Race, Representation & Redistricting: Why Milwaukee’s Wards Became Districts

Jan 11, 2019

If you’re familiar with downtown Milwaukee, you probably know the Historic Third Ward — the neighborhood with shopping, dining and theaters. It sits just south of Interstate 794. It was precisely the Third Ward that got a community member thinking:

When did Milwaukee change from wards to districts? And why?  

Steve, the question-asker, is referring to how the city is carved up today — into aldermanic districts. Before, these areas used to be called wards. And in many big cities, they still are. Take Chicago for example. The city is divided into 50 aldermanic wards. But in Milwaukee, aldermanic wards are something of the past. They’re now called aldermanic districts. The question is why? 

After searching on Google to no avail, Steve submitted his question to Bubbler Talk — our series that answers your questions about Milwaukee and the region.

The question seemed simple enough, so I took it up. I figured, the change probably happened back in the late 1880s with city hall folk gathered around a table and someone deciding, “Hey, let’s change the name.” 

Legislative Housekeeping

With the expectation that this would be an open and shut case, I walked over to City Hall to meet Alderman Robert Bauman to see if he had answers. And he did.

Turns out, I was wrong. The change was fairly recent and it happened nowhere near City Hall. It happened at the hands of lawmakers in Madison. What Robert couldn’t answer for me is why the change happened when it did. 

The reason that's cited in historical documents is that the name change was necessary to comply with the Wisconsin State Constitution. This suggests there had been a discrepancy in terms before and now it seems this was the remedy, as a type of legislative housekeeping.

A 1930's Milwaukee aldermanic ward map. Each ward is numbered and boundary streets are labeled.
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society

Further supporting that theory is that Robert says there was no significant change, no major shifts in population or political power. The alderman at that time carried on doing business as usual.

But the question remained: If this was just a clerical housekeeping thing to get in line with the Wisconsin Constitution then why didn’t it happen sooner? Why wait until 1972? I mean, the constitution was written in 1847. 

So, I called around to see if I could get more information on this. Three things became quickly obvious:

One, most of the guys who would know the details of this are dead. And two, the ones who are still around don’t have the clearest memory on a legislative change that happened almost 50 years ago. Finally, the one common thread that I did hear from these 80-year-old men: the change wasn’t that big of a deal. Again supporting the claim that this was just the legislature getting its ducks in a row. 

So, that seemed to be the end of a pretty cut-and-dried story. I called Steve to relay the news. He was expecting more political fireworks but was satisfied with the answer provided. 

But then, the night before the story was supposed to air, I got a phone call that said otherwise.

More Than Meets The Eye

The caller was former Democratic state Rep. Fred Kessler, a lawmaker that was at the forefront of this change back in 1972. He says the change from wards to districts was not a simple matter. It had everything to do with race, representation and redistricting.

He explains that the Wisconsin State Constitution required lawmakers to use county boundaries and city ward lines to draw Assembly districts. But with a city growing — in part because of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the south — that was going to be mathematically impossible.

The solution? Break Wisconsin into thousands of tiny pieces, which lawmakers called wards.

“We could of used precincts, we could of used that. But we decided the constitution says wards, so we’ll redefine wards,” says Fred.

The term ward could no longer apply to the areas aldermen represented, so the state renamed those areas districts. Fred says this was a big deal. It was more than a simple name change. The move let state lawmakers circumvent the city in the redistricting process. He says he fought for the change, to stop race-based gerrymandering.

[CLICK TO ENLARGE] A map of Milwaukee's current aldermanic districts.
Credit City of Milwaukee

“The white fathers of Milwaukee, they decided they are not going to end up having a second African-American on the council, or on the county board or on the state assembly. And so they gerrymandered the maps so that the African-American constituencies were split substantially so that there was no ability to elect a second African-American," he explains.

Fred says in 1964, the city's map claimed each aldermanic ward had roughly 39,000 people. But in truth, the numbers were off — by thousands — in some areas.

So, what evidence is there to corroborate what he's alleging? Fred and I walked to City Hall Library to look at maps. We compared what he says was an accurate state map to the erroneous city map.

“They lied. They absolutely lied," he says.

He was right. There was a discrepancy in numbers, but was that enough to hold up Fred’s claim that white city leaders were trying to dilute the black vote?

Milwaukee Historian John Gurda says the chance of finding proof of intent in the public record is remote. But "whether the intent was declared or not it's quite reasonable to allege there was a racial factor in drawing of lines. And that factor would have been intended to kind of dilute or weaken the influence of African-Americans," he explains.

John says Fred’s claim that city leaders were trying to gerrymander the aldermanic wards would have been in line with a pattern of African-American voter suppression across the country at the time. 

What is certain, is in 1972, the redistricting bill fundamentally changed how the state could draw the lines, giving legislators in Madison unprecedented power — for better, or worse. 

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