Greenfield Ave and Bias Against Poles
It was the northern border of city’s Polish community, which suffered horrible prejudice.
Greenfield Avenue divides Milwaukee County in half. It is twelve miles north of Racine County and twelve miles south of Ozaukee County. An 1845 map drawn by Milwaukee Renaissance man Increase Lapham shows that Greenfield Avenue was originally known as Railroad Street. At that time there were no railroads in the city; that wouldn’t happen for six more years. So, whether the street was named for some future railroad plans that did not happen or just to show enthusiasm for the upcoming mode of transportation is not known.
The street was the northern border of the 36 square mile township of Greenfield which was also bordered by S. 27th Street, W. College Avenue, and S. 124th Street. In the 1880s the community of North Greenfield, at the north end of the township, began to be industrialized and its population was growing. Consequently, in 1885, Railroad Street, which led to North Greenfield, was renamed Greenfield Avenue. Much of the township of Greenfield became part of Milwaukee but the western part of it became West Allis, with Greenfield Avenue as its main business street.
Greenfield Avenue was also the northern border of what was to become Milwaukee’s largest Polish community. Polish immigrants to Milwaukee probably suffered more bigotry and prejudice than any other immigrant group that arrived in the city in the 19th century.
The newspaper wrote of “Polack workers,” “Polack laborers,” “Polack men,” “Polack women,” “poor Polacks,” “a crazy Polack,” “Polack children,” “little Polack boys,” and “little Polack girls.” Even infants were not immune. A south-side politician was ridiculed for “kissing Polack babies.” When Michael Degen died of sunstroke even then the Sentinel was not respectful, calling him “a Polack laborer.” Letters to the Sentinel complained about the newspaper’s use of the derogatory term and recommended that it be replaced by the word “Pole,” but the slurs continued to be printed.
The Sentinel’s war on the city’s second largest ethnic group did not end with name calling. An editorial in the newspaper declared they were a “large body of very ignorant and illiterate people,” and that “they are hot blooded and impulsive, as is shown by the frequent rows that occur in their churches.”
Another Sentinel complaint was that “they learn English less rapidly than most other immigrants.” Polish immigrants, like their German counterparts, did not embrace English, but it was not because of some learning defect. Both groups were so large that they did not need to learn English. In the Polish neighborhood the butcher, the barber, the store owner, and other businesses that residents came in contact with were run by Polish people who spoke to their customers in their mother tongue. The whole family was preached to in Polish at Sunday Mass. English only made inroads into Polish Catholic churches during the lead up to World War II in the late 1930s.
The men of the community picked up English through their employment at factories in the area, but the women and children had fewer opportunities. A 1911 commission studying Milwaukee’s Polish reported that a large number of women and children could not speak English.
Today, the Polish community has been totally assimilated into the American mainstream, but history is repeating itself. Greenfield Avenue now cuts through a Latino community which suffers some of the same kinds of prejudices, biases, and complaints that the former Polish neighborhood was subject to a century ago.
Carl Baehr, a Milwaukee native, is the author of Milwaukee Streets: The Stories Behind their Names, and articles on local history topics. He has done extensive historic research for his upcoming book, Dreams and Disasters: A History of the Irish in Milwaukee. Baehr, a professional genealogist and historical researcher, gives talks on these subjects and on researching Catholic sacramental records.