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History of African Americans in Chicago

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History of African Americans in Chicago

DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago's Washington Park

The history of African Americans in Chicago dates back to Jean Baptiste Point du Sable’s trading activities in the 1780s. Du Sable is the city's founder.[1] Fugitive slaves and freedmen established the city’s first black community in the 1840s. By the late 19th century, the first black person had been elected to office.

The South Side of Chicago for decades before the Civil Rights Movement, as well as on the West Side of Chicago. Residing in segregated communities, almost regardless of income, the Black residents of Chicago aimed to create communities where they could survive, sustain themselves, and have the ability to determine for themselves their own course in Chicago history.


  • Segregation 1
  • The Great Migration 2
  • Housing 3
  • Culture 4
  • Business 5
  • Achievements 6
  • See also 7
  • Footnotes 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


Chicago's Black Belt, April 1941.

Especially after the Civil War, Illinois had some of the most progressive anti-discrimination legislation in the nation.[2] School segregation was first outlawed in 1874, and segregation in public accommodations was first outlawed in 1885.[2]

In the 1920s, however, homeowner's discriminatory covenant practices were killed in state courts.[2] The increasingly large black population in Chicago (40,000 in 1910, and 278,000 in 1940[1]) faced some of the same discrimination in Chicago as they had in the South. It was hard for many blacks to find jobs and find decent places to live because of the competition for housing among different groups of people at a time when the city was expanding in population so dramatically. At the same time that blacks moved from the South in the Great Migration, Chicago was still receiving thousands of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. The groups competed with each other for working-class wages.

Though other techniques to maintain housing segregation had been used, by 1927 the political leaders of Chicago began to adopt racially restrictive covenants.[2] The Chicago Real Estate Board promoted a racially restrictive covenant to YMCAs, churches, women's clubs, PTAs, Kiwanis clubs, chambers of commerce and property owners' associations.[2] At one point, as much as 80% of the city's area was included under restrictive covenants.[2]

The Supreme Court of the United States in Shelley v. Kraemer ruled in 1948 that racially restrictive covenants were unconstitutional, but this did not quickly solve blacks' problems with finding adequate housing.[2] Homeowners' associations discouraged members from selling to black families, thus maintaining residential segregation.[2] European immigrants and their descendants competed with African Americans for limited affordable housing, and those who didn't get the house lived on the streets.

In a succession common to most cities, many middle and upper-class whites were the first to move out of the city to new housing, aided by new commuter rail lines and the construction of new highway systems. Later arrivals, ethnic whites and African-American families occupied the older housing behind them. The white residents who had been in the city longest were the ones most likely to move to the newer, most expensive housing, as they could afford it. After WWII, the early white residents (many Irish immigrants and their descendants) on the South Side began to move away under pressure of new migrants and with newly expanding housing opportunities. African Americans continued to move into the area, which had become the black capital of the country. The South Side became predominantly black. The Black Belt was formed.

The Great Migration

The black population in Chicago significantly increased in the early to mid-1900s, due to the Great Migration out of the South. While African Americans made up less than two percent of the city's population in 1910, by 1960 the city was nearly 25 percent black.

At the turn of the century, southern states succeeded in passing new constitutions and laws that disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites. Deprived of the right to vote, they could not sit on juries or run for office. They were subject to discriminatory laws passed by white legislators, including racial segregation of public facilities. Segregated education for black children and other services were consistently underfunded in a poor, agricultural economy. As white-dominated legislatures passed Jim Crow laws to re-establish white supremacy and create more restrictions in public life, violence against blacks increased, with lynchings used as extrajudicial enforcement. In addition, the boll weevil infestation ruined much of the cotton industry in the early 20th century. Voting with their feet, blacks started migrating out of the South to the North, where they could live more freely, get their children educated, and get new jobs.

Industry buildup for World War I pulled thousands of workers to the North, as did the rapid expansion of railroads, and the meatpacking and steel industries. Between 1915 and 1960, hundreds of thousands of black southerners migrated to Chicago to escape violence and segregation, and to seek economic freedom. They went from being a mostly rural population to one that was mostly urban. “The migration of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north became a mass movement.”.[3] The Great Migration radically transformed Chicago, both politically and culturally.[4]

From 1910-1940, most African Americans who migrated North were from rural areas. They had been chiefly sharecroppers and laborers, although some were landowners pushed out by the boll weevil disaster. After years of underfunding of public education for blacks in the South, they tended to be poorly educated, with relatively low skills to apply to urban jobs. Like the European rural immigrants, they had to rapidly adapt to a different urban culture. Many took advantage of better schooling in Chicago and their children learned quickly. After 1940, when the second larger wave of migration started, black migrants tended to be already urbanized, from southern cities and towns. They were the most ambitious, better educated with more urban skills to apply in their new homes.

The masses of new migrants arriving in the cities captured public attention. At one point in the 1940s, 3,000 African Americans were arriving every week in Chicago—stepping off the trains from the South and making their ways to neighborhoods they had learned about from friends and the Chicago Defender.[5] The Great Migration was charted and evaluated. Urban white northerners started to get worried, as their neighborhoods rapidly changed. At the same time, recent and older ethnic immigrants competed for jobs and housing with the new arrivals, especially on the South Side, where the steel and meatpacking industries had the most numerous working-class jobs.

Ethnic Irish were heavily implicated in the gang violence and the rioting that erupted in 1919. They had been the most established ethnic group and defended their power and territory in the South Side against newcomers: both other ethnic whites and southern blacks. “Chicago was a focal point of the great migration and the racial violence that came in its wake.”[3] With Chicago's industries steadily expanding, opportunities opened up for new migrants, including Southerners, to find work. The railroad and meatpacking industries recruited black workers. Chicago’s African-American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, made the city well known to southerners. It sent bundles of papers south on the Illinois Central trains, and African-American Pullman Porters would drop them off in Black towns. “Chicago was the most accessible northern city for African Americans in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas.”[3] They took the trains north. “Then between 1916 and 1919, 50,000 blacks came to crowd into the burgeoning black belt, to make new demands upon the institutional structure of the South Side.”[3]


Between 1900 and 1910, the African-American population rose rapidly in Chicago. White hostility and population growth combined to create the ghetto on the South Side. Nearby were areas dominated by ethnic Irish, who were especially territorial in defending against incursions into their areas by any other groups.[1] Most of this large population was composed of migrants.[1] In 1910 more than 75 percent of blacks lived in predominantly black sections of the city.[1] The eight or nine neighborhoods that had been set as areas of black settlement in 1900 remained the core of the Chicago African-American community. The Black Belt slowly expanded as African Americans, despite facing violence and restrictive covenants, pushed forward into new neighborhoods.[6] As the population grew, African Americans became more confined to a delineated area, instead of spreading throughout the city. When blacks moved into mixed neighborhoods, ethnic white hostility grew. After fighting over the area, often whites left the area to be dominated by blacks. This is one of the reasons the black belt region started.

The Black Belt of Chicago was the chain of neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago where three-quarters of the city's African American population lived by the mid-20th century.[1] The Black Belt was an area of aging, dilapidated housing that stretched 30 blocks along State Street on the South Side. It was rarely more than seven blocks wide.[1] The South Side black belt expanded in only two directions in the 20th century - south and east. The South Side's "black belt" also contained zones related to economic status. The poorest blacks lived in the northernmost, oldest section of the black belt, while the elite resided in the southernmost section.[7] In the mid-20th century, blacks began slowly moving up to better positions in the work force.[1] During this time, Chicago was the capital of Black America. Many African Americans who moved to the Black Belt area of Chicago were from the Black Belt in the Southeastern region of the United States. Discrimination played a big role in the lives of blacks. They often struggled to find decent housing.[3]

Immigration to Chicago was another pressure of overcrowding, as primarily lower-class newcomers from rural Europe also sought cheap housing and working class jobs. More and more people tried to fit into converted "kitchenette" and basement apartments. Living conditions in the Black Belt resembled conditions in the West Side ghetto or in the stockyards district.[3] Although there were decent homes in the Negro sections, the core of the Black Belt was a slum. A 1934 census estimated that black households contained 6.8 people on average, whereas white households contained 4.7.[8] Many blacks lived in apartments that lacked plumbing, with only one bathroom for each floor.[9] With the buildings so overcrowded, building inspections and garbage collection were below the minimum mandatory requirements for healthy sanitation. This unhealthiness increased the threat of disease. From 1940-1960, the infant death rate in the Black Belt was 16% higher than the rest of the city.[9]

Crime in African-American neighborhoods was a low priority to the police. Associated with problems of poverty and southern culture, rates of violence and homicide were high. Some women resorted to prostitution to survive. Both low life and middle class strivers were concentrated in a small area.[1]

In 1946, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) tried to ease the pressure in the overcrowded ghettos and proposed to put public housing sites in less congested areas in the city. The white residents did not take to this very well, so city politicians forced the CHA to keep the status quo and develop high rise projects in the Black Belt and on the West Side. Some of these became notorious failures. As industrial restructuring in the 1950s and later led to massive job losses, residents changed from working-class families to poor families on welfare.[10]


Between 1916 and 1920, almost 50,000 Black Southerners moved to Chicago,[3] which profoundly shaped the city's development. Growth increased even more rapidly after 1940. In particular, the new citizens caused the growth of local churches, businesses and community organizations. A new musical culture arose, fed by all the traditions along the Mississippi River. The population continued to increase with new migrants, with the most arriving after 1940.

The black arts community in Chicago was especially vibrant. The 1920s were the height of the Jazz Age, but music continued as the heart of the community for decades. Nationally renowned musicians rose within the Chicago world. Along the Stroll, a bright-light district on State Street, jazz greats like Louis Armstrong headlined at nightspots including the Delux Café.

Black Chicagoans' literary creation from 1925 to 1950 was also prolific, and the city's Black Renaissance rivaled that of the Harlem Renaissance. Prominent writers included Richard Wright, Willard Motley, William Attaway, Frank Marshall Davis, St. Clair Drake, Horace R. Cayton, Jr., and Margaret Walker. Chicago was home to writer and poet, Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks is famous for her portrayals of Black working-class life in crowded tenements of Bronzeville. These writers expressed the changes and conflicts blacks found in urban life and the struggles of creating new worlds. In Chicago, black writers turned away from the folk traditions embraced by Harlem Renaissance writers, instead adopting a grittier style of "literary naturalism" to depict life in the urban ghetto. The classic Black Metropolis, written by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Jr., exemplified the style of the Chicago writers. Today it remains the most detailed portrayal of Black Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s.

From 2008 to the present, the West Side Historical Society under the guidance of Rickie P. Brown Sr. and Ronald Smith began to document the rich history of the West Side of Chicago. Their research provided proof of the Austin community having the largest population of Blacks in the city of Chicago. This proved that the largest population of blacks are on its west side, when factoring in the Lawndale and Garfield Park communities as well. Their efforts to build a museum on the west side and continuing to bring awareness to Juneteenth as a national holiday was rewarded with a proclamation in 2011 by Governor Pat Quinn.[11]


Chicago’s black population developed a class structure, composed of a large number of domestic workers and other manual laborers, along with a small, but growing, contingent of middle-and-upper-class business and professional elites. In 1929, black Chicagoans gained access to city jobs, and expanded their professional class. Fighting job discrimination was a constant battle for African Americans in Chicago, as foremen in various companies restricted the advancement of black workers, which often kept them from earning higher wages.[7] Then in the mid-20th century, blacks began slowly moving up to better positions in the work force.[1]

The migration expanded the market for African American business. "The most notable breakthrough in black business came in the insurance field."[3] There were four major insurance companies founded in Chicago. Then, in the early 20th century, service establishments took over. The African-American market on State Street during this time consisted of barber shops, restaurants, pool rooms, saloons, and beauty salons. African Americans used these trades to build their own communities. These shops gave the blacks a chance to establish their families, earn money, and become an active part of the community.


In the early 20th century many prominent African Americans were Chicago residents, including Republican and later Democratic congressman William L. Dawson (America’s most powerful black politician[1]) and boxing champion Joe Louis. America's most widely read black newspaper,[1] the Chicago Defender, was published there and circulated in the South as well.

After long efforts, in the late 1930s, workers organized across racial lines to form the

  • African-American History Tour for the City of Chicago
  • a National Park Service Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson planChicago's Black Metropolis: Understanding History Through a Historic Place,

External links

  • Best, Wallace. "Black Belt," in Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2007; pg. 140.
  • Garb, Margaret. Freedom's Ballot: African American Political Struggles in Chicago from Abolition to the Great Migration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.
  • Green, Adam. Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940-1955. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Helgeson, Jeffrey. Crucibles of Black Empowerment: Chicago's Neighborhood Politics from the New Deal to Harold Washington. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.
  • Hirsch, Arnold Richard. "Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960". Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Manning, Christopher. "African Americans," in Encyclopedia of Chicago. 2007; pg. 27.

Further reading

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Christopher Manning, "African Americans", Encyclopedia of Chicago,
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h "Jim Crow History", State of Illinois,
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Allen H. Spear, Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto (1890-1920)
  4. ^ Chicago : History
  5. ^ Nicholas Lemann, The Great Migration
  6. ^ Will Cooley, “Moving On Out: Black Pioneering in Chicago, 1915-1950,” Journal of Urban History 36:4 (July 2010), 485-506.
  7. ^ a b "Chicago: Destination for the Great Migration", The African-American Mosaic, Library of Congress,
  8. ^ Arnold Richard Hirsch, "Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960", University of Chicago, 1998,,M1.
  9. ^ a b Arnold Richard Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998
  10. ^ Manning.
  11. ^


See also

Chicago is home to three of six African-American US Senators who have served after Reconstruction. They are Carol Moseley Braun (1993-1999), current President Barack Obama (2005-2008), and Roland Burris (2009-2010), all Democrats.

The first blacks had been elected to office in Chicago in the late 19th century, decades before the Great Migrations. [1]

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