Post-war African-American Migration

Throughout its history, Wisconsin has attracted people from diverse backgrounds. Unlike many of the older states to the east and south, Wisconsin was not a place where white Protestant and English-speaking people developed a social, political, and economic dominance. The tensions and conflicts that occurred were primarily centered along religious and linguistic lines, rather than race, as various ethnic groups settled in the state. However, in the twentieth century, as more African Americans came to Wisconsin seeking jobs in urban areas, race became the overriding factor that determined the circumstances under which they were allowed to settle and become a part of Wisconsin society.

Although some African Americans had settled in Wisconsin prior to statehood, their numbers remained small over the decades, less than 3000 in 1910. Almost all lived in cities and faced very limited employment opportunities since most factories were segregated until the start of World War II. 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.

Wisconsin, unlike its neighboring states, did not experience the sizable interwar migration from the South due primarily to the nature of the economy. Unlike Michigan and Illinois, Wisconsin's agricultural and skilled manufacturing jobs did not offer many opportunities to African Americans. Most farms were owner-operated and had relatively little demand for hired labor. Likewise, the skills required for much of the state's industry, coupled with the fact that the unskilled jobs were already taken by earlier immigrants, prevented most African Americans from finding jobs. Other factors also played a role in discouraging black settlement, including local covenants regarding housing and scarcely concealed prejudice in many communities. Additionally, the small number of African Americans overall did not provide the base of support through family contacts or general assistance to attract new migrants.

Employed African Americans were especially hard hit by the Depression. As late as March of 1940, forty-six percent of Wisconsin's black population was unemployed compared to thirteen percent of whites. Finding themselves largely in unskilled jobs, African Americans in these positions were the first to go when businesses were in trouble. While World War II temporarily improved the economic state of African Americans as labor shortages in critical wartime industries provided employment, these gains were not matched in reduced housing segregation or other forms of discrimination.

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. Wisconsin's African American population remained extraordinarily concentrated in a few urban areas, with nearly ninety percent living in Milwaukee, Beloit, Madison, Racine, and Kenosha. Even in these cities, it was possible for most white people to have little contact with African Americans due to restrictive racial covenants and local custom. Seven Wisconsin counties did not have a single black inhabitant in 1960, while another thirty-two had fewer than ten.

Most of the new migrants came from Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee. For many, Milwaukee represented one in a series of stops that began in the south and moved northward. Black institutions, like the Milwaukee Urban League, served as vital links for new arrivals to learn about housing and jobs, particularly in industrial fields. The continuing demand for labor brought on by the manufacturing boom during the war and the efforts of the Milwaukee Urban League opened an abundance of industrial jobs during and after World War II. Increased opportunities for manufacturing jobs and high wages brought more and more southern black migrants to Milwaukee in the 1940s and 1950s. Black women were also part of this movement though they often did not obtain the same skilled, unionized, and high paying jobs as black men.

Manufacturing jobs provided employment for large numbers of African Americans in Wisconsin, bringing upward mobility that allowed many blacks to join the property owning middle-class. Racial discrimination and segregation ran rife though, especially in Milwaukee where the ties of ethnicity and religion had long resulted in highly segregated residential patterns that were generations old and not easily surmounted.

[Source: The History of Wisconsin vol. 6 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); "In Motion: The African American Migration Experience." Online collection. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (online at]

Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: African American housing conditions in Milwaukee in 1955African American housing conditions in Milwaukee in 1955
Link to book: A survey of black families in rural Wisconsin, 1959A survey of black families in rural Wisconsin, 1959
Link to book: Milwaukee residents discuss the city's racial problems, 1965Milwaukee residents discuss the city's racial problems, 1965
Link to book: Wisconsin's African American population from statehood through 1910Wisconsin's African American population from statehood through 1910
Link to book: A 1950 guide to African American businessesA 1950 guide to African American businesses
Link to manuscript: An African American woman describes her migration to Wisconsin in 1917An African American woman describes her migration to Wisconsin in 1917
Link to manuscript: A detailed look at Milwaukee's black community in 1946A detailed look at Milwaukee's black community in 1946
Link to manuscript: William Rasche advocates on behalf of African American workersWilliam Rasche advocates on behalf of African American workers