- The Independence, Diversity, and Vitality of Early Black Chicago
These recent books by Margaret Garb and Christopher R. Reed explicitly treat the history of Black Chicago’s formative years leading up to and including the first Great Migration years of World War I. In both books, which overlap in the treatment of the twentieth-century’s first two decades, we get rich vignettes of some of Chicago’s earliest African American political elites and prolific community leaders, sites, and institutions. Some of these are already well known, while others less so. We learn of the influential John Jones, who became the city’s first elected black official in the wake of the Great Fire of 1871, and of the city’s first black alderman, Oscar DePriest, elected in 1915. DePriest’s political ascendance demonstrated Black Chicago’s critical support for the famously corrupt yet relatively beneficent administration of Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson and the GOP machine that dominated civic politics in those years. We also learn about important clubwomen, activists, and reformers such as Fannie B. Williams, Ida B. Wells, and the Reverends Reverdy C. Ransom and Archibald J. Carey with the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. The latter two competed to influence congregations of black Southerners newly moved to the city within the local community. We learn especially about how long-time black Chicago residents worked in coalition with newcomers (mainly recent Southern migrants) to the City of Big Shoulders to engage with and impact Chicago’s infamously corrupt machine-driven civic politics.
As these two studies show, black Chicagoans became vital constituents and political activists for both local Democratic and Republican politicians and party organizations (not just the party of Lincoln affiliates). Such engagements set the stage for important models of independent black civic politics sustained [End Page 665] elsewhere in urban America in later decades. Moreover, each book offers compelling analysis of Black Chicago’s earliest labor, commercial, cultural, and religious institutions and organizations as the city’s African American population grew exponentially through the first two decades of the twentieth century.
Black Chicago’s history through the middle of the last century is, of course, now well examined. From the signal contributions of pioneering urban sociologists like Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake (Black Metropolis, 1945), to the prolific and contemporary writings of novelist Richard Wright, to the manifold studies of the University of Chicago’s School of Sociology, Chicago—for better or worse—has long acted as a critical “laboratory” and/or site for the study of black community formation and strivings. There is now a vast scholarly literature on Chicago through the mid-twentieth century, much of it extended well beyond the formative insights of these authors. Indeed, recent scholarship on Black Chicago has taken exciting new directions from examinations of migrant consumer and religious cultures to local studies of housing; neighborhood politics; labor, educational, and cultural activism; and related issues. Many of these newer studies uncover complex histories of community formation mainly rooted in the years from World War I through World War II, when the Great Migrations of African American Southerners occurred, thus shaping many contemporary and scholarly understandings of urban America.1
However, fewer scholars have specifically examined the years prior to these watershed moments of mass migration to the urban North before World War I. Read together, both Garb and Reed show how African Americans from Chicago, many of them long-time residents (descendants of the “old settlers”—or the first resident black families whose roots went back to the antebellum period in the city) worked to form diverse, vital, independent, and influential cultural and political networks, especially on the city’s South Side. These patterns of community engagement occurred many years before the city’s African...