were slaves. In 1746, the commander of the French garrison at Green Bay brought a black slave with him. 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 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 whom he had purchased from a St. Louis slave trader [Grignon, 258]

2. Early 19th Century

Many of the white settlers who streamed into Wisconsin to mine lead in the 1820s and 1830s came from southern states and often brought slaves with them. Although some were freed in Wisconsin, others, like a woman in Grant County 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.

Statehood and Black Suffrage

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 put the voting rights of African Americans up to a popular vote. A year later, the state's voters (all of them white, by definition) rejected the idea. But in a second referendum in 1849, suffrage for African-American men was approved by the majority of voters. This election result was misconstrued by local election officials 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. The Court found that African American men had actually been able to cast ballots in the Badger State since the 1849 referendum. In 1882 the word "white" was removed from the text of the constitution's article on suffrage.

1830s - Slaves are brought to Wisconsin by lead miners from the South.

1846 - A Grant Co. slave 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. Civil War Era

In 1840, fewer than 200 African Americans lived in Wisconsin. By 1860, that number had swelled to nearly 1,200. More arrived from the South during the Civil War as northern troops swept through slave-holding states.

Abolitionists in Wisconsin

In the decades before the war, 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 and helped southern slaves escape through Wisconsin to Canada on the Underground Railroad. They also founded the Republican Party, which was organized in opposition to slavery.

Wisconsin's best known abolitionist incident was the case of Joshua Glover. An escaped slave, Glover was captured and locked in a Milwaukee jail in 1854. A sympathetic mob broke Glover out and helped him to freedom. The mob's ringleader was arrested for breaking the law, but when he carried his case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, justices declared the federal Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional.

Wisconsin's Black Soldiers

When the Civil War broke out, African Americans were not permitted to serve as soldiers. Some joined regiments as non-combatant laborers. But on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation made it possible for black soldiers to enlist in Union regiments. Over the next two years, 272 Wisconsin men of color joined the Union army. 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 formed. 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

1888 - A Wisconsin commander of black troops from New York reviews the history of African-American soldiers in the Civil War

4. 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 a 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.

Milwaukee's Black Community

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's 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.

Rural African American Settlement

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. Several families of free blacks and escaped slaves had settled there before the Civil War. They lived alongside Norwegian, Irish, and Bohemian immigrants from Europe. 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. They also 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

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.

Limited Job Opportunities and Discrimination

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. 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 in 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. After the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, the hiring of teachers became better integrated.

Post-World War II Migration

The large-scale migration of black citizens to Wisconsin only occurred after World War 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.

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

6. Civil Rights Era

In the 1950s and 1960s, Milwaukee was one of the most segregated cities in the nation, even though African Americans accounted for 15 percent of the population in the 1960s. Most lived in the "Inner Core," a near north neighborhood. Frustration with limited job opportunities, poverty, and segregation made the neighborhood a site of increasing volatility in the postwar years.

School Desegregation

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. Barbee charged that the school board practiced and allowed discrimination. Not until 1976 did the courts finally rule that Milwaukee schools were illegally segregated. The school board did not implement a five-year desegregation plan until 1979.

Fight for Housing Desegregation

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. She 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. The white mob focused particular attention 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. As a result, 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 - Photographs of Milwaukee civil rights leader Vel Phillips

1964 - The career of Milwaukee civil rights leader Lloyd Barbee

1966 - Father James Groppi leading Milwaukee civil rights demonstrations, 1966-1969

1966 - "The March on Milwaukee Civil Rights History Project", a digital collection at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

1968-2000 - The state of public school intergration

Learn More

The Wisconsin Historical Society houses one of the nation's largest research collections on African-American history. There are thousands of books and hundreds of manuscript collections available for research. Search the University of Wisconsin-Madison Library Catalog to find descriptions of both Library and Archives resources.