Ethnic Stories

German Milwaukee

Photo credit: Milwaukee County Historical Society

Milwaukee’s first German settlers arrived in 1839, just four years after the region’s first public land sale. By 1860, they formed a majority of the city’s population, and Milwaukee became the most German large city west of Berlin. Although they lived in all sections of town, the immigrants’ particular stronghold was the area west of the Milwaukee River. North Third Street was their “downtown,” and some merchants reportedly put signs in their windows to reassure non-Germans that they could find “English Spoken Here.”

The German community’s key quality was its internal diversity. The newcomers ranged across a broad spectrum of economic, religious, and political backgrounds. Perhaps the most colorful sub-group was the Forty-Eighters, who had fled the homeland after a failed revolt against royal rule in 1848. Well-educated, idealistic, and decidedly liberal, the Forty-Eighters organized musical societies, arts and theater groups, Turner clubs, and other cultural institutions that made Milwaukee the “German Athens of America.”

The Germans maintained their distance from the dominant Yankees at first, but in time they exercised a dominance of their own in culture, politics, and industry. The roster of Milwaukee’s leading employers was filled with Teutonic names: Harnischfeger, Falk, and Heil in manufacturing; Pfister, Vogel, and Gallun in tanning; and Pabst, Schlitz, and Miller in brewing. It was the prevalence of German-owned breweries that made Milwaukee the “beer capital of the world.”

The wave of anti-German hysteria that crested during World War I nearly washed away the German cultural establishment, and the slow process of assimilation moved the community still further from its roots, but Germanism continues to shape Milwaukee’s character. In 2000, nearly 38 percent of the metro area’s population claimed at least some German ancestry—still the highest proportion in urban America. Residents of all backgrounds share an appreciation for Gemütlichkeit—the feeling of comfort, coziness, and community that remains one of Milwaukee’s most distinctive civic virtues.

African-American Milwaukee

African Americans have been part of Milwaukee since before the city existed. Joe Oliver arrived in 1835, taking a job with fur trader Solomon Juneau and voting in the infant settlement’s first election. He was followed by scores of others, including the family of Sully Watson, a former slave who purchased his own freedom and moved to Milwaukee in 1850. By 1869, there were enough African Americans to support a church, and St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal was established on Fourth and Kilbourn. The congregation continues to thrive on Sixteenth and Atkinson.

Photo credit: Wisconsin Historical Society

Although their roots were deep, it was not until the Great Migration of 1910-1930 that Milwaukee’s African Americans reached a critical mass. Drawn by jobs in the city’s booming industries, their population soared from 980 to 7,501 during the period. A number of important community institutions came to life, including the Milwaukee Urban League, the local chapter of the NAACP, Columbia Building and Loan, and an impressive variety of churches.

There were opportunities in the urban North, but African Americans also found substandard employment, substandard housing, and entrenched prejudice. Despite the problems, the continuing promise of jobs fueled another migration in the years after World War II. African Americans surged from 8 percent of the city’s population to 15 percent during the 1960s.

As their numbers grew, so did their resistance to the prevailing inequities. The civil rights movement came to Milwaukee in the 1960s, expressed first in opposition to segregated schools and then to segregated housing. Forward progress was marred by violence in the 1967 riot, but more doors opened with each passing year.

In 2000, African Americans made up 37 percent of Milwaukee’s population. Although the loss of well-paying factory jobs created serious economic challenges, the community has continued its rise to a place of central importance in the city’s cultural, economic, and political life.

Irish Milwaukee

Irish immigrants were the second-largest of Milwaukee’s early ethnic groups, making up 15 percent of the city’s population in 1850. While the dominant Germans settled on all sides of town, Irish families clustered in the Third Ward, an area of reclaimed swampland between Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River. The location offered easy access to jobs on the waterfront, in the railyards, and in the city’s developing industries.

Known as the ”Bloody Third,” the Irish enclave was not the most reputable section of Milwaukee, and its first residents struggled to rise above their poverty. Although most of them worked with their backs and their hands, a growing number of Irishmen saw public office as a route to better things. A native of Ireland was elected village president in 1844, and Irish politicians have been a fixture of Milwaukee’s public life ever since, from Dan Hoan and Cornelius Corcoran to Bill O’Donnell and Tom Barrett.

Two tragedies interrupted the Irish community’s progress. In 1860, the sinking of the Lady Elgin, an excursion steamer returning from Chicago, claimed nearly 300 lives, many of them prominent Third Ward residents. In 1892, the worst first in Milwaukee’s history destroyed the southern end of the neighborhood and left 2,500 people homeless.

The Irish had already begun to trek westward by that time, settling first in the Tory Hill neighborhood near what is now the Marquette University campus and then moving on to Merrill Park, on the rim of the Menomonee Valley west of Twenty-seventh Street. Anchored by St. Rose Church and the Valley shops of the Milwaukee Road, Merrill Park’s Irish community endured for generations.

Irish Milwaukeeans continued to move outward in the twentieth century, and they are a largely suburban population today, making up 10 percent of the metro area’s population. Thousands return to the old Third Ward every August for Irish Fest, an event that began in 1981 and has since become the largest celebration of Irish music, food, and culture on the planet.

Polish Milwaukee

Poles were the largest of the European immigrant groups who settled in Milwaukee after 1870. Attracted by the promise of jobs in the city’s major industries, their population swelled to nearly 60,000 by 1900—second only to the Germans. They made large sections of the city uniquely their own and permanently shaped both the streetscape and the skyline of residential Milwaukee.

Most of the newcomers lived on the South Side, but a second major settlement developed in the Brady Street section of the East Side, gradually spreading north into the Riverwest neighborhood. Milwaukee’s Polish communities were known for two things: little houses and big churches. Although most Poles took jobs on the entry level, they had an intense desire to own their own homes. When the immigrants had saved enough money for a down payment, they typically put up a small, single-story cottage on a narrow lot. When they could afford an addition, they jacked up their original cottage and built another living unit in the half-basement beneath it—an ingenious house type widely known as the “Polish flat.”

At the other end of the scale were the community’s Catholic churches. St. Stanislaus, established in 1866, was the first Polish congregation in urban America. Its members built a twin-spired church that still anchors the east end of Mitchell Street—the South Side’s major shopping district. More than twenty other congregations followed, and most built houses of worship that would be landmarks in any city. The largest is St. Josaphat’s Basilica. Built with materials salvaged from the Chicago post office, it is the closest thing in Wisconsin to a genuine European cathedral.

Nearly 13 percent of the metro area’s current residents trace their ancestry to Poland. Most live in the suburbs, particularly on the south and southwest sides, but thousands still reside in the city proper, where their homes, churches, and businesses continue to give the old neighborhoods a distinctive sense of place.

Italian Milwaukee

It was in the 1890s that Italian immigrants began to pour into Milwaukee, and they quickly formed two distinct communities. Their Bay View settlement was dominated by newcomers from northern and central Italy, many of whom took jobs in a sprawling iron mill on the south lakeshore.

The second Italian community, and by far the largest, was in the Third Ward, just west of today’s Summerfest grounds. The vast majority of Third Warders, whose numbers swelled to 5,000 by 1910, traced their roots to Sicily, a large island just off the “boot” of mainland Italy. Like the Irish families who preceded them, most Sicilians worked as laborers and factory hands, but a sizable number entered the produce business, selling fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the city. The most successful merchants graduated to their own wholesale houses on a stretch of Broadway long known as Commission Row.

In 1905, the Sicilians dedicated Blessed Virgin of Pompeii Church on Jackson Street. The “little pink church” quickly became the neighborhood’s hub, both for worship and for the annual round of summer festivals that featured Italian bands, tug-of-war contests, food stands, and fireworks.

By the 1920s, younger families were leaving the Third Ward for better housing in the Brady Street area of the Lower East Side. In 1939, they dedicated a new church, St. Rita’s, on Cass and Pleasant Streets, which became the new center of their community.

Milwaukeeans of Italian heritage make up just over 4 percent of the metro area’s population today. They can be found in all sections of town, but they maintain a highly visible presence in the old Third Ward. In 1978, Festa Italiana debuted as the first of Milwaukee’s lakefront ethnic festivals. Twelve years later, revenues from the festival made possible the Italian Community Center—a modern landmark that represents a homecoming for Milwaukee’s Italians.

Latino Milwaukee

Today’s Latino community is a single cultural fabric with dozens of distinct threads. United by language but separated by dialect, diet, and even musical preferences, its 100,000 members trace their heritage to virtually every section of the Spanish-speaking Americas.

Mexicans, the oldest and largest of the cultural threads, began to arrive in significant numbers in about 1920. During a time of labor shortages and labor strife, local employers, including the Pfister & Vogel tannery, actively recruited workers south of the border. Los primeros—the pioneers—lived inside the tannery compound on S. Sixth Street at first, but in time they filtered out into the surrounding blocks, forming the core of what would become the largest Spanish-speaking community in Wisconsin.

As railroads, foundries, and factories in the area hired their own Mexican workers, the group’s foothold on the near South Side expanded. Mutual aid societies, musical groups, social clubs, and even a newspaper helped to build a sense of community, but the single most important institution was the Mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe, established in a storefront on S. Fifth Street in 1926. The South Side’s Catholic parishes have been anchors of community ever since.

After a long pause for the Depression and World War II, the Mexican community resumed its growth, swollen by farm workers who dropped out of the migrant stream and found jobs in Milwaukee. But the broader trend was toward greater diversity. Puerto Ricans, who as U.S. citizens faced no immigration restrictions, began to arrive in the late 1940s, drawn by the promise of industrial jobs. They settled on the northeast side of downtown at first. When urban renewal claimed their homes in the 1960s, most Puerto Ricans moved across the Milwaukee River to the Riverwest neighborhood, where Holton Street became their social and commercial center.

The pattern of diversity has intensified in more recent years. Cubans began to arrive in the 1960s, many of them escaping the turmoil associated with Fidel Castro’s rise to power. Other immigrants have come to Milwaukee from throughout Central and South America, some seeking opportunity, others fleeing political chaos. Together Milwaukee’s Latinos constitute well over 12 percent of the city’s population. United and diverse at the same time, their community adds a particular richness to the life of the larger metropolis.

Hmong Milwaukee

Hmong residents are among the most recent and most distinctive additions to Milwaukee’s ethnic tapestry. In the early 1960s, as America’s military involvement in Vietnam deepened, U.S. forces recruited indigenous allies in their campaign against the Vietcong. They drew a particularly strong response from the Hmong, a rural people residing in the highlands of northern Laos. As the CIA-supported “secret war” heated up, thousands of Hmong soldiers helped the American military by disrupting enemy supply routes, rescuing downed pilots, and fighting on the front lines.

When the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, the Hmong were virtually abandoned. Singled out for brutal treatment by the victorious Communist regime, thousands fled to refugee camps in Thailand, many crossing the Mekong River under heavy gunfire. America ultimately recognized its obligation to these endangered allies. After varying lengths of time in the crowded camps, many were resettled in the United States. Catholic and Lutheran agencies, traditionally strong in the upper Midwest, took the lead in resettlement efforts. As a result, Minnesota and Wisconsin trail only California in the size of their Hmong populations.

Since the first wave of the mid-1970s, more than 50,000 Hmong refugees have settled in Wisconsin. They are scattered throughout the state, with concentrations in Wausau, Madison, Sheboygan, Appleton, and Green Bay, but Milwaukee—home to nearly 15,000—is their principal settlement. Hmong Americans are the largest group of Asians in both the city and the state.

Like earlier generations of newcomers, Milwaukee’s Hmong have worked hard to preserve their old cultures while they adjust to their new homes. Deeply rooted clan networks promote a strong sense of family, and mutual aid societies and churches help to ease the process of resettlement. Dozens of Hmong newcomers have returned to their agricultural roots, growing vegetables on the city’s edge and selling them at local farmer’s markets. The first generation of Hmong risked their lives to help America across the ocean. Their children and grandchildren are becoming full participants in American life at home.

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