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  • I've Got to Make My Livin': Black Women's Sex Work in Turn-Of-The-Century Chicago
  • Arica L. Coleman
I've Got to Make My Livin': Black Women's Sex Work in Turn-Of-The-Century Chicago. By Cynthia M. Blair (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2010) 322 pp. $40.00

Blair's intriguing monograph regarding black women's struggle for economic survival in late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century Chicago, incorporates a number of disciplines, including American, urban, and labor history, economics, geography, and sociology, as well as race, ethnic, gender, and sexuality studies. Such source materials as newspapers; church, court and police records; papers of reform organizations; and accounts of jazz performers of the early twentieth-century help to lay bare the underworld of Chicago's sex industry, which for many black women provided the only means to make a living in Chicago's ultraracialized economic system.

The influx of southern and Midwestern black migrants to Chicago, which began in earnest in 1880, was the source of much anxiety among its white inhabitants. By 1900, the number of blacks living in Chicago had doubled from approximately 14,000 to 30,000. Blacks abandoned their rural roots and poured into Chicago's urban centers with the hope of finding better economic opportunities. Yet, opportunities proved limited as blacks came face to face with a racialized economic system that shut them out of the labor force—particularly devastating for black women. They found it difficult to obtain domestic work, an industry typically opened to them but now closed, due to white Chicagoans' preference for European immigrant women to fill such positions. As a result, black women, largely between the ages of nineteen and twenty-seven, turned to the sex industry as a temporary means of financial survival.

Blair captures the relationship between sex work and black women's economic survival in a response given by an unnamed black woman to a white journalist, who asked, "Well aunty . . . What shall we do with you women, eh?" The woman replied, "Well, boss, we must live anyhow" (19). "Living anyhow" required black women to eke out a living in brothels, saloons, and panel houses (the latter often incorporated street work) in an area on the South Side of Chicago known as the Levee; in fact, two red light districts carried this name. The first Levee gained popularity in 1874. By 1904, however, the rise of industry in the region and the desire to relocate the red-light district further away from Chicago's business district forced the Levee further south. The second Levee emerged in quick succession to the first and enjoyed a greater popularity. By 1912, however, citizens pressured local politicians to rid the city of the Levee district once and for all.

Despite black women's efforts to use the sex industry as a means to gain financial independence, the interlocking politics of race, class, and gender proved once again that, even in the sex industry, "the living," to use the words of DorothyWest, was not easy. Although black female sex workers earned more wages in the sex industry than their counterparts [End Page 480] in the domestics industry, they were still paid less for their services than white female sex workers. As madams of their own brothels, black female sex entrepreneurs such as Mollie Vinefield, Maggie Douglass, Hattie Johnson, and Vina Fields gained a measure of financial independence, but, unable to afford to buy the protection of the syndicate, black madams found their businesses constantly raided by police. Furthermore, due to the city's anti-miscegenation sentiments, law enforcement disproportionately targeted brothels catering to a mixed-race clientele, thereby driving blacks out of the Levee several years before it officially closed. To the chagrin of many black citizens desiring to distance themselves from white stereotypes of the black sexual deviant, however, the Levee's demise created a sex industry black belt within the black community that continued as a viable means of income for black female sex workers throughout the 1920s.

Blair skillfully and bravely tackles a subject that many scholars shied away from for fear of reinforcing the myth of the black Jezebel, a stereotype...


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pp. 480-481
Launched on MUSE
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