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People of Milwaukee

Milwaukee has been a stronghold of cultural diversity since long before it became a city. The Menominee and Ho-Chunk were the dominant tribes in the region until the 1600s, when a wave of newcomers migrated from the east: Fox, Sauk, Ottawa, Ojibwe and—most numerous of all—Potawatomi.

In the 1830s, another wave of settlers from the east, most of them born in New York and New England, pushed out the Native Americans and planted a city. By 1860, they, too, were outnumbered, this time by immigrants coming directly from Europe. Milwaukee became the most German big city in America, but Irish, Scandinavian, and Czech families were present in large numbers of well.

Industrial expansion attracted immigrants from southern and eastern Europe in the later 1800s. Poles were the city’s second-largest ethnic community by 1900, and a host of other groups joined them, including Italian, Greek, Jewish, Slovak, Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian.

A booming economy and curbs on immigration led to a dramatic rise in the numbers of African Americans and Latinos in the 1920s, and both groups have expanded steadily in the years since World War II. In recent decades, the range of ethnic groups has broadened to include Southeast Asians, Russian Jews, East Indians, and a United Nations of other backgrounds. Once a predominantly European city, Milwaukee has become a thoroughly cosmopolitan community, and it is the abundance of Ethnic Stories that tell the story of the city as a whole.

Although broader cultural movements shaped the city’s character most decisively, individuals have played leading roles as well. Milwaukee has had an unusually colorful cast of Historical Figures, including rogues and reformers, engineers and entrepreneurs, and saints and sinners, several of whom earned fame far beyond the city’s borders.

Historical Figures

Solomon Juneau (1793 – 1856)

  • 1793: Born Solomon Juneau in Repentigny, Montreal, Canada
  • 1808 Became voyageur and headed west with trading company
  • 1818: Met Jacques Vieau, became his clerk and took up residence with Vieau family
  • 1818: Settled “Juneautown” in area east of Milwaukee River
  • 1820: Married Josette Juneau, Jacques Vieau’s daughter
  • 1825: Juneau and wife, Josette set up trading post on what is now N. Water and E. Wisconsin Ave. The Juneau’s were very successful and developed good relationships with the Native Americans
  • 1831: Became an American citizen
  • Juneau built the first store and first tavern
  • 1835: Became Milwaukee’s first postmaster
  • 1837: Became the first village president
  • 1837: Launched the Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper, which would become the oldest continuously operating business in Wisconsin
  • 1846: Became first mayor of Milwaukee; one of the three founders of the city of Milwaukee
  • 1848: Left Milwaukee and founded the settlement of Theresa
  • 1856: Died and is buried at Calvary Cemetery

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Byron Kilbourn (1801 – 1870)

  • 1801: Born in Granby, Connecticut
  • 1803: Moved to Ohio with family and worked in father’s store
  • 1823: Appointed as an Ohio state surveyor; active in surveying canal routes in Ohio
  • 1835: Purchased land on the west bank of Milwaukee River, calling it “Kilbourntown”
  • 1836: Launched the Milwaukee Advertiser newspaper
  • 1836: Built Milwaukee’s first bridge; built at an angle since he refused to line up his street grid with his competitor to the east, Solomon Juneau
  • 1846: Considered one of the three founders of the city of Milwaukee
  • 1847: Organized the Milwaukee & Waukesha Railroad Co., later known as the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad. Was president of the railroad until 1852 when he was forced to resign because of alleged fraud and mismanagement
  • 1848 and 1854: Twice elected mayor of Milwaukee
  • 1852: Organized the La Crosse & Milwaukee Railroad, a rival railroad to the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad
  • 1858: Due to a land-grant scandal involving bribing state politicians, Kilbourn lost the La Crosse & Milwaukee Railroad. Though he avoided prison time, he lost his reputation
  • 1868: Left Milwaukee for Jacksonville, Florida
  • 1870: Died in Jacksonville, Florida
  • 1998: Re-interned at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee

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George Walker (1811 – 1866)

  • 1811: Born in Lynchburg, Virginia
  • 1825: Moved with his family to Illinois
  • 1834: Arrived in Milwaukee
  • 1835: Founded Walker’s Point on south side of Milwaukee River; established a trading post
  • 1846: Considered one of the three founders of the city of Milwaukee
  • 1851 and 1853: Served as Milwaukee mayor
  • Also served as city’s supervisor, register of the land office and alderman
  • 1859: Builder of Milwaukee’s first street car line
  • 1866: Died in Milwaukee; buried at Forest Home Cemetery

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Alexander Mitchell (1817 – 1887)

  • 1817: Born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland
  • 1839: Came to the United States
  • Founder of Marine Bank of Wisconsin
  • 1864-1887: Served as president of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad
  • Served in the 42nd & 43rd U.S. Congress
  • 1877: Nominated for governor of Wisconsin, but declined
  • Considered the wealthiest person in Wisconsin for his generation
  • Mitchell’s home is now the Wisconsin Club on Wisconsin Avenue
  • Descendants include: son, John L. Mitchell, politician; grandson, Billy Mitchell, regarded as the father of the US Air Force and after which the Milwaukee County airport is named
  • 1887: Died and is buried at Forest Home Cemetery

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Edward Phelps Allis (1824 – 1889)

  • 1824: Born in Cazenovia, New York
  • 1845: Graduated from Union College, Schenectady, New York
  • 1846: Moved to Milwaukee; joined William Allen in leather business
  • 1861: Purchased the Reliance Iron Works
  • 1863: Changed name of Reliance Iron Works to Edward P. Allis and Company
  • 1867: Moved the company to Walker’s Point, near First and Florida Streets, where he turned out flour-milling equipment, small steam engines and heating plants
  • E.P. Allis considered a pure exemplar of entrepreneurial spirit
  • 1871: Bid on pipes and pumps for Milwaukee’s municipal waterworks; won the bid and provided equipment that exceeded the city’s expectations; the company had never manufactured pipes or pumps previously
  • Wife, Margaret Watson Allis involved in philanthropic activities
  • 1889: Edward P. Allis and Company employed nearly 1500 men
  • 1889: Died and is buried at Forest Home Cemetery
  • 1901: After his death, his heirs formed the Allis-Chalmers Company

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Frederick Layton (1827-1919)

  • 1827: Born in Little Wilbraham, Cambridgeshire, England
  • 1843: Came to Racine County, Wisconsin with his parents
  • 1845: Moved to Milwaukee where his father started a meat market under the name of J. & F. Layton
  • 1852: Founded with partner John Plankinton, the Layton & Plankinton Packing Company; with a $3,000 loan from Marshall & Ilsley Bank, they built their slaughter and packing houses in the Menomonee Valley
  • 1863: Founded the Layton & Company packing company with his father and George Dickens as partners; retired from company in 1900 and the company was incorporated
  • 1865: Incorporated the Milwaukee City Railway Company
  • 1890-1911: Director of Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company
  • 1888: Founded the Layton Art Gallery
  • 1908: Founded the Layton Home for Invalids
  • 1919: Died and is buried at Forest Home Cemetery

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John Plankinton (1820 – 1891)

  • 1820: Born in New Castle County, Delaware
  • 1844: Moved to Milwaukee; worked in a mercantile business
  • 1849: Began working in meat packing industry
  • 1852: Formed partnership with Frederick Layton; launched the Layton and Plankinton Packing Company
  • 1861: Layton withdrew from company, but Plankinton continued alone
  • 1863: Plankinton was joined by Philip D. Armour to form Plankinton, Armour and Company
  • 1884: Plankinton, Armour and Company dissolved; reorganized the company as John Plankinton and Co, with partner, Patrick Cudahy
  • 1888: Retired from company and it was re-formed as Cudahy Brothers
  • 1891: Died and is buried at Forest Home Cemetery

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Captain Frederick Pabst (1836 – 1904)

  • 1836: Born in Thuringia, Germany
  • 1848: Came to Milwaukee
  • 1848: Worked as a cook and later became captain and part owner of one of the Great Lakes ships of the Goodrich Lines
  • 1862: Met brewer, Phillip Best; married Best’s daughter, Maria; invested in Best Brewery
  • When Phillip Best retired, Pabst assumed the role of manager of the company with Emil Schandein; the brewery became one of the largest in the country
  • 1873: Became president of the Best Brewery
  • 1889: Name of company changed to Pabst Brewing Company
  • 1890: Established the Das Neue Deutsche Stadt-Theater (The New German City Theater), which burned in 1895
  • 1895: Re-built the Pabst Theater on the site of the Das Neue Deutshce Stadt-Theater; architect of the theater was Otto Strack
  • 1904: Died and is buried at Forest Home Cemetery

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Joseph Schlitz (1831 – 1875)

  • 1831: Born in Mainz, Germany
  • 1855: Came to Milwaukee; worked in brewery owned by August Krug
  • 1856: Krug died and Schlitz took over control of brewery
  • 1858: Married Krug’s widow, Anna Maria
  • 1874: Reorganized and renamed the brewery Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company
  • 1875: Schlitz was lost at sea while returning from a visit to Germany; control of company passed to Uihlein family; memorialized at Forest Home Cemetery

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Frederick Miller (1824 – 1888)

  • 1824: Born in Riedlingen, Württemberg, Germany
  • Educated in Germany and France
  • Learned brewing business in Germany
  • Operated the Royal Brewery in Sigmaringen, Hohenzollern, a former province in Germany
  • 1854: Came to Milwaukee
  • 1855: Purchased the Plank Road Brewery
  • 1888: Reorganized the company as Frederick Miller Brewing Company
  • 1888: Died and buried at Calvary Cemetery

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Franz Falk (1824 – 1882)

  • 1824: Born in Miltenburg, Bavaria, province in Germany
  • 1848: Became a master brewer at the age of 24
  • 1848: Came to Milwaukee, via Cincinnati; worked in various breweries
  • 1856: Established a Bavarian brewery in Wauwatosa with Frederick Goes; brewery called Bavaria Brewery
  • 1866: Falk became sole owner and changed the name to the Franz Falk Brewing Co; the brewery was successful

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Herman Falk (son of Franz Falk)

  • Born in Milwaukee
  • Educated at the German-English Academy in Milwaukee and the Allen Military Academy in Chicago
  • 1888: Worked in his father’s brewery
  • 1888: Bavaria Brewery merged with Jung & Borchert brewery
  • 1889: Fire destroyed the brewery
  • 1892: Rebuilt the brewery, but soon sold out to Captain Frederick Pabst of Pabst Brewing Co.
  • 1892: Changed his career from brewer to industrialist, specializing in wagons
  • 1894: Opened a general purpose machine shop
  • 1895: Established the Falk Manufacturing Company, with the cast-welding process his specialty and providing supplies for street railways
  • 1899: Renamed the company Falk Company to show their expansion of product line to include gears
  • 1914: Provided the gears for the opening and closing of the lock gates of the Panama Canal

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Victor Berger (1860 – 1929)

  • 1860: Born in Nieder-Rehbach, Austria-Hungary
  • Attended public and private schools in Budapest and Vienna
  • 1878: Came to United States
  • 1881: Came to Milwaukee; taught German
  • 1880s: Became interested in social reform and became a socialist
  • 1893: Became editor of the Wisconsin Vorwaerts, a Milwaukee German-language daily newspaper
  • 1895: Converted Eugene Debs to the socialist cause
  • 1897: With Debs, formed the Social Democracy Party; became the Socialist Party in 1901; later Debs ran for president as the party’s official candidate
  • 1911-13: Served in US Congress as first Socialist representative
  • 1911-1929: Editor of the Milwaukee Leader, an English-language daily socialist paper which he launched
  • Vehemently against the US to enter World War I
  • 1918: Indicted for violations of the Espionage Act passed nine months earlier; indictments based on a series of anti-war editorials he had written in the summer of 1917
  • 1918: Elected to Congress weeks before convicted of sedition
  • 1919: Congress refuses to seat Berger
  • 1919: Milwaukee citizens elect Berger, again, by an even more convincing margin
  • When Congress refused to seat Berger again, the Fifth District went without a representative for an entire term
  • 1921: Berger’s conviction voided on January 31
  • 1922: Elected to Congress again, without incident; served continuously until 1928
  • 1929: Killed in a street car accident; buried at Forest Home Cemetery

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Meta Schlichting Berger (1873 – 1944), wife of Victor Berger

  • 1873: Born in Milwaukee
  • Attended Milwaukee Normal School
  • 1897: Married Victor Berger
  • 1909-1939: Member of Milwaukee School Board
  • 1917-1919: Member of the State Board of Education
  • 1928-1934: University regent
  • Believed in women’s right to vote and was a pacifist
  • Succeeded her husband’s seat on the executive committee of the Socialist party but disagreements over Soviet Russia, united-front activities, and war policy led to a rupture in 1936, and her resignation in 1940

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Emil Seidel (1864 – 1947)

  • 1864: Born in Ashland, Pennsylvania; family moved to Wisconsin when he was a child
  • Returned to Germany to train as a woodcarver and became a socialist
  • 1904: Elected to Milwaukee Common Council along with eight other socialists
  • 1910-1912: First Socialist mayor of Milwaukee and first Socialist mayor of a major city in the US; employed poet, Carl Sandburg as his assistant
  • His socialist administration established the first public works department, the first fire and police commission and a city park system
  • His administration installed strict regulations upon bars and closed brothels and sporting parlors (casinos of the day)
  • 1912: Defeated by Gerhard Bading for mayor
  • 1912: Ran on the Eugene Debs Socialist ticket as US vice presidential candidate; had respectable showing, but lost election
  • 1916-1920 and 1932-36: Served two terms as alderman in Milwaukee

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Daniel Hoan (1881 – 1961)

  • 1881: Born in Waukesha, Wisconsin
  • 1910: Became Milwaukee’s city attorney; remained city attorney until 1916
  • 1916: Elected as second Socialist mayor of Milwaukee; Seidel was first Socialist mayor
  • 1916-1940: Hoan remained mayor for 24 years, the longest continuous Socialist administration in US history
  • Hoan’s administration brought progressive change to Milwaukee including the country’s first public housing project (Garden Homes) municipal ownership of the stone quarry, street lighting, sewage disposal and water purification, as well as providing public markets, city harbor improvements and purging graft from Milwaukee politics
  • 1936: Appeared on the cover of Time Magazine; Milwaukee is cited as the best governed city for many of the years Hoan is mayor
  • 1940: Defeated by Carl Zeidler
  • 1944 and 1946: Unsuccessfully ran for governor
  • 1948: Unsuccessfully ran for mayor; defeated by Carl Zeidler’s brother, Frank P. Zeidler who was also a Socialist
  • 1961: Died and is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery
  • Bridge at Milwaukee’s lakefront linking downtown with Bay View is named in his honor

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Frank Zeidler (1912 – 2006)

  • 1948-1960: Served three terms as Milwaukee’s mayor
  • During Zeidler’s administration, Milwaukee nearly doubled its size through municipal annexation
  • Zeidler was an intellectual with high moral standards and a passion for learning
  • 1973: Re-formed the Socialist Party USA; served as National Chair
  • 1976: Presidential nominee of the Socialist party; won 6,038 votes in the 10 states where he appeared on the ballot
  • 2005: Zeidler’s political memoir, A Liberal in City Government, was published
  • 2006: Died at the age of 93 and is buried at Forest Home Cemetery

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Vel Phillips (1924 - 2018)

  • 1924: Born in Milwaukee
  • Attended North Division High School
  • Won a national oratory scholarship from the Black Elks
  • Attended Howard University in Washington, D.C.
  • 1951: first African American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Madison law school
  • 1956: First African-American and first woman to be elected to Milwaukee Common Council
  • 1962: Introduced the city’s first open-housing ordinance; defeated each year until the federal Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968
  • 1967: Joined Father James Groppi in non-violent freedom marches demonstrating for open and equal housing; these marches were met with hostile and violent reactions from the mostly-white, south side counter-demonstrators who staged their own demonstrations; violent riot broke out in July of 1967
  • 1971: Became the first African American judge in Milwaukee County and the first African-American woman to serve in Wisconsin’s judiciary
  • 1978: First woman and first African American elected to a statewide constitutional office as Secretary of State of Wisconsin
  • 2002: Awarded a distinguished professor chair at the Marquette University School of Law
  • Actively involved with America’s Black Holocaust Museum and NAACP (National Association for Colored People) and is also on the board of Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, Community Shares, and the Haggerty Museum

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Mathilde Anneke (1817 – 1884)

  • 1817: Born in Lerchenhausen, Westphalia as Mathilde Franziska Giesler
  • First marriage ended in divorce and enlightened her to the injustice of laws pertaining to women, which led her to fight for women’s rights
  • 1847: Married Fritz Anneke and settled in Cologne; founded a daily paper for the working class; Fritz Anneke was imprisoned for his political expressions, but Mathilde continued to publish the paper on her own until it was shut down by authorities
  • 1848: Founded the first German feminist newspaper, Frauen-Zeitung
  • 1848: The couple joined the “Forty-Eighters,” a group of free-thinking intellectuals who led uprisings against the royal forces; many were forced to flee Germany in 1849 and the pair settled in Milwaukee, which was the destination for many of the fleeing “Forty-Eighters”
  • 1852: Mathilde Anneke launched a monthly newspaper in Milwaukee, called Die Frauen Zeitung (“Woman’s Times”); Die Frauen Zeitung was the first feminist newspaper in the US; Anneke hired German-speaking women to set type, a move that sparked the formation of an all-male union to keep typographer’s trade safe for men and the union killed her newspaper after only seven months
  • Anneke remained an influential writer, speaker, teacher and suffragist and created a school for girls in Milwaukee
  • 1884: Died and is buried at Forest Home Cemetery

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Wilbur Halyard (?-1963)

  • Born in South Carolina
  • Directed the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP (National Association for Colored People); became president of NAACP in 1929
  • 1925: Co-founder with wife, Ardie of Columbia Savings and Loan Association, Milwaukee’s only African American owned bank
  • 1958-59: NAACP Wisconsin State Conference treasurer and on the board of directors

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Ardie Clark Halyard (1896-1989)

  • 1896: Born in Covington, Georgia
  • Graduated from Atlanta University
  • Married Wilbur Halyard in 1920
  • Co-founder of Columbia Savings and Loan Association; served as secretary-treasurer for 46 years
  • Spent 20 years at Goodwill Industries in Milwaukee as employment secretary and personnel director
  • 1947: Helped establish the NAACP Youth Council
  • 1951: President of the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP; first woman to serve in that capacity
  • Instrumental in organizing the Wisconsin State Conference of the NAACP; served as the Conference’s first president as well as treasurer
  • Traveled the state to recruit young people into the NAACP
  • Served over eight years on the Wisconsin State Board of Vocational, Technical and Adult Education
  • A former member of the Wisconsin Governor's Commission on the Status of Women
  • 1983: Was part of the Black Women's Oral History Project at Radcliffe College and her picture was displayed in the College's "Women of Courage" Exhibition
  • 1983: Public Service Recognition Award from the United Negro College Fund
  • Fought tirelessly against racial discrimination and was an active leader of many community groups

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Lizzie Black Kander (1858 - 1940)

  • 1858: Born in Milwaukee
  • 1900: Established and was president of Milwaukee’s first social settlement, known as The Settlement, which offered training in vocational and domestic skills, as well as classes in English and Hebrew, history and music; also offered a mothers' class, athletic and cultural clubs for children, a lending library, a savings bank, a gymnasium and public baths
  • Believed that food was powerful means of religious and cultural expression and used culinary reform to aid in the assimilation of immigrant girls and to introduce immigrant women to American consumer culture
  • 1901: Author of the recipe collection, “The Settlement Cook Book: The Way to a Man’s Heart”; it was an immediate success and has sold over two million copies
  • 1907-1919: Board of School Directors of Milwaukee
  • The Settlement has changed location several times and is now the Jewish Community Center in a building five times larger than the original space
  • 1940: Died and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery near Forest Home Cemetery

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Golda Meir (1898 - 1979)

  • 1898: Born to Moshe and Blume Mabowehz in Ukraine
  • 1905: Moshe moves to Milwaukee to begin a new life for his family
  • 1906: Golda, her mother, and her two sisters join Moshe in Milwaukee
  • 1908: Organizes American Young Sisters’ Society, a group of Jewish children who raise money for fellow students too poor to afford schoolbooks
  • 1912: Valedictorian of Fourth Street School (now Golda Meir School for the Gifted and Talented)
  • 1914: Begins to take an active part in Milwaukee’s Zionist movement
  • 1916: Graduates from North Division High School, goes on to
  • Milwaukee Normal School (now University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
  • 1917: Marries Morris Meyerson
  • 1921: Moves to Israel with Morris; settles on a kibbutz
  • 1924: Son Menachem is born
  • 1926: Daughter Sarah is born
  • 1934: Becomes an official in the Labor Party
  • 1938: Marriage to Morris Meyerson breaks up
  • 1948: Israel’s ambassador to the Soviet Union
  • Raises $50 million on a whirlwind tour of the United States
  • 1949: Elected to Knesset (Israeli parliament)
  • Appointed labor minister
  • 1956: Appointed foreign minister
  • Hebraizes her last name from Meyerson to Meir
  • 1965: “Retires” from public life
  • 1969: Elected fourth prime minister of Israel - Makes a sentimental visit to her hometown and old grade school
  • 1973: Leads Israel during Yom Kippur War
  • 1974: Steps down as prime minister
  • 1978: Dies in Jerusalem at 80
  • 1979: UW-Milwaukee Library is named in her honor

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Sully (1772 - 1862) and Susanna Watson (1799 - 1883)

  • 1772: Sully Watson is born into slavery in Virginia
  • 1799: Susanna Custelo is born to free parents in Virginia
  • 1818: Sully and Susanna become a couple
  • 1818-27: Four children are born: Ann, Asena, James, and William
  • 1827: Sully begins to purchase his freedom at a “man price” of $500
  • 1834: Sully receives his freedom papers - Family moves to Ohio, where Sully works as a whitewasher, stonecutter, blacksmith, and handyman in Columbus
  • 1841: Sully and Susanna’s son-in-law, William Anderson, moves to Milwaukee and becomes the barber in a downtown hotel
  • 1845: Sully and Susanna’s oldest daughter, Ann, joins husband William Anderson in Milwaukee
  • 1848: William Watson, Ann’s brother, moves to Milwaukee and works as a brick mason
  • 1850: Sully and Susanna join their children; Sully supports his family as a whitewasher
  • 1862: Sully dies at 90; Susanna works as a seamstress and laundress
  • 1883: Susanna dies at 84
  • 1896: Mabel Raimey, Sully and Susanna’s granddaughter, is born in Milwaukee
  • 1918: Mabel Raimey becomes the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • 1919: Raimey is a charter board member of the Milwaukee Urban League
  • 1927: After attending Marquette University Law School, Raimey becomes the first African-American woman attorney in Wisconsin; specializes in business and probate law
  • 1986: Mabel Raimey dies in Milwaukee at 90

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Wisconsin Historical Society
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Library Archives
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Sheldon B. Lubar School of Business
Vel Phillips Foundation
Falk Corporation
Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project, Michigan State University

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Ethnic Stories

German Milwaukee

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.

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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