Diversity in Oshkosh: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives


In a Sunday editorial a while back, I argued that now is the time for Oshkosh to focus on diversity and inclusion, to try to better understand it and take action towards enhancing it for the benefit of the variety of people who live here and the future of this place overall.

The purpose of that piece was to spur conversation and introduce a series of pieces I planned to write. I have made good on my promise to “Pass the Mic”, which spotlights a diverse range of people who help make Oshkosh what it is today. A number of these have now been posted, the three most recent spotlighting a local novelist, a truck driver and photographer, and a student retention specialist at UWO with diverse backgrounds. (By the way, please contact me if you’re interested in being featured and starting another snowball off of you, or have a friend you’d like to see spotlit.)

It’s taken me longer to write this piece, designed to be the next in the series. Such is the nature of grassroots journalism from an occasional contributor.

But here we are, so let’s get to it. My goal is to present some facts about racial diversity in Oshkosh, from some of the basics of our demographic and social history to where we now stand, to lay the foundation for a more in-depth examination.

Early History

The Oshkosh area was inhabited by various Native American tribes for millennia prior to white settlement, two being particularly notable. The Ho-Chunk (called Winnebago by the federal government), one of the only tribes in Wisconsin whose origin story begins here, had reportedly lived for centuries in what is now Oshkosh when white settlers such as George Johnston and Webster Stanley came onto the scene in the 1830s. This was the same period in which the Ho-Chunk were removed from their southern Wisconsin lands to make room for mining operations and ceded their lands all the way from the Illinois border to Lake Buttes des Morts to the federal government. By the early 1860s they were scattered to various other parts of the Midwest due to treaties and other historical circumstances, with a portion returning to Wisconsin decades later to reclaim parts of their original treaty, which they continue to do

The Oshkosh area was also home to the Menominee Tribe, part of their vast territory that at one time contained more than 12 million acres. The Menominee also originated in Wisconsin and have a history that goes back 10,000 years. After seven treaties with the federal government that cost them nearly all of their original territory–including a portion of present-day Oshkosh north of the Fox River in 1836–under the leadership of Chief Oshkosh (our city’s namesake), the Menominee wrote their own treaty in which they refused to be relocated to Minnesota and requested that they be able to stay on their own lands. Surprisingly, the government agreed, and in 1854 the Menominee moved to what is now Menominee County. Good news, but they were told without much notice that they needed to move to the reservation in November, with birch bark canoes as their primary means of transportation on a Wolf River that was already icing up. Reportedly, nearly 2,400 Menominees started the voyage but only 1,600 were left when the journey ended. The tribe carried on and has survived subsequent challenges since then. Of the 235,523 acres it currently owns, 95% is forest, and the tribe is internationally known for its sustainable forestry operation that is based upon practices established by Chief Oshkosh himself.

French fur traders had established trading posts in the area as early as the late 17th century and intermarried with local Native Americans in the subsequent decades. Much later, a group convened to name the new settlement in 1839, and French and Native American attendees voted for “Oshkosh” ahead of “Athens”, the name favored by more recent arrivals. When Oshkosh was eventually incorporated as a city in 1853, however, its residents were largely Yankee settlers from the East.

From 1847 to 1930, using advantages like its proximity to the Wolf River and the ability to use Lake Poygan to store logs, the upwards of 50 mills in “Sawdust City” turned white pine and other fruits of the North Woods into more than 6 billion feet of lumber for doors, window sashes, and much more. Many of the mills operated on the south side of the Fox River and the labor for them was largely comprised of successive waves of European immigrants, primarily from Germany, Ireland, and Eastern Europe. The working class of factory employees and small merchants also tended to live on the south side, while the wealthier mill owners and professionals tended to live on the north side, which created a divide that came alive in dramatic fashion via the woodworker’s strike of 1898 and persists to an extent to this day.

According to the 1900 U.S. census, 73% of Oshkosh’s population was “foreign stock” (immigrants or children of immigrants), with one-third of German descent, though they divided themselves between highlanders and those they referred to as “Plattdeutschers” (“low” Germans). Between 1852 and World War I there were actually seven different German language newspapers in town. The 1900 census also counted 14 Native Americans, mere decades after the Ho-Chunk and Menominee were displaced. Also in the mix were 52 “Negroes”, two “Chinese” people, and enough Jews that Congregation B’Nai Israel had been officially chartered in 1895. By 1910, there were 98 black residents in Oshkosh and an African Methodist Episcopal church was in operation around this time.

Middle Period

As the formerly foreign stock was assimilated into American culture and the fabric of Oshkosh in the subsequent decades, African Americans began to be excluded during what sociologist James Loewen refers to as the nadir (low point) of race relations in the U.S. between 1890 and 1940. His book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism was published in 2005, representing the first major scholarly work on the topic. It mentions Appleton as a confirmed “sundown town”–one that is “all-white on purpose” through policy (e.g., not allowing black people or other targets for exclusion to rent or own property) or practice (e.g., violence, threats, signage)–on page 2, and discusses Oshkosh, Fond du Lac and other cities from the Fox Valley numerous times in this 562-page book.

Loewen notes that in 1890, while Milwaukee had the largest settlement of African Americans in the state, growing numbers lived throughout the Fox Valley, including in Fond du Lac, which had the second-largest population. A racist backlash throughout the country ensued, however, and evidence of this in this area can be found in census data after 1910. While in 1890 less than 20% of Wisconsin’s black residents lived in Milwaukee, by 1930 72% did. The most dramatic changes in the rest of the state were found in the Fox Valley, where Fond du Lac’s black population of 178 in 1880 had declined to 22 in 1930 and only 5 by 1940. Oshkosh, Appleton, and other cities in the region followed similar patterns, and in the four counties surrounding Lake Winnebago, the black population dropped by 75% from 1890-1930. This was precisely the same time that the white population grew by 45% as the area rapidly industrialized and urbanized (the population of Oshkosh grew by 21% between 1920 and 1930 alone). There were plenty of jobs to be had, but only for white people; Loewen argues that unions and other local actors actively excluded people of color from their growing industries, while at the same time housing policies (written or unwritten) pushed people out and further cemented the line of exclusion. During the period, the Ku Klux Klan was very active in this area, particularly in Oshkosh during the 1920s, when its rallies were some of largest public gatherings.

Along with the lack of jobs myth, Loewen’s book debunks a number of other common explanations for racial homogeneity and argues that the simple truth is that these were sundown towns, which were created primarily between 1890 and 1968 (when the national Fair Housing Act was signed into law) throughout the U.S. People of color clearly would have lived here in higher numbers had they been given the opportunity.

Civil Rights Era to the Present

A few decades later the segregationist governor of Alabama and presidential candidate George Wallace drew big crowds in Oshkosh, and “Black Thursday“–the most important local civil rights event of the era–occurred at Wisconsin State University at Oshkosh (now called University of of Wisconsin Oshkosh, of course). In 1960, Oshkosh had 7 black residents and Appleton one(!) when the population of both cities was around 50,000. To provide a contrasting example from a similar area of the upper Midwest, Waterloo, Iowa, was slightly bigger (pop. 71,755 in 1960), but the Great Migration had brought many more African American workers to its factories and by this time it had over 6,000 black residents.

With the Fox Valley’s sundown town past as the backdrop, the growing population of black students at the university in the mid-’60s grew increasingly frustrated with the racism and unjust treatment they faced on and off campus. This came to a head in the fall of 1968 with a sit-in in the university president’s office, which resulted in nearly all of the 94 protesters being arrested and summarily expelled in a saga now called Black Thursday. The legacy of these events and the longer history reverberated for decades to come.

After 1970, the Fox Valley area slowly began to diversify. While Manitowoc had two black residents in 1970, it had 71 in 1990, when the census counted 435 black people in Oshkosh, a number that approached 1% of the total population. Interestingly, while the overall population of Oshkosh dropped by 6.5% in the 1970s, its black and Native American populations more than doubled during the decade as the area began to open itself to people of color. During this decade, while the population of Winnebago County grew slightly, its other principal cities Neenah and Menasha also lost population, suggesting that part of the explanation was the early suburbanization of this area, with “white flight” as a contributing factor, as it was in so many other urban areas.

The first Hmong refugees were resettled in the Fox Valley in the late 1970s and the Hmong population has since grown to be one of Oshkosh’s most prevalent ethnicities. Racial and ethnic diversity has increased steadily over the the most recent decades, such that while the population of Oshkosh in 1970 (53,221) was 99% white, according to the most recent estimates (2011-2015 five-year American Community Survey averages) the population of 66,582 was 89% white (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Homogeneity in Oshkosh has declined in recent decades

While the number of Native Americans remains quite small (510 people according to the 2010 census), the numbers for this group have steadily increased, as they have for black (2,051), Asian (2,113, about three-quarters of whom are Hmong), and Hispanic (1,770) residents (see Figure 2). Because the margin of error for ACS statistics is high for smaller groups such as people of color in Oshkosh, making them somewhat unreliable at this level, the 2015 estimates suggest that the black and particularly Hispanic populations have continued to grow and that Hispanics may now be just behind black residents as the second-largest racial/ethnic minority group in Oshkosh.

Figure 2. Racial and ethnic diversity has grown considerably since 1990

Oshkosh has also proven to be receptive to the resettlement of refugees in recent decades as well. In fact, Oshkosh resettled the second-most refugees in Wisconsin from 2002 to 2016, behind only Milwaukee. In addition to the nearly 2,000 Hmong people who call Oshkosh home, more than 650 residents with refugee background have resettled here through our local World Relief office since 2012. World Relief’s leadership have praised this area, noting that it is an excellent place in which to resettle people, which might be surprising to some given the social history of Oshkosh discussed above. The primary countries of origin for these new neighbors are the Congo, Burma, and Iraq, and they have not only added to the numbers of local people of color, but also brought cultural and religious diversity. It is interesting to note that, despite this recent influx and in contrast to 1900, the latest Census estimates are that 2.7% of the Oshkosh population is foreign-born, with 56.2% of the people in this category originating in Asia, 18.3% in Europe, 17.3% in Latin America, and 5.7% in Africa. Overall, Oshkosh remains extremely German, with more than half of local people choosing it as their ancestry, followed by Irish (9.6%), Polish (6.8%), and English (5.3%) being the next-most common.

A drum circle at the 2013 Race Unity Social showed the promise of increased diversity in Oshkosh

In all, the percentage of the Oshkosh population that is categorized as non-white grew more than tenfold between 1970-2010, but the student population in the Oshkosh Area School District is now around 20% students of color, making the school-age population roughly twice as diverse as the population overall. So, even if all immigration to our city were to halt tomorrow, the demographic landscape of Oshkosh’s future will likely feature quite a few more shades of brown.

While the population has clearly become much more racially and ethnically diverse than it was for many decades and there are many signs of progress, Oshkosh hasn’t become a beacon of cosmopolitanism and racial harmony overnight. We have not experienced dramatic racial conflict in recent years, either, but people of color have reported being the victims of racial profiling and subtle forms of exclusion. A Hmong man, for example, indicated at a recent city council diversity workshop that he still felt like an outsider after thirty years. Stereotyping is another issue. A common and particularly pernicious example of the latter seems to be that African Americans are only here due to the prison, because the families of inmates have moved to Oshkosh in large numbers. This assertion has not been corroborated by any actual data but it has nonetheless become real in the minds of some local residents.

It is true that our prisons hold a disproportionate number of African Americans, but this is not surprising given that the latest numbers show that Wisconsin has the second-highest black/white disparity ratio in the nation, which indicates that black people are 11 times more likely to be incarcerated than white. The scholarly consensus seems to be that the root causes of this disparity are institutional and systemic, not individual (i.e. whites and blacks commit crimes at similar rates but blacks are more likely to be in poverty, to have more frequent contacts with police, and are treated differently when it comes to enforcement and sentencing). In 2010, according to demographics provided by a staff person at Oshkosh State Correctional Institute, of the roughly 2,000 inmates there, 63.8% were white, 30.6% were black, 4.6% were Native American, 1.3% Asian, and less than 1% Hispanic. This snapshot from the largest local prison and the census statistics concerning the proportion of our population that is institutionalized point to a noteworthy demographic and social issue, but a small contributor to our growing diversity. It seems safe to say that the vast majority of people of color that now call Oshkosh home do so for the same reasons as anyone else.

Loewen argues that stereotypes persist because people live separately from other groups, allowing such generalizations to go unchallenged and fester, and the primary way to eliminate them is to integrate our neighborhoods. As I discussed in a previous piece, however, while Oshkosh may not be nearly as segregated as Milwaukee or Chicago, there is evidence of segregation in this area, based on the significant differences in diversity and median incomes amongst census tracts in the older urban core of Oshkosh and the newer tracts on the edge of the city. The 2010 census also revealed that the townships in the direct vicinity of Oshkosh (Algoma, Black Wolf, Nekimi, Oshkosh, and Vinland) had populations that were 96-99% white, a pattern repeated throughout Winnebago County. In the city itself, it seems that the historic North/South divide has largely been replaced by a West/East divide, which is revealed not only by the demographics and trends in development and growth, but also via stereotypes that people have about the East side of town and the patterns of behavior that result.

This is at least part of the Oshkosh story to this point. Stay tuned for more, as I explore what local people and institutions seem to be thinking and doing about the changing face of their city.




About Author

Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent. He is currently living in the central city of Milwaukee while on sabbatical and among other things is writing about Oshkosh through the lens of his experiences there.


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