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1. The Temple of Music Here on three streets and within the space of twenty-one blocks, is gathered the whole racial life of one people. Here are their homes and their churches, their hovels and their hospitals, their dives and their clubs. Here their virtues walk the day and their vices crouch in the night. —Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Pilgrim, July 1903 Paul Laurence Dunbar, like many other Americans, had gotten his first glimpse of Chicago in 1893 when he attended the World Columbian Exposition . An obscure young poet fresh out of high school, Dunbar brought with him from Dayton, Ohio, copies of his first book of poems, Oak and Ivy. He was befriended by Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, and read some of his works on August 25, reluctantly set aside by organizers as Colored American Day at the fair. But even the support of the most respected and distinguished black man and woman in the nation availed his prospects little. At the end of the fair he confessed to Ida Wells: “I guess there is nothing for me to do, Miss Wells, but to go back to Dayton and be an elevator boy again.”1 It was only because a copy of Oak and Ivy fell into the hands of the influential literary critic William Dean Howells that Dunbar soon found himself the subject of a flattering review in the Atlantic Monthly anointing him the poet laureate of his race. The Black Belt: Class, Status, Respectability A decade later, Dunbar returned to Chicago on a brief visit. In the interim the city’s black population had more than doubled from the 14,000 reported in the 1890 census to more than 35,000. The racial problems created by this influx moved Dunbar to compose an essay for a minor journal called The Pilgrim. His essay was promptly reprinted by the Inter Ocean, one of the city’s daily papers most sympathetic to Chicago’s small black population. Dunbar set his main points in firm and unaccommodating language. Like other newly The Temple of Music 19 arriving ethnic groups, blacks tended to cluster together in certain neighborhoods . The most important was the Black Belt. It stretched along Wentworth, State, and Wabash between Eighteenth and Thirty-ninth Streets (Figure 1). Unlike other ethnic neighborhoods, however, there was no way out of the Black Belt. For the African American, wrote Dunbar, his lodges, his clubs, his churches, his saloons—whatever he is, whatever he has, whatever he does, is invariably stamped “colored.” If he rise to any prominent position, it makes little or no difference, he is “colored.” The Swede, the German , the French, the Italian have equal chances for advancement, for they are all white. When they have passed a certain point in the industrial economy, when they have reached a certain state of intellectual development, nobody cares from what nationality they sprang. They live wherever they please and go about as their will directs.2 Two years later a well-to-do black social worker, Fannie Barrier Williams, echoed Dunbar’s description in a special issue of a New York review of philanthropic activity devoted to “The Negro in the Cities of the North”: The real problem of the social life of the colored people in Chicago, as in all northern cities, lies in the fact of their segregation. While they do not occupy all the worst streets and live in all the unsanitary houses in Chicago, what is known as the “Black Belt” is altogether forbidding and demoralizing. The huddling together of the good and the bad, compelling the decent element of the colored people to witness the brazen display of vice of all kinds in front of their homes and in the faces of their children, are trying conditions under which to remain socially clean and respectable.3 Chicago’s black population around 1900 could not be called segregated in the modern sense of the term. Although about half lived in the city’s three South Side wards, blacks were in fact better distributed around the city than some white ethnic minorities. Even in the Black Belt proper, less than a dozen blocks were all-black. Most of these lay along Dearborn Street and its adjacent alleys. Pinched between the west side of State Street and the Illinois Central tracks, this overcrowded strip included some of the worst housing conditions and some of the seediest dives in the entire city. East of State Street, on...


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