An “Occupied” Milwaukee: Part I

To consider our city’s challenges, we need to revisit the historical context out of which they arose.

“Occupied” is a loaded word. It harkens back to the recent “Occupy” movement. It has been used to define strained police-community relations, with law enforcement serving as the “Occupying” agents in minority communities. And given our city’s employment woes, the double-entendre of “Occupation” suggests both employment and oppression. In the Brew City’s context, we are at the mercy of an “Occupied” social, economic, political and cultural landscape.

But first, let’s consider our city’s challenges by revisiting the historical context out of which they arose. Our collective futures are distinctly tied to those histories and their enduring outcomes whether or not they seem to have any personal or immediate impact.

We all know the mathematics on Milwaukee. It’s startling in the least, and dire at worst. The topics ring loudly enough without the numbers: racial segregation, unemployment and poverty, incarceration rates (which has gained attention across the globe), political polarization – just to name a few.

To the ardent observer these are familiar symptoms of lingering structural ills plaguing post-industrial cities across the nation. Many are quick to state that these issues and their solutions come down to individual responsibility. Yet, Milwaukee’s statistics on a number of social problems are worse in comparison to other cities – especially along racial lines. Answers are sundry and complex. If someone offers a simple response to these problems, stop listening. While solutions remain embattled and elusive, we often avoid a deeper investigation of how we got here. The roots of the Brew City’s challenges are numerous and multifaceted. This is made all the more complicated because so many of these causes are connected to the city’s – and nation’s – legacy with race.

No matter where one locates in Milwaukee socially, economically or politically, each of us lives in a state of “Occupation.” Each of us experiences the vestiges of the city’s racial past and present – either at home, at school, at work, in our politics, and, perhaps most unfortunately, in our mundane experiences with socio-cultural isolation.

Migrants of all races, ethnicities and cultures relocate to cities like ours for one overarching reason: to improve their life options. European immigrants have left an indelible imprint on Milwaukee. Yet, the arrival of larger numbers of African Americans, then later Latino and Asian populations, added to and continue to add to our cultural landscapes. And this arrival prompted white city leaders and residents to craft and cement racial geographies defining the city’s now infamous patterns and practices around segregation.

In the first half of the 20th century, and particularly in the post-World War II era, tens of thousands of African Americans began relocating to Milwaukee because of the employment options the city’s industrial base promised. While black southerners looked to northern cities as a means of fleeing the Jim Crow South, they were met with a similar version of racial hostility that would go on to define the city’s current racial geographies. This also included regional expressions of racial hostility.

Wisconsin, like many Midwestern states, was peppered with Sundown Towns – municipalities that demanded black people get out before sundown, or else. Many of these Sundown Towns can be seen surrounding Milwaukee. When coupled with the well-documented practices of housing discrimination on the part of the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), local real estate agents and developers, insurance and banking institutions, private housing covenants, as well as residents hostile to African American neighbors, the cultivation of our city’s current racial geographies is apparent. Our regional landscape is held hostage to – or “Occupied” by – racially motivated patterns and practices that are more than half-century old.

The Sundown Towns on this map are highlighted in orange, and represent a tentative listing of those found in Wisconsin because research is ongoing. For more details see, James Lowen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. Visit this link for more information.
Sundown Towns on the above map represent a tentative listing of those found in Wisconsin because research is ongoing. Image courtesy James Loewen.

What many also avoid are the economics of segregation, a set of easily calculated mathematical equations. Suburban sprawl, which largely benefited white Baby Boomers, prompted unprecedented home ownership (a key economic benefit) and industrial growth in areas located outside of urban cores.

A few key stats inform the financial equations of this residential and regional “Occupation.” From roughly 1970 to 2000, Milwaukee lost tens of thousands of industrial jobs. Meanwhile, surrounding suburbs gained more than 100,000 industrial jobs during the same period. This impacted black workers most glaringly. As African American laborers gained meaningful access to good jobs, thanks in large part to fair employment laws that garnered legal force post-1965, the trends of suburban sprawl and industrial relocation to suburban communities steadily displaced them. Milwaukee has faced an economic “Occupation” that has left this now majority/minority city languishing in the face of economic restructuring. Political maneuvering has limited transit options – and thus economic options – for those already locked into the urban space by the aforementioned residential “Occupation,” adding salt to an open wound.

Yet, housing and jobs are but two siblings in this “Occupied” landscape. The city is held in a stranglehold by a hostile political climate that adds even more girth to this theme of “Occupation.” And in turn, all three combined have shaped the sociocultural isolation that mars what could be a cosmopolitan hub of the Midwest.

(Coming soon: Part II)

Note: Sundown Towns on the above map  represent a tentative listing of those found in Wisconsin because research is ongoing. For more details see, James Loewen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.  For more information on James Loewen’s, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism click here.



Dr. Robert S. Smith is an Associate Professor of History at UWM, Director of the Cultures & Communities Program, and was recently appointed Associate Vice Chancellor for Global Inclusion & Engagement. He is the author of "Race, Labor and Civil Rights: Griggs v. Duke Power and the Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity. "