A look at Milwaukee's early Black settlers
Who were the first known Black people to settle in Milwaukee? That’s the question that piqued the curiosity of one of our Bubbler Talk question askers.
Clayborn Benson, the executive director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society, says Black people came as trappers, guides, frontiersmen. "They came as newcomers to this territory. They came as soldiers. They came as enslaved people. They came married to white people. They came with Indians. They lived [in] downtown Milwaukee, in places that Black people don’t live today."
The first documented Black resident of Milwaukee was a man named Joe Oliver, a cook, who came to the city in 1835. He worked on lake steamers, or large steam-powered boats. The Milwaukee Journal in 1967 described him as a tall and muscular man.
Benson says Oliver worked as a cook for Solomon Juneau, the first mayor of Milwaukee. And Oliver was also the first Black man to vote in Milwaukee’s first election held on September 17, 1835. "And he knew that the rules were that African Americans were not permitted to vote, but he got in line anyway and because he was such a good friend of theirs, they said it was OK for him to vote, and the system accepted his vote," he explains.
Black men would not be given the legal right to vote in Wisconsin until 1866, but in 1835, Milwaukee settlers were eager to establish themselves as a thriving city, so they solicited the votes of all residents.
William T. Green, the first Black man to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Madison Law School and a Milwaukee activist, wrote about a growing Black population in Milwaukee that happened between 1840 and 1845.
His article “Negroes in Milwaukee” appeared in The Milwaukee Sentinel in 1895. The article reads, “The opening of steam navigation between Buffalo and Milwaukee and the fact that Milwaukee was a noted station of the “underground railway” and the home of many staunch abolitionists were the causes which led to the first immigration of colored people to this city in 1840-45.”
Green says in 1845 there were about 20 Black families in Milwaukee, but it’s hard to accurately determine their names. He wrote, “Some were fugitives from slavery who had reached Milwaukee by means of the "Underground railway.” They were living under assumed names, and in hourly dread of the passage of the “fugitive slave law” and that they would be kidnaped, their goods confiscated and they themselves released to slavery.”
Early Black settlers were rarely counted in the census. If they lived and worked in white households, their names would not be known.
But some of the names we do know include Jonathan J. Myers, who came to Milwaukee in 1850. He operated a grocery store on Water and Mason Streets and was the first Black man to open a museum of African history and culture in Milwaukee.
"He made a decision without a passport to get on a ship and go to Africa, to Nigeria and Niger to create a colony in those communities to encourage African Americans throughout the United States to go back to Africa because they didn’t like the way things were going," Benson says.
A Black man traveling internationally without a passport was bold, he says.
Records also tell the story of Robert Titball, a former slave who came to Milwaukee in 1840 and worked as a barber at the Milwaukee House. He eventually opened his own shop and bathhouse on Wisconsin Avenue. His wife, Sarah, operated a hat and dressmaking establishment. They were the first Black couple to be married and divorced in Milwaukee.
And, William H. Anderson operated the United States Hotel Barbershop and owned considerable property.
Benson says there were not many Black owned businesses, but they did exist. On Wisconsin Avenue, Michigan Street, Plankinton,and Water Street, there were barbershops, secondhand shops, seamstress shops and beauty shops.
And, Benson says, there are even more Black people whose names we don’t know that helped settle Milwaukee.
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