The Heart of Black America

Harold Washington

Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, on 63rd Street. (Image: Marc PoKempner © )

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)

The authorNatalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ’s South Side bureau. Natalie’s work has been published in Essence, Black Enterprise, the Chicago Reporter, Bitch, In These Times, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune.

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.”

A map of racial distribution: Each red dot is 25 white people, blue is blacks, orange is Hispanic/non-white, green is Asian, and yellow is other. Based on 2010 census data. Original map by Bill Rankin, this version by Eric Fischer (CC by/sa)

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.

‘The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.’ Ida B. Wells was a powerful voice for civil rights, making widely read arguments that deftly blended race, class and gender analysis. (Image: Ida B Wells Institute)

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.)

Rev. Jackson remains active in politics. Shown speaking in Detroit, 2009. (Image: BMOGREENA CC by)

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.”

Chicago today

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.

Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman to serve in the US Senate, speaks to students, 2009. (Image: Jeremy Wilburn CC by/sa/nc)

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.

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