Posted by StreetWise in Magazine Articles
A new book “Freedom’s Ballot” by Margaret Garb
Review by Suzanne Hanney
In 1915 – 50 years after the Civil War and 50 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — Chicago became the first large city in the North to elect an African-American alderman, Oscar DePriest, who later went on to become the first black congressman since Reconstruction.
The book “Freedom’s Ballot” (University of Chicago Press) tells the story of three generations of African-American activists that led to this election a century ago, said Rachel Bohlmann, director of continuing education at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St. Bohlmann referred to “ministers, labor leaders, professionals, club women and entrepreneurs who transformed 20th century urban politics,” as she introduced the book’s author, Margaret Garb, an associate professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis. Garb spoke about “Freedom’s Ballot” January 31 to introduce Black History Month at the Newberry.
The second decade of the 20th century marked a “dramatic expansion of African-American participation in politics,” particularly in Chicago, Garb wrote in the book. One reason was the Great Migration, when blacks came up from the South to take jobs made available by the lack of European immigration due to World War I, which lasted from 1914 to 1918.
But DePriest was elected 2nd ward alderman at the beginning of the Great Migration, before black voters hit their highest numbers. African-American influence was not about numbers alone, Garb wrote, “it was a consequence of effective organization, inspiring political leaders and the specific social conditions and political structures found in the urban North.”
After her Newberry lecture, Garb told StreetWise that Chicago was different from New York (which did not elect a black alderman until 26 years after Chicago), partly because “Chicago politics was so divisive and complicated.”
In Chicago, “the Democrats and Republicans [each with their own machines] were constantly going after each other,” Garb said. “No one party dominated the city in the late 19th, early 20th centuries, there was also the Socialist party, all these labor parties. And internally, each of the parties were divided, so that created openings for smaller groups of voters to have influence and leverage in a way that was not true of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, which were dominated by machines early on.”
The Republican organization was determined to retain the vacated 2nd ward seat and “would do whatever it took,” Garb said. “They realized black voters were going to be crucial to getting that seat and also to maintaining the power of the Republican machine. They were really pragmatic.”
Republican machine leaders met with former house painter DePriest in his real estate office to officially nominate him in mid-November 1914. In an era when representation meant “someone who looked like me,” the alderman would be the unofficial leader of all 70,000 blacks then living in Chicago.
Thanks to women’s votes and women’s clubs going door to door, DePriest won 44 percent of the 7,268 votes cast in the election, although his nearest competitor had been endorsed by the leading Chicago Defender newspaper. Women, empowered to vote by the Illinois legislature in 1913, provided 1,093 votes to DePriest, 762 and 500 respectively, to the two other candidates. The women may have been trying to reward the Republican machine, which had found jobs for black women in city hall, Garb wrote.
Second Ward voters prided themselves that their support also turned the April 1915 mayoral election for “Big” Bill Thompson, who actually built a coalition of immigrant voters from areas “where rents were low,” Garb wrote. Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s Alpha Suffrage Club had begun campaigning for Thompson before a Barnett friend announced his Republican candidacy. Wells-Barnett pulled her support, but the club had already generated women’s momentum for Thompson.
The new mayor also had the backing of the Rev. Archibald J. Carey Sr., pastor of an influential church and a friend for more than 15 years, since the simultaneous emergence of the Republican machine and powerful black politicians. Church programs, largely administered by women, could always use help to uplift newcomers to the city.
Thompson reciprocated black loyalty in a way that business and labor had not: with steady work. He appointed so many blacks to municipal offices that his opponents called city hall “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a fact he pointed out when campaigning in the Black Belt.
The patronage system of the early 20th century meant jobs on the city payroll in exchange for votes, a turkey on Thanksgiving, help in getting a son out of jail, cash for a funeral or doctor bill, Garb said. Yet conditions were not better than today for the average person.
Parts of the Black Belt did not get city sewer and water lines until the 1920s and blacks still lived in rundown buildings run by absentee landlords, both white and black. Black men did not get hired by industry until WWI. And black women often had to supplement family income by working outside the home as servants, unlike immigrant women, so there was still terrible poverty, Garb said.
The patronage system “may have come at a cost of improving conditions in the Black Belt but in the teens [the years at the start of the Great Migration] few people mentioned this and few people saw better alternatives,” she said.
Aside from clubwomen and churchmen, a third pillar of community influence was vice: gambling, semi-legal saloons and brothels. Shut out from unassisted bank loans and commercial credit, entrepreneurs were able to make fortunes in these cash businesses, which they converted to legitimate real estate or entertainment operations.
Mushmouth Johnson, for example, who began as a porter in a white gambling house in St. Louis, ran a Chicago gambling emporium and a brothel known for its voluptuous waitresses. After a funeral filled with dignitaries, he left $200,000 to his sister, who married bank founder Jesse Binga.
And Robert T. Motts started in Chicago with a gambling club, invested in real estate and turned respectable with the 1904 opening of the Pekin Theater at 2700 S. State St., a 1200-seat venue that was first in the city to feature ragtime music. Motts was known to pay his customers $5 a day to register voters. His most significant contribution to Black Belt life was to cement ties between other businessmen on the South State Street entertainment district (known as “the Stroll”) and ward politicians, Garb said.
The vice entrepreneurs, “even as they crossed to legitimate businesses, gave legitimacy to an expanding political system of payoff for protection and votes in exchange for city hall jobs,” Garb said. “So black entrepreneurs were crucial in creating the system and the method of the machine in Chicago because the methods that supported their businesses were also the methods of the machine.”
Garb admitted that she did not like the vice entrepreneurs as she was writing about them. But then she also realized she had to see them in the context of their time – 50 years before the Civil Rights Movement — and in the landscape of her book, which was about how politics does matter in shaping urban spaces “for a group that you would think would have no political influence.
“Black activists worked with the Republican machine precisely because it was the only avenue to political influence. Labor unions largely rejected black workers. White progressives, joined only with some elite black activists, largely neglected African-American communities. The machine was hardly a guardian of black civil rights but the machine politicians welcomed black activists who could bring a growing constituency to the machine ticket. In return, African-American politicians got a few jobs at City Hall, jobs and work contracts for their supporters, a few municipal services, financial donations, contributions to sympathetic black churches and civic organizations. It was not a fair deal. It did not eliminate racial discrimination in housing. But for many politicians it proved a personal path to advancement.”
Tailor John Jones sheltered runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, he used his real estate fortune to publish a pamphlet that was instrumental in Illinois repealing Black Laws denying black men the right to testify in court or to serve on a jury. Elected to the Cook County Board in 1871, Jones was the first black in Illinois to hold public office. He urged integration and support of the Republican Party – the party of Lincoln – but after the Republican President pulled federal troops from the South in 1877, generations that followed Jones were disillusioned.
The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 paradoxically excluded African-American accomplishments since the Civil War even as it provided a stage for black intellectuals to demonstrate their literary skills and understanding of American politics. Ida B. Wells came to Chicago to urge African-Americans to boycott the fair and stayed afterward to promote her anti-lynching pamphlet (there had been 200 in 1892 alone). She also had an increasing affection for newspaper publisher and attorney Ferdinand Barnett, whom she later married.
Mayor William “Big Bill” Hale Thompson’s willingness to ignore payoffs kept illicit Black Belt saloons and gambling houses afloat during the 1920s. Elected in 1915, he showed his support for the African-American community in his inaugural speech, where he promised not to allow the movie, “Birth of a Nation” to be screened in Chicago; the courts prevailed against him. Thompson was re-elected mayor in 1919 but withdrew from the 1923 race upon learning of a State’s Attorney’s investigation. He won again in 1927, but black activists began to tire of his support for vice, because of Prohibition and gang wars.
Oscar DePriest was born in Alabama in 1871 and came to Chicago in the late 1880s, where he served two terms on the Cook County Board starting in 1904. He was elected alderman of the 2nd ward in 1915, and to the First District seat in the U.S. Congress in 1928, where he added an antidiscrimination amendment to the 1933 bill that established the Civilian Conservation Corps. After he left Congress in 1934, he served as a Chicago alderman from 1943-47.