Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Jon Guiles (son of WSU-O president Roger Guiles), veteran Oshkosh High School teacher Hugh Carver, Dr. Herb Gaede (administrative assistant to Roger Guiles), and Republican state assemblyman Jack Steinhilber describe Oshkosh. - 624k mp3
Dr. Don Jorgenson (WSU-O admissions director), teacher Hugh Carver, WSU-O history professor Dr. Virginia Crane, Oshkosh League of Women Voters president Betty Jo Eiffert and WSU-O biology professor Dr. Neil Harriman discuss the paucity of African Americans in northeast Wisconsin. - 644k mp3

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Photo of Oshkosh is courtesy of the Oshkosh Chamber of Congress.

Photo of Oshkosh is courtesy of the Oshkosh Chamber of Congress.


Aerial view of Oshkosh courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Archives.


Oshkosh Postcard, Circa 1968. Courtesy of Oshkosh Public Museum


Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, African American readers of the Chicago Defender warned each other of the prejudice they encountered in the Fox Valley.


Throughout the 1960s, Oshkosh (population 50,000), a small city located in northeastern Wisconsin, between Green Bay and Milwaukee, was undergoing considerable change, much like other manufacturing communities were throughout the Midwest. A half century following its heyday as America’s “Sawdust City,” Oshkosh was struggling to recover from its postwar economic doldrums. The descendents of the German and Polish Americans who had once built Oshkosh were confident they could chart a course toward a more diversified manufacturing sector.

Although Oshkosh held much in common with other small manufacturing cities throughout the United States, one peculiar, distinguishing feature marked Oshkosh and other cities surrounding Lake Winnebago in the 1960s: the relative absence of African Americans. Like other cities dotted throughout the northern Midwest, Oshkosh was once home to a small community of African Americans. Indeed, census data indicates that 100 African Americans lived and worked in Oshkosh in 1910. Yet by 1960 only seven remained. These conditions were mirrored throughout the region. Nearby Fond du Lac was home to 178 African Americans in 1880 but only 15 in 1960. To the north, the city of Appleton (population 50,000) counted a single African American among its ranks in 1960!

What accounts for the small numbers of black Americans in these small Wisconsin cities? According to evidence collected by University of Vermont historian James W. Loewen, the dramatic decline in the numbers of African Americans living in Oshkosh and other “sundown towns” throughout the region was not an accident but instead the result of de facto segregation and systematic racial intimidation. Although the African American fishermen who drove to Oshkosh from Milwaukee and Racine to cast their lines in the Fox River were tolerated during the day, it was common knowledge that they were not welcomed after sunset. Uncomfortable as it is to admit, Oshkosh, just like many other cities in the Fox Valley and throughout the northern United States, simmered with racial prejudice throughout the 1960s.

While bar patrons on Appleton’s College Avenue cheered when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, landlords in Oshkosh consistently refused to rent apartments to people of color. After witnessing television coverage of the mid 1960s riots in Watts, Detroit, Newark and, closer to home, Milwaukee, many within the region harbored a blind fear of African Americans. A female student attending Lawrence College in Appleton spoke for more than a few living in the region during the late 1960s when she told a reporter that African Americans “have no right to burn our cities.” “It’s frustrating,” she continued. “I see a Negro here at school and yet I wonder if he would hesitate to burn down my house if a riot started.”


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