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African Americans in Wisconsin: History

The earliest record of African Americans in Wisconsin dates back to 1725.1 This evidence is found in a speech made by a chief of the Illinois Indians who explained that his enemies, the Fox Indians, had massacred four Frenchmen and “a negro."2

African Americans have been present in Wisconsin since the 1700s, accompanying French and British voyagers and fur traders.3 Eighteenth century records document African-American baptisms, marriages, and burials in the upper Great Lakes areas.4 During the fur trade era, there were about 500 black slaves in the Wisconsin region.5 Despite the number of slaves during this time, not all blacks were enslaved. In 1791, two black traders opened a post at Marinette, which is near the mouth of the Menominee River.6 Additionally, from 1779 to 1800, a black fur trader named Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable prospered in the Chicago area and was well known by Wisconsin’s white settlers.7 During the 1820s-1830s, lead miners brought black slaves to Wisconsin, a free state.8

In 1840, no more than 200 African Americans lived in Wisconsin.9 By 1860, there were about 1,200.10 They pioneered vibrant and prosperous farming communities at Cheyenne Valley in Vernon County (1855) and Pleasant Ridge in Grant County (1870).11 Strongly opposed to slavery, abolitionist groups were formed in Wisconsin, helping slaves escape to Canada through the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, 353 black troops enlisted because of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation12. Most of these soldiers fought in Company F of the 29th Infantry Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops.13 Following the Civil War, Wisconsin ’s white residents fought to limit the number of African Americans in this state and legalized segregation, socially and politically.14 Despite the discrimination faced by this population, its numbers began to increase throughout the 19th century, predominately in Milwaukee, Vernon County, and Grant County.15

Fewer than 3,000 African Americans lived in Wisconsin by 1910.16 Many had come from the rural South seeking more opportunity. This population grouped mostly in the communities of Racine, Milwaukee, and Beloit.17 Because of segregated industrial jobs, limited numbers of African Americans immigrated to Wisconsin.18 After World War II, the African American population increased 600 percent, from 12,158 in 1940 to 74,546 in 1960.19 Manufacturing employment opportunities and high wages caused many blacks to leave the South for Wisconsin industrial cities.20 However, racial discrimination and segregation continued, especially in the City of Milwaukee.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Milwaukee was one of the most segregated cities in the nation,21 a trend that has continued to contemporary times. During the Civil Rights era, most African Americans lived in the “Inner Core,” a neighborhood with limited job opportunities, poverty, and segregation making the neighborhood a site of volatility.22

The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court did not alter the segregation found in schools in Milwaukee.23 It took the school board until 1979 to implement a five-year desegregation plan in Milwaukee Public Schools,24 after many civil rights demonstrations and boycotts for equality. Desegregation in the housing market was another major issue for civil rights leaders.25 Alderperson Vel Phillips was the first to introduce open housing legislation, in March 1962, which was repeatedly voted down for many years.26 After years of protest and riots, the federal open housing law passed in 1968,27 aiming to prevent discrimination in this important area. Following this federal legislation, an increased suburbanization of the Milwaukee area continued to perpetuate segregated housing as whites moved out and African Americans were left in the city.28 This was a common trend that persists until this day.

The African American population in Wisconsin is predominantly found in southeastern Wisconsin. African Americans and those who fall under this category provide a significant influence in Wisconsin’s social, political, and cultural landscape. They have fought to obtain civil rights and equity in this state. They continue to redress the discrimination and limited opportunities given to them throughout the past and in the present.

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  2. Ibid.
  3. Minority Health Report, 2001-2005.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  7. Grignon, Augustin. "Seventy-two years' recollections of Wisconsin." Wisconsin Historical Collections (Madison, Wis: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1857), vol.3: 195-295. Online facsimile at:; visited on: 7/14/2010
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Minority Health Report, 2001-2005
  12. Wisconsin. Adjutant-General's Office. Roster of Wisconsin volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 (Madison, 1886): 954-955. Online facsimile at:; visited on: 7/15/2010.
  13. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.

Additional Information About African Americans In Wisconsin

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Last revised March 24, 2022