"The Mecca Was Chicago": a special Guest Blog by Professor Davarian L. Baldwin
This blog has been written by guest blogger Davarian L. Baldwin, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut. Davarian is on the Editorial Board for the resource African American Communities available now.
When most African American migrants connected freedom with the North, â€śthe mecca was Chicago.â€ť In 1910, Chicagoâ€™s 40,000 black residents were scattered throughout a city of two million. But by the 1960s, African Americans made up one third of the cityâ€™s three million and were largely segregated within ghettos on the South and West sides of town.
Despite racial restriction, Chicagoâ€™s African American community also became known as the capitol of black America. It is in the crucible of segregation and struggle that African Americans in Chicago forged a community that encapsulated many of the achievements and adversities that shaped urban life throughout the twentieth century.
Black Chicagoans powered the Great Migrationâ€™s mass exodus from the Jim Crow south. Once in the city, African Americans struggled against Chicagoâ€™s pioneering efforts in real estate and housing discrimination while converting the South Sideâ€™s â€śBlack Beltâ€ť community into a Black Metropolis or what they later called â€śBronzeville.â€ť Within the Black Metropolis, old settlers and new migrants struggled over competing visions of community and freedom. But black Chicagoans joined forces to support black institutions; from Jesse Bingaâ€™s bank, Provident Hospital to Supreme Life Liberty Insurance Company, to a network of womenâ€™s clubs, an NAACP, Urban League, and a host of old-line and storefront churches. This institutional structure also gave life to the illicit lottery economy of â€śthe numbersâ€ť that underwrote a host of bars, nightclubs, and ballrooms, cultivating black innovations in jazz, blues, beauty culture, film making, and sport. When the Depression hit, African Americans adopted a â€śproletarian styleâ€ť of social agitation, where struggles against forced evictions and limited New Deal benefits, were directly tied to campaigns for justice in Scottsboro, Alabama; Ethiopia; and Germany. This new Bronzeville also gave shape to an outpouring of Black arts and letters, later called the Chicago Black Renaissance. By the 1940s, an even greater migration ensued that eventually brought hundreds of thousands more African Americans into tightly packed emerging ghettos which were held together by the cityâ€™s landmark urban renewal policies of demolition, highway construction, and segregated public housing, alongside unrelenting white violence.
The overwhelming force of Chicagoâ€™s segregation, combined with the power of African American political mobilization, drew Martin Luther King to help build a Chicago Freedom Movement in 1965. The impetus to end slum housing and open occupancy throughout the city brought mixed results, but local residents pushed ahead to fight real estate agentâ€™s unethical contract selling practices and segregated public housing.
By 1968, African Americans organized a â€śBlack Powerâ€ť politics that called for community self-control, anti-racist policing, and the integration of all-white trade unions. Chicago also created its own unique Black Panther Party built around a multi-racial â€śRainbow Coalitionâ€ť of working class residents led by black youth.
A local branch of the Black Arts Movement followed, with a series of publishing houses, magazines, journals, theaters, and arts institutions to nurture black creativity free of white control. The Rainbow Coalition idea took on new life when Harold Washington became the cityâ€™s first black mayor in 1983. It held together a multi-racial, grassroots campaign built on political independence, transparency, and access. Black Chicagoans continue to face new challenges. But Chicagoâ€™s African Americans can stand firm on this long history of building effective, independent institutions that drive coalitions to inact change; a living legacy that will forever endure.