Housing Discrimination in Milwaukee

During and after World War II, many African Americans moved to Milwaukee and by 1960, the African American community contributed to 15 percent of the city’s population. The 1960s in Milwaukee was a period of turmoil due to “frustrations over poverty, lack of jobs and segregation” that led to a decade of violent disturbance and riots.1

The local economy in the early 1960s was booming and prosperous, but exclusionary practices aimed at the African American community was common throughout the city. The discriminatory and exclusionary housing laws in the city confined African Americans to a “single neighborhood.”2 The early fight for fair housing in the city began with Alderwoman Vel Phillips in 1962 when she introduced a fair housing bill to the common council. Vel Phillips, the first woman and person of color to hold a seat, would introduce the bill three more times before it would eventually pass in 1968. In December 1965, Wisconsin governor Warren Knowles signed an open housing law that prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing. Exempted from the law, was owner-occupied properties with four or less units, which made up the majority of housing on the Milwaukee’s north side.

The frustration and discrimination African Americans faced in Milwaukee began to boil over in the summer of 1967, when a late July evening erupted in mayhem. The civil disturbance that July evening came one week after race riots occurred in both Detroit and Newark, and ended with the National Guard being called in to restore order and a dusk to dawn curfew imposed by Mayor Henry Maier. The riots in July 1967 left four individual dead and over 1,700 people arrested. After the curfew ended a month later, on August 28th, Reverend James Groppi and the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council would begin a nonviolent march with members of the public from the “black north side across the 16th Street Viaduct to the white south side.”3 On the first two nights, the group of 200 people were met with 18,000 counter protestors with rocks, bottles, and epitaphs. On the second night of the marches, the NAACP Youth Council’s headquarters, the Freedom House, was set on fire. In September, anti-open housing marches were carried out by individual white protestors and the Milwaukee Citizens Civic Voice, a white power group. IN December, the Common Council was facing national embarrassment passed an open housing ordinance that modeled the state’s limited 1965 housing act, covering only one third of housing in Milwaukee. Vel Phillips voted against the ordinance and called for 100% open housing. Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council continued to march after the passage of this ordinance, for a overall total of 200 consecutive nights, ending in March 1968 amid talks about a federal fair housing bill. The Federal Open Housing Law was passed in April 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Milwaukee Common Council approved a city-wide open housing ordinance, considered to be an “even more stringent desegregation law.”4 The law originally modeled the Federal Fair Housing Act, but an amendment was approved to reduce the exemption of rental property to two and fewer units, increasing housing coverage to “90% of housing in the city.”5 The ordinance would continue to be modified over the years to ban discrimination based on gender, disability, and other categories.

For more information and in-depth details about the Maier Administration, Vel Phillips, James Groppi, and the fight for open housing in Milwaukee, click the link and it will take you to documents and videos put together by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Historical Society:


Map of Milwaukee County and surrounding counties depicting African American living segregation in the city.

In the 1960s, almost all black residents in Milwaukee were living in one concentrated area on the north side of the city. Today, while the African American community in Milwaukee has grown, families are still concentrated on the north side. The map to the left was complied based on data gathered from the 2000 Census carried out by the U.S. Census Bureau. The map shows how the African American community in Milwaukee is concentrated in one large area on the north side and that there are no other large concentrations of African American communities in the counties surrounding Milwaukee. While almost two decades have passed since this data was compiled, the next census data will most likely look the exact same as this one, indicting not much change in the city of Milwaukee when it comes to the living situations of African Americans.

To look at specific dates relating to housing discrimination in Milwaukee, scroll through the timeline.



  1. “Desegregation and Civil Rights in Wisconsin: Housing and Racism,” Wisconsin Historical Society, accessed November 20, 2018, https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS431.
  2. Mary Kate McCoy, “50 Years After Milwaukee’s Fair Housing Marches, Disparities Remain, Activists Say,” Wisconsin Public Radio, accessed November 21, 2018, https://www.wpr.org/50-years-after-milwaukees-fair-housing-marches-disparities-remain-activists-say.
  3. Mary Kate McCoy, “50 Years After Milwaukee’s Fair Housing Marches, Disparities Remain, Activists Say.”
  4. Wisconsin Historical Society, “Desegregation and Civil Rights in Wisconsin: Housing and Racism.”
  5. “200 Nights That Shook Milwaukee: The 1967-1968 Open Housing Marches,” Milwaukee Public Library, accessed November 20, 2018, https://www.mpl.org/blog/now/200-nights-that-shook-milwaukee-the-1967-1968-open-housing-marches.