South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration by Marcia Chatelain (review)
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Reviewed by
Marcia Chatelain, South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015. 264pp. $89.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

Marcia Chatelain’s slim yet deeply researched history of girls and girlhood in the Great Black Migration to Chicago sheds new light on the roles this bellwether midwestern city has played in defining American race, gender, and class relations. Arguably, no city—and, by extension, no region of the country—was more important than Chicago and the Midwest in the construction [End Page 162] of racial politics and identity in the twentieth century. Certainly, as the black Chicago novelist Richard Wright (and many writers since) noted, no city has been more intensively studied by scholars of race, social relations, and politics than Chicago. And what has emerged from all that study has been a multilayered portrait of a place that was simultaneously, as I have called it in my own work, a city of destruction and a crucible of black empowerment. This is not just my conclusion. Such an image emerges, among other places, in the poems of Gwendolyn Brooks; the plays of Lorraine Hansberry; the paintings of Jacob Lawrence; the sociological studies of Horace Cayton, St. Clair Drake, E. Franklin Frazier, and Mary Patillo; the histories of migration by James Grossman and James Gregory; and even the memoir of President Barack Obama. Chatelain, then, places the reader on familiar ground when she argues that “Chicago was both a place of refuge from Jim Crow and a site of struggle against northern racism” (x–xi). Where she brings new insights is in her unwavering focus on the ways black girls conceived of and created their new communities in Chicago, even as adults of diverse backgrounds alternately sought to protect black girls, challenged them to “carry the weighty responsibilities of race progress,” or vilified them as a key cause of what was once called, “social disorganization” (4).

South Side Girls is not likely to be a leisurely read for the general public, but any serious student of the history of the Midwest, and especially African Americans in the Midwest, will certainly gain a great deal from this book. Chatelain, like other social historians working on groups whose history is not easily found in the archives, has creatively used a wide range of sources to recover black girls as agents, and as objects of both fear and care, in the making of the city. Readers will take from this work a deeper appreciation for the extensive and sophisticated reform networks black Chicagoans had created by the time the Great Migration began in earnest during World War I. The Old Settlers in place before the migration, and the black elite they built, forged a maternalist response to the problems black girls faced in the city. They went “beyond moral panics about girls” to make “a case for the state of black girlhood” (13). By the 1930s, an even more elaborate network of black activists working through social clubs, the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” boycott movement (which Chatelain somewhat problematically calls “leftist”), the New Deal’s controversial National Youth Administration, and black chapters of the Campfire Girls to find girls opportunities for leisure and work in hard times. Perhaps most interesting is how Chatelain shows that black girls found their own forms of escape from sexual violence [End Page 163] and other depredations in Chicago’s consumer markets, in the city’s Garveyite Moorish Science Temple, and in their own search for employment and education. Of course, there were significant limits to the opportunities of Chicago’s markets and social settings, and Chatelain productively mines mid-century sociological interviews with girlhood “delinquents” to get their perspectives on the continuing forms of violence and oppression they faced in the North.

Chatelain makes perhaps too much of the claim that “girls do not appear in significant ways in Migration scholarship” (5). While there has not been a great deal of work specifically focused on this topic, one could point to Annelise Orleck’s Storming Caesars Palace, Lisa Krissoff Boehm’s Making a Way Out of No Way, Darlene Clark Hine’s work on gender...


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