Milwaukee was originally inhabited by five different Native American tribes, and later primarily settled by French, Irish, Italians, Germans, and Poles. Native American records show that African Americans were living in Milwaukee as early as the 1700s; however, in 1835, an African American named Joe Oliver voted in the city’s first election and became the first African American in the Wisconsin Territory to cast a legal ballot.
Since African Americans first settled in Milwaukee, they have had a strong influence on Milwaukee’s development and culture. In the 1840s, African Americans owned what was considered some of the best property in Milwaukee: Wisconsin Avenue (then called Grand Avenue), from Water Street to Broadway Street, Wells Street from 4th Street to 5th Street, Wisconsin Avenue from 2nd Street to Plankinton Avenue. John Durbin, an African American, sold John Plankinton the property where the Plankinton Arcade stands today in the Shops of Grand Avenue.
African Americans played a huge role in building City Hall and the Milwaukee County Courthouse. Many stone masons, bricklayers and other craftsmen contributed to the historical buildings that still remain today. The men were "free men" who located to Milwaukee in the 1850s. One of them was Sully Watson, who became a wealthy man and is represented in the “Streets of Old Milwaukee” exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum. He and his wife depict how affluent African Americans lived in Milwaukee before the Civil War. Both before and during the Civil War, Milwaukee served as a vital link in the Underground Railroad.
Post-World War II
Between 1940 and 1960, Wisconsin's African American populartion increased by nearly 600 perfcent, and many of these new residents came to Milwaukee, drawn to industrial jobs. A majority settled in an area just north of downtown, Bronzeville. The area also contained thriving businesses, night clubs, theaters and restaurants owned by African Americans. The area was destroyed by the freeway system in late 1950s, but today, many successful businesses are working to revitalize the area and bring the Bronzeville neighborhood back to its heyday.
During the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, much of the focus in Milwaukee was on desegretating housing and schools. Ald. Vel Phillips first introduced open housing legislation to the Common Council in 1962, repeatedly submitting it to the council as it was voted down again and again. On August 28, 1967, Father James Groppi, Phillips, and several community youth leaders started the first of 200 consecutive days of marches and demonstrations for fair housing legislation in Milwaukee. Open housing laws were passed federally in April of 1968, though the Milwaukee Common Council finally approved an even stricter desegregation law on April 30.