Milwaukee is an ethnic melting pot and it celebrates that heritage every summer in a series of lakefront festivals. More than 500,000 people attend these weekend events, which include German Fest, Polish Fest, Asian Moon Festival, Irish Fest, African World Festival, Indian Summer, Festa Italiana, Mexican Fiesta and Arab World Fest. Festivals, however, aren’t confined to the lakefront. In July, Milwaukeeans celebrate the beginning of the French Revolution at Bastille Days, a downtown block party that is considered to be the largest celebration of its kind in the country. Greek Fest is an annual celebration held at State Fair Park.
Though most Milwaukeeans are American by birth, they are proud of their cultural heritage. Thirty-eight percent of Milwaukee residents report having some German ancestry. Other ethnic groups include: African (15 percent), Polish (13 percent), Irish (10 percent), English (5 percent), French (4 percent), Italian (4 percent), Hispanic (11 percent), Asian and Pacific Islander (4 percent) and Native American (1 percent). Racine has a rich ethnic heritage as well. It was home to the largest Danish settlement in the world outside of Denmark and continues to have a strong Danish community.
The Area’s Roots
Native Americans were the first to realize the beauty of Milwaukee’s location at the mouths of the Kinnickinnic, Menomonee and Milwaukee rivers. They called it “Milwaukie,” which means “where the waters meet.” Its natural harbor and lightly wooded bluffs made it a perfect location. By 1817, Milwaukee was already a cosmopolitan village with an estimated 300 people representing a variety of tribes, including the Sac, Fox, Chippewa, Ottawa, Winnebago, Menomonee and Potawatomi. They speared fish in the three rivers and grew wild rice in the grassy swamps where Milwaukee’s downtown now stands.
One of the first known Europeans to visit the area was Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette, who camped here in 1674. He was soon followed by fur trappers drawn to the area by its wealth of natural resources. Indians and fur trappers kept a cautious distance from each other, but from time to time Native Americans helped fight white men’s wars, most notably the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
Germans were among the city’s first immigrants, and they soon dominated the city. By 1850, one-third of the city’s population was German and by the early 1900s, the city was referred to as the “German Athens of America.” The city’s South Side Polish population was the second largest ethnic group. Milwaukee’s first African-American church dates back to 1869, but the city’s African-American community did not start growing rapidly until after World War I. The first Hispanics arrived in the early 1920s, when local tanneries recruited men from Mexican villages.
Milwaukee is a diverse community that has been an ethnic melting pot since its founding. It is home to a large number of German, Polish and Scandinavian descendants. African Americans are the largest minority group, representing approximately 15 percent of the region’s population. The Hispanic/Latino population is the fastest growing and currently represents 11 percent of the population. Milwaukee is also welcoming to the gay, lesbian and transgender community.