By Karen Stokes
Between the years of 1910- 1970’s approximately six million Black people moved from the South to Northern, Midwestern, and Western states.
What prompted this mass exodus was the brutal treatment of Blacks in the South, racial violence and the oppression of Jim Crow laws.
“My grandparents moved from South Carolina to Milwaukee in the middle of the night in 1926 because of death threats made to my grandfather,” said Milwaukee resident Justine Bailey. “The white men in town were upset because of the fine quality of the car he drove, they thought he was too uppity.”
This migration largely followed the railroad tracks which led to Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee, as manufacturing jobs were becoming available in cities in the northern states and the Midwest.
Between 1916 and 1918, nearly 400,000 African Americans, or about 500 a day, rode the railroads north.
According to the City of Milwaukee, 1905 to 1935 was a significant period of migration into Milwaukee by African Americans. World War I changed the landscape for African-Americans, and hinted at opportunity in the North.
African Americans faced some of the same hardships in Milwaukee as they did in the South. The better life they were seeking up north was not a reality. Banks refused to give housing loans outside certain boundaries, and societal prejudice forced African Americans to be confined to specific neighborhoods in most northern and Midwestern cities, these areas were referred to as “Black Metropolis”, the “black belt”, or, most commonly, Bronzeville.
In the 1930s black performers that toured to Milwaukee were denied lodging in segregated, mainstream hotels and places like the Casablanca served as a hotel for stars like Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. The house at 2463 N. Palmer St., began as a single family residence for harness maker Adam Dietz and his family, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Despite the economic hardships, the African American population in Milwaukee grew significantly during this time, from 8,821 in 1940 to 21,772 in 1950.
With black Milwaukeeans unable to patronize white-only restaurants and taverns, Bronzeville became a self-sufficient economic community with renowned nightlife entertainment. Walnut Street became such an essential artery of Milwaukee nightlife that it transcended racial divides and welcomed white and black patrons alike at the “black and tan” clubs, with the white dollars significantly helping the starved Bronzeville economy.
According to the city of Milwaukee, Despite the economic hurdles and racially-charged policies aimed at suppressing this community, the area thrived socially, up until its unceremonious destruction in the name of urban renewal in the 1960’s.