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Knock at the Door of Opportunity

Black Migration to Chicago, 1900-1919

Christopher Robert Reed

Publication Year: 2014

Disputing the so-called ghetto studies that depicted the early part of the twentieth century as the nadir of African American society, this thoughtful volume by Christopher Robert Reed investigates black life in turn-of-the-century Chicago, revealing a vibrant community that grew and developed on Chicago’s South Side in the early 1900s. Reed also explores the impact of the fifty thousand black southerners who streamed into the city during the Great Migration of 1916–1918, effectively doubling Chicago’s African American population. Those already residing in Chicago’s black neighborhoods had a lot in common with those who migrated, Reed demonstrates, and the two groups became unified, building a broad community base able to face discrimination and prejudice while contributing to Chicago’s growth and development.

Reed not only explains how Chicago’s African Americans openly competed with white people for jobs, housing and an independent political voice but also examines the structure of the society migrants entered and helped shame.  Other topics include South Side housing, black politics and protest, the role of institutionalized religion, the economic aspects of African American life,  the push for citizenship rights and political power for African Americans, and the impact of World War I and the race riot of 1919. The first comprehensive exploration of black life in turn-of-the-century Chicago beyond the mold of a ghetto perspective, this revealing work demonstrates how the melding of migrants and residents allowed for the building of a Black Metropolis in the 1920s.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Title Page, Frontispiece, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

There are times when an attempt to construct history intersects with personal experiences, or at least with those of one’s ancestors. This was the case when I began conceptualizing how to write the story of early black Chicago from 1900 through 1919. At the core of this period loomed the monumental “Great Migration” of 1916–18. My intense academic interest in this...

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pp. xiii-xvi

Four elements coalesced and made completion of this book a reality. Research efforts brought old and new evidence to light that resulted in a fresh perspective on the meaning of life’s activities of the residents of the South Side of Chicago, now designated Bronzeville. Next, I had the worthiest of topics in examining the dynamism of the flow of black migrants to...

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pp. 1-20

Encouraged by the century-old scholarly admonition of W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk, this study is concerned with the perceived constraints placed on human behavior in a so-called ghetto setting in early twentieth-century Chicago. Two generations ago, historian Allan H. Spear and others focused on African American areas of settlement in the North, describing...

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1. The Fabric of Society

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pp. 21-54

African Americans held a precarious position as a racial minority in a racially conscious society. An enormous physical mass of millions of persons, along with corresponding social and mental frameworks, made Chicago what it was and was perceived to be. As a seeming land of hope and opportunity for all newcomers, it partially fulfilled Arthur M. Schlesinger...

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2. Black Chicago and the Color Line

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pp. 55-71

By necessity, an examination of America’s social fabric must take into account the nation’s obsession with skin color. African Americans responded to extant circumstances by developing disparate sentiments to address the issue of race that existed behind an “internal color line” as well as the nation’s oppressive color obsession that buttressed racism and promoted...

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3. The Structure of Society

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pp. 72-92

The social components making up the black Chicago community progressed toward the appearance of a normative, pyramidal class structure as the new century progressed. The societal clusters from the late nineteenth century that social anthropologist St. Clair Drake described as being a small “refined” element, an enormous segment of working-class, church-going...

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4. Housing along an Elastic Streetscape

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pp. 93-111

At the dawn of the new century, Chicago’s African American population was scattered around all points of the expanding city, living not only on the Near South Side but also in the satellite communities of Englewood, Hyde Park, Lilydale, Morgan Park, Woodlawn, the West Side along the Lake Street Corridor, and the North Side along Division Street. Accordingly, the...

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5. Religion and Churches

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pp. 112-137

As religion performed its primary function of promoting spirituality that ultimately led to salvation, it also provided comfort of a philanthropic nature in the material world. The form of religion practiced in the Protestant denominations, including various Baptist persuasions and Methodism, proved itself a wellspring of vitality and assertion in a hostile secular environment. In...

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6. Labor and Business

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pp. 138-182

The motivation behind African American migration centered on obtaining work in order to sustain individual and family needs. As Richard R. Wright Jr. summed up the situation for the acclimating black migrant worker in the North: “His chief business in the world is to ‘keep the wolf from the door.’” African Americans embraced work aggressively in the same eager...

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7. Politics and Protest

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pp. 183-216

Politics afforded a channel both for change and for improvement in the quality of life sought by African Americans. Whether blacks were participating in mainstream governmental operations or party affairs or challenging ingrained racist practices in everyday societal activities, the ebb and flow of activities in Chicago’s political economy exerted a most profound...

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8. The Reuniting of a People: A Tale of Two Black Belts

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pp. 217-256

The opening phase of the massive three-year migration of half a million African Americans from the South to the North gained official recognition through federal records and newspaper accounts by 1916. For Chicago in particular and in historical perspective, the migratory process raises the question of how well or how poorly the city’s extant population of 58,056...

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9. Employment and Political Contention

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pp. 257-280

During these labor-starved war days, migrants journeyed to Chicago to work, and work they did. The impact of their arrival was felt immediately in the city’s vaunted meatpacking plants: “From 1917 to 1921, Negro workmen found their status enhanced because . . . they were the men [and women] without whom the packers could not continue production. . . . Nor could organized...

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10. Martial Ardor, the Great War, and the Race Riot of 1919

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pp. 281-303

On the cusp of the twentieth century, victory over a foreign enemy abroad in the recently fought Spanish-American War brought the promise of reducing the negative effects of American racism at home. But the Race Riot of 1919, in the aftermath of World War I, showed that hope of achieving “Double V’s”—victories over injustice at home and abroad—for this generation...

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pp. 304-310

A decade removed in the future, the major events and effectiveness of certain processes of the period 1900–1919, such as the melding of the resident and newcomer populations and the proletarianization of the African American labor force, seemed to come into focus. The Black Belt became the Black Metropolis as African American control over the political economy...


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pp. 311-364


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pp. 365-380


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pp. 381-390

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About the Author, Back Cover

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Christopher Robert Reed is a professor emeritus of history at Roosevelt University, in Chicago. He previously was awarded a distinguished chair in the history department and served as the Seymour Logan Professor of History and North American Studies between 1998 and 2001. Between 1989 and 1995 and again in 1997–2000 he served as the director of the St. Clair Drake...

E-ISBN-13: 9780809333349
E-ISBN-10: 0809333341
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809333332
Print-ISBN-10: 0809333333

Page Count: 456
Illustrations: 34
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Illinois -- Chicago -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Migrations -- History -- 20th century.
  • Migration, Internal -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Chicago (Ill.) -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century.
  • Chicago (Ill.) -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
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