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Historian sees blacks ‘knocking on door of opportunity’

Fri, Mar 7, 2014

Christopher Reed

Christopher Reed

The Chicago Defender of Aug. 5, 1916 may have sparked the Great Migration that caused thousands of African-Americans to leave the South during the labor shortage of World War I. On one page, there was a photo of a Captain Ford, “who knows more about the machine gun than the entire Illinois brigade.” Readers knew that blacks were not allowed to use guns or form military companies in the South.

And in the middle of the 12-page paper, large headlines proclaimed “World’s Great War A Mighty Blessing.”

“The shutting down of immigration, due to the war, has created a demand for our labor,” said the editorial. Girls found it easy to become domestics, men were laying track for Chicago’s transit system and doing other public work.

“The employment agencies cannot meet the demand, the opportunities are so great. All through the state of Illinois Defender reporters and correspondents report that they are taking the places of Poles, Italians, Greeks and other foreign nationalities. Not only is this true of Illinois, but of other states.”

Since World War I had begun two years earlier, the national bureau of immigration reported that the Italian population had dropped by 100,000, for example. Blacks had left farm jobs paying 75 cents a day in order to take the Italians’ jobs paying $3 and $4 in mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia.

Chicago Defender

The original home of the Chicago Defender at 3433 S. Indiana (Photo: Sarah O’Rourke)

The Defender was getting a whole new kind of business: advertisements for jobs in Chicago and other parts of the U.S. And jobs in the North paid better than in the South, “where there was born slavery, lynching, segregation, prejudice, ostracism, concubinage and Jim Crow [rail]cars” that enforced segregation.

“Men and women, you are welcome in the north; here they do not burn you nor work you on the chain gang,” the Defender story continued. “Schools are open to your children ten months in a year, while many southern states deny them an education.”

Dr. Christopher R. Reed is an emeritus professor of history at Roosevelt University and the author of the forthcoming “Knock at the Door of Opportunity: Black Migration to Chicago, 1900-1919 (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014) among five other books. Reed said that a Carnegie survey picked the Aug. 5, 1916 story as a motivator for thousands of blacks who came north.

Although the Defender was Chicago-based, it offered business, sports, entertainment and other news from around the U.S. as well as the kind of news found on social media today: lists of people who were sick or visiting. That’s because its business-minded founder, Robert Sengstacke Abbott, understood that people wanted to read about themselves and their friends. There was even a column by Pullman car porters called “Rambling Rails.”

Overton Hygienic Building, 3619 State St., was the headquarters of acclaimed African American entrepreneur Anthony Overton's nation-wide cosmetic company, with the Loop to the north. (Photo: Sarah O'Rourke)

Overton Hygienic Building, 3619 State St., was the headquarters of acclaimed African American entrepreneur Anthony Overton’s nation-wide cosmetic company, with the Loop to the north. (Photo: Sarah O’Rourke)

Pullman car porters took bundles of the newspaper and threw them off the train in the South because white distributors refused to handle it. Blacks caught reading the paper there could also be punished.

Simultaneously, white Southerners objected when the Department of Labor initially came seeking blacks to fill jobs in the North because they saw it as government interference with their supply of cheap labor. As a result, the businesses themselves went recruiting, sometimes paying for a train ticket North.

Whites also tried to prevent blacks from being able to buy tickets or to board a train. So the individuals, families – and even whole church congregations, such as West Point Baptist Church, which reorganized on 35th Street — simply walked to the next station, where they were not known, Reed said.

“It was an irresistible force coming to the North to make a better life,” Reed said. “For the first time the welcome mat had been put out in the North for black labor.” Jobs other than domestic work were finally open to them and they began to see the value of labor organization. In Chicago, blacks took working class jobs at steel mills and stockyards, where they became active in the butcher’s union.

When the Great Migration began, there were about 50,000 blacks in Chicago and by 1920 there were 100,000, Reed said. Initially they settled around 16th Street and along what was then the Rock Island Railroad line from 22nd to 35th Street.

Reed’s upcoming book argues that migrating blacks were more welcomed by those already here than disdained by them. One sees that family ties are being recovered in the new setting, and the reason likewise for many traveling to a strange place like Chicago is to reunite with friends and neighbors.”

Reed feels that his new book acknowledges African-American energy and talent that had been overlooked until the Great Migration. “Both were released to their fullest in a competitive environment such as Chicago presented.”

Jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong had come up from New Orleans and played in clubs in an entertainment area known as “The Stroll” that extended from 26th to 35th Streets between Dearborn, State and Wabash. Abbott had told his readers not to hang out at The Stroll, but to buy a home and be faithful to their wives.

However, young white musicians like West Side clarinetist Benny Goodman were fond of bringing their teenage peers to clubs around The Stroll.

“They used to come to the South Side to play with those musicians,” said Timuel Black, who moved from Alabama with his parents as an infant in 1919, in an interview with MLB.com. “There was interplay between the African-American musicians and the Caucasian musicians who liked jazz. And they were friends, and we younger people saw that and were inspired by that.” Black later helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and the successful campaign of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983.

The Great Migration produced African-American consumers with disposable income that led to a middle class of doctors and pharmacists. The 1920s became the South Side black community’s most productive phase of development, said Reed, who also wrote The Rise of Chicago’s Black Metropolis 1920-29 (University of Illinois Press 2011).

Supreme Life Building (Photo: Sarah O'Rourke)

Supreme Life Building (Photo: Sarah O’Rourke)

Just as non-WASP populations (Italian, Swedish, Polish, Greek) had developed their own “cities within the city,” so did blacks start their own banks, small businesses, professional associations. There was even a black-led Republican mini-machine led by Ed Wright.

In the late 1920s, the Regal Theater opened on 47th Street and Grand Boulevard (renamed South Parkway and then Dr. Martin Luther King Drive), close to mansions that had once belonged to wealthy Germans, Jews and Irish, Reed said. The Regal’s pit band played classical music and according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, it featured some of the most celebrated black entertainers in the U.S.: Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington and even a novice native Chicagoan such as Nat “King” Cole.

The Savoy Ballroom was next door to the Regal and was also managed by an African-American, Reed said. Katycornered was the Metropolitan Theater. And to the west on 47th Street between Wabash and Michigan Avenue was the Julius Rosenwald Apartments, housing for the black middle class built by the president of Sears and also managed by a black: Robert Taylor. Although vacant for 12 years, a $109 million reconstruction of the Rosenwald Apartments will begin this spring, according to the office of Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd ward). The 239 affordable apartments will include 119 units for working families and 120 for independent seniors, 60 of the latter to be funded by the Chicago Housing Authority.

Until the closing of the stockyards and steel mills in the 1970s, blacks could see themselves living in the same style as European immigrants, Reed said. Abbott had driven a Rolls-Royce, married light-skinned women twice, and entertained writers in his home on what is now King Drive.

Reed’s own grandfather was a Pullman porter “but he lived the life of a middle class white man once he got back to the South Side.” He took off his street clothes, put on his smoking jacket, sat in his favorite chair and asked for his pipe tobacco and favorite Kentucky bourbon.

Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief


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