The Heart of Black America
Summit Reporting Help Desk
Need help with coverage? Contact site director Jonathan Eyler-Werve at firstname.lastname@example.org or call
1-312-369-6400 for assistance.
Timuel Black, Professor Emeritus at City Colleges of Chicago. He’s more than a retired academic; at 93 he’s the grandson of slaves, a noted historian and a storied civil rights activist who has advised A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Harold Washington and Barack Obama. His two-volume oral history, “Bridges of Memory,” chronicles Chicago’s black history. 773-373-3972. email@example.com
Michelle Boyd, associate director – programs, Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago. She studies African-American politics and African-American racial identity; in “Jim Crow Nostalgia: Reconstructing Race in Bronzeville,” she looks at community efforts to revitalize the South Side, which posited a positive history of the area, even though it harkened back to the period of segregation. 312-996-9145. firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Dawson, John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. One of the nation’s leading scholars on race and politics; Dawson’s great uncle was William Dawson, the legendary Chicago congressman (served 1943-1970) with a formidable South Side base. Contact Dawson via Willliam Harms, 773-702-8932. email@example.com
Robert Starks, Center for Inner City Studies, Northeast Illinois University. From Bronzeville-based CICS, Starks writes and teaches about black Chicago politics. 773-268-7500 ext. 149. firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Carol Adams, Chief Executive Officer, DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 East 56th Place. With a long and wide-ranging background of civic involvement, Dr. Adams became CEO of DuSable in 2010 and has launched an ambitious capital campaign. 773-947-0600
Andrea L. Zopp heads the Chicago Urban League, founded 95 years ago and focused on a range of economic development issues. 773-285-5800. Roderick Hawkins, VP of external affairs. 773-451-3536. firstname.lastname@example.org
Hermene Hartman, publisher of N’Digo, a “magapaper” that caters to Chicago’s black middle class. David Smallwood, editor, N’Digo. 312-822-0202. email@example.com
Salim Muwakkil, former senior editor at In These Times magazines. Hosts a show on WVON, Chicago’s black talk radio station. He has written extensively about class division within black Chicago. firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura Washington, columnist for Chicago Sun-Times. Can discuss the intersection of race and class in Chicago. Author of Obama’s Chicago. 773-883-1098. Lauraswashington@aol.com
The Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature. The largest archive of African-American history and literature in the Midwest, named after the first black librarian in the Chicago Public Library system, is a treasure trove for those looking to understand black Chicago. It’s housed in the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, 9525 S. Halsted. 312-745-2080.
The Bronzeville Visitor Information Center, located in the historic Supreme Life Building at 411 E. 35th Street, works to develop an African-American heritage tourism district and improve the socioeconomic conditions of the neighborhood without pushing out longtime residents. Along King Drive, the major thoroughfare, are lovely historic greystones. You can schedule a tour. 773-819-5170. email@example.com
Chatham Business Association. Melinda Kelly, executive director. Located between 79th and 95th Streets, Chatham has one of the most solidly middle-class African-American populations in the city and takes pride in its black-owned businesses. 773-994-5006. firstname.lastname@example.org
Listen in: Several community organizations can shed light on black Chicago. In Bronzeville these include the Grand Boulevard Federation, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Center for New Horizons, and Lugenia Burns Hope Center. Or you can head further south to Captain Hard Times restaurant, 436 E. 79th, enjoy good food and listen in.
By Natalie Y. Moore
It’s no accident that the first black president of the United States came from the South Side of Chicago. A young Barack Obama came to the Windy City, in part inspired by the 1983 win of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington. Obama knew this was the perfect place to pursue political aspirations. (Read more: Obama’s Chicago)
While Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country, its African-American community has a long political and economic legacy. Oscar DePriest, the first black congressman after Reconstruction, hailed from the South Side. Media magnate John H. Johnson created Ebony and Jet magazines here. Journalist Ida B. Wells and gospel great Mahalia Jackson made their homes in Chicago. Carol Moseley Braun was the nation’s first black woman senator.
Harlem may be lauded as the symbolic capital of black America, but Chicago is the heart. Stereotypes do continue to vex South Siders, whose economically-diverse neighborhoods are lumped together as poor and crime-ridden, but the story of black Chicago is rich and varied.
Chicago’s black history goes back to founder Jean Baptist Point DuSable, the Haitian fur trader who set up camp at the southern tip of Lake Michigan around 1779, becoming Chicago’s “founding father.”
The Great Migration and the fight for civil rights
Then there’s the Great Migration, which lasted from 1916 to 1970, when southern blacks moved north seeking a better life. The first wave of the Great Migration occurred during World War I, when factory jobs were opened up to blacks after immigration was shut off. The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper with national influence, encouraged southern blacks to come to the “promised land,” away from the South’s Jim Crow laws.
Kept out of white neighborhoods – until 1948 by racially restrictive real estate covenants, and for decades after that by the informal practices of realtors — blacks lived in a strip of the South Side known as the Black Belt. (In the ’50s and ’60s the West Side became a new port of entry.) The new residents eased into an urban way of life and built a black middle class thriving with businesses, music, literature and politics. Banks, cosmetic companies, funeral homes and insurance companies flourished.
But the “promised land” was also plagued with persistent racism, job discrimination, inferior schools, and housing segregation which created overcrowded slums. In the early 1960s a local civil rights movement held massive protests against school segregation. In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. moved to Chicago and launched a campaign for open housing. He got a nasty taste of northern racism, leading marches in all-white neighborhoods that met viciously violent responses. In Marquette Park on the Southwest Side, King was hit in the head with a rock.
King’s campaign led to an agreement with Mayor Richard J. Daley, who promised that the city would enforce fair housing laws. It never happened. But King left behind a young lieutenant named Rev. Jesse Jackson, who founded Operation Breadbasket on the South Side – later Operation PUSH and, when Jackson launched a history-making campaign for president, the Rainbow Coalition. (Jackson remains active in local affairs, most recently denouncing “apartheid” in Chicago schools.)
In 1983, Harold Washington became Chicago’s first black mayor, building an independent coalition including white independents and Latinos to challenge the Democratic machine. His win was a major sign of progress for black Chicago — but white Machine aldermen obstructed him at every turn, and racism colored politics throughout his term.
After his death in 1987, the city wrangled over ethnic political power. Ultimately, Richard M. Daley, the political scion, was elected mayor in 1989 and served for two decades. Under Daley, the Chicago Housing Authority implemented its controversial Plan for Transformation, tearing down notorious high-rise public housing developments in order to replace them with mixed-income developments. In the process many low-income families were lost in the shuffle or packed off to live in poor, segregated neighborhoods. The plan itself lost steam when the housing market collapsed; it’s now undergoing “recalibration.”
Today Chicago boasts miles and miles of black middle-class neighborhoods. Major black businesses and leaders – many of them friends and supporters of Obama – still thrive in the city. They include Loop Capital founder James Reynolds and Johnson Publishing Company CEO Desiree Rogers.
But the stability of black Chicago is fragile. Since predatory mortgage lenders targeted communities of color – black homebuyers were far more likely to be steered into bad deals than whites with similar incomes and credit ratings – the foreclosure crisis has hit black middle and working class communities particularly hard.
Local budget crises are taking a toll too: public sector employment has been central to the development of the black middle class, and recent city layoffs have disproporationately impacted black workers and professionals. Thousands of black teachers have lost their positions with Chicago Public Schools in the past decade.
The 2010 census revealed that Chicago lost nearly 200,000 African American residents in the previous decade. Many of those who can are fleeing instability and insecurity here. They’ve moved to the suburbs or taken part in what seems to be a national reverse migration back south.
But Black Chicago has faced hard times before and responded with resilience and creativity. Civic leaders and community organizations continue to call attention to issues and marshall resources, and new generations of political leadership continue to emerge. The black community’s major role in the city – and Black Chicago’s major role in the nation – are well established, and many more chapters of history remain to be written.