Students of Chicago history will be fully familiar with the scholarship of Christopher Robert Reed, the foremost chronicler of the Windy City’s black community. In a series of books and journal articles, he has described the growth and development of African American institutions during roughly the city’s first hundred years (1833–1933) with just one notable omission—the first two decades of the twentieth century. He has now closed that gap with the publication of Knock at the Door of Opportunity: Black Migration to Chicago, 1900–1919, an exhaustive examination of black Chicago immediately preceding and during the years of the so-called Great Migration. His discussion seemingly covers familiar ground, discussing a topic already explored in detail by such books as Allan H. Spear’s Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto, 1890–1920, James R. Grossman’s Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration, and Rayford W. Logan’s The Negro in American Life and Thought, among others. Reed’s volume offers an interpretation starkly at odds in many ways with the prevailing wisdom, however, and his understanding of how African Americans accommodated to life in Chicago during a time of rapid urban change challenges us to reconsider assumptions and beliefs about black communities in northern cities during the Jim Crow era.
Reed devotes the first seven of the book’s ten chapters to the years 1900–15, during which residents laid a firm foundation for a vital black community on Chicago’s South Side, and the remaining three chapters to the years 1916–19 when World War I triggered a movement of approximately fifty thousand black southerners to the city. Taking aim at the traditional view of black settlement in Chicago during the early years of the twentieth century, Reed challenges the popular motif of “ghetto formation” and questions the continuing scholarly emphasis on the dysfunctional aspects of day-to-day [End Page 111] life in the rigidly segregated community. In his reading of the evidence, blacks in Chicago took advantage of plentiful opportunities, overcame obstacles, and constructed a resilient community that sustained its members through the operation of vital religious and secular institutions. Refusing to succumb to victimization, they exhibited a robust entrepreneurialism and achieved economic success. Poverty existed, but able strivers worked hard and became members of a comfortable middle class. The creation of an underground economy aided many people in the struggle to get ahead. The quality of the housing stock varied, but by no means could the entirety of the Black Belt be termed a slum. In short, so many African Americans relocated to the city widely known throughout the South as the “promised land” because chances for upward social mobility existed and many ambitious migrants took advantage of the real opportunity to create new lives in a fluid society.
While retelling the well-known narrative of the Great Migration, Reed again offers an interpretation that is somewhat at odds with the customary view. Without doubt, he acknowledges, the doubling of Chicago’s African American population in such a remarkably short period of time yielded important consequences–but not by generating conflict between longtime residents and new arrivals, as previously posited. The two groups shared much in common, the author asserts, resulting in a quick and relatively painless transition for newcomers and established families alike. Rather than living in a bifurcated community riven by cultural, economic, and political differences, the city’s African Americans became members of a collective that found strength in unity, developed a hardy racial consciousness, transcended discrimination in its many forms, and prepared the South Side for the Black Metropolis that arose in the 1920s. At the same time, Reed notes, the maturation of the African American community aided in the city’s development. The watershed Chicago Race Riot of 1919 disrupted a period of relative equanimity and showed African Americans that the struggle for attainment of the American Dream would be prolonged and arduous.
Christopher Robert Reed’s Knock at the Door of Opportunity...