"Touches on themes that are compelling for their relevance nearly a century later. The story of economic downturn and its effects—homelessness, joblessness, corruption—are clearly issues of great interest today." —Kim Butler, Rutgers University
The Depression Comes to the South Side: Protest and Politics in the Black Metropolis, 1930-1933by Christopher Robert Reed
In the 1920s, the South Side was looked on as the new Black Metropolis, but by the turn of the decade that vision was already in decline—a victim of the Depression. In this timely book, Christopher Robert Reed explores early Depression-era politics on Chicago's South Side. The economic crisis caused diverse responses from groups in the black community,
In the 1920s, the South Side was looked on as the new Black Metropolis, but by the turn of the decade that vision was already in decline—a victim of the Depression. In this timely book, Christopher Robert Reed explores early Depression-era politics on Chicago's South Side. The economic crisis caused diverse responses from groups in the black community, distinguished by their political ideologies and stated goals. Some favored government intervention, others reform of social services. Some found expression in mass street demonstrations, militant advocacy of expanded civil rights, or revolutionary calls for a complete overhaul of the capitalist economic system. Reed examines the complex interactions among these various groups as they played out within the community as it sought to find common ground to address the economic stresses that threatened to tear the Black Metropolis apart.
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The Depression Comes To The South Side
Protest and Politics in the Black Metropolis, 1930â"1933
By Christopher Robert Reed
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2011 Christopher Robert Reed
All rights reserved.
The Impact of the Depression on Home Life, Institutions and Organizations
The Negro in his present strait has lost his traditional readiness either to laugh or sing through a difficulty ... This present dilemma is incomprehensible and the voluble, laughing Negro silent and inarticulate.
—THYRA EDWARDS, "CHICAGO IN THE RAIN," 1932
Nineteen-thirty brought the first full year of the Great Depression and with it the advent of massive economic deprivation for almost every Chicagoan. Economic conditions in Chicago were quite dismal during the three years of the Depression that preceded the New Deal. Economic indicators show that deprivation was prevalent throughout the period, with a decline in both the quality of life and quantity of goods and services financially affordable for people to purchase. Contemporary descriptions also provide ample evidence as to the pervasiveness of the crisis. The Chicago Defender in 1930 reported an increase in the number of beggars on the streets of the South Side as unemployment grew. For its part, the front pages of the Chicago Tribune during the summer of 1931 reflected a concern with the possibility of revolution in the streets of Chicago. The conservative sheet heralded the arrival of a class upheaval brewing in the streets of Chicago with the bold headline, "Reds Riot: 3 Slain By Police." A confrontation involving an eviction at 50th and Dearborn Streets between sheriff's bailiffs and their police guards on the one hand, and on the other a massive crowd of over 5,000 socially aroused blacks (with some whites) resulted in the deaths of three demonstrators and injuries within the ranks of both the authorities and protestors.
No longer a barely discernible portion of the city's massive population, by this time the African American population had reached 233,903 persons, the result of continuous migration throughout the previous decade despite an unstable labor market. The growing African American community, always a source of pride to the racially conscious segment of the population, now made up 6.9 percent of the city's 3,376,438 residents. The bulk of this population resided in the overcrowded and aging district referred to popularly as the "South Side," as though the tens of thousands of white South Siders surrounding this constant expanding enclave did not matter. Academic pronouncement would several years later honor the area with the proud title of the "Black Metropolis."
The historical Black Metropolis, as a virtual city within a city, existed in actuality and not just in a latter day's imagination, beginning in the post—World War I period. It featured an impressively near-independent level of black political control over black-dominated districts (the Second and Third Wards) that was the envy and aspiration of African Americans nationally. The heartbeat of the Black Metropolis was Chicago's main north-south artery, State Street, stretching from 22nd Street on the north to 51st Street on the south. This thoroughfare boasted an impressive and successful concentration of businesses and two banks that were held in awe throughout black financial circles nationally. African Americans resided on either side of State Street to a depth of roughly one-half mile to the west at Wentworth Avenue, to one full mile to the east at Cottage Grove Avenue. Equally impressive was the broadened consumer base that frequented the Black Metropolis's businesses, the result of a comparatively large industrial proletariat with slightly over a decade's experience in that sector. These factors were being threatened by a stagnant economy with the negative strength to stymie recently achieved progress. Prior to World War I, labor in the service and domestic sectors predominated.
Significantly, throughout the Depression the pride and dignity of the entire Black Metropolis and all of black Chicago were challenged daily by the forces of an economic catastrophe no one seemed capable of harnessing. In general, however, for almost a century, blacks had enjoyed only marginal employment as a part of the city's workforce. For them, the thirties mostly represented a continuation of the trend in rising unemployment that faced black workers in the late twenties. In 1930, as the city's industries began to close down and displace their white workers, the majority of all black workers (at least two-thirds), were still concentrated in mostly menial, unskilled, and semi-skilled occupations in the service sector. So, while the depression produced one kind of change for whites, its influence over a basically rural-oriented, marginally employed, and socially proscribed people differed in both kind and degree of severity.
The influence of the Great Depression was felt by the entirety of the city's workforce, with effects that were total and devastating. It produced changes in individual lives that collectively assumed dramatic dimensions. White workers lost their sense of security, dignity, and hope as advancing economic dislocation paralyzed the city's ability to maintain its industrial and commercial capabilities. Temporary layoffs and underemployment (sometimes achieved as a result of the displacement of black workers) evolved into full-fledged and permanent periods of unemployment.
While the effect on black Chicagoans was adverse too, they did not have as much to lose in a material sense, as they had begun feeling the worst effects of the economic depression earlier. There was a difference in experiences based on class, with black middle- and middling-class individuals suffering despite their professional and semi-professional standing.
THE EFFECT OF THE DEPRESSION ON HEARTH AND HOME
For the general population the effects of the depression were devastating. In housing, the number of evictions increased dramatically in 1931, and the population of the black South Side alone accounted for nearly one-quarter of the city's relief cases. These events occurred during a period when the Chicago Urban League was reporting that 45 percent of the black workforce and 40 percent of the white workforce were unemployed. A look into the ubiquitous service sector illustrates the extent of the problem.
Working-class women who had had their jobs in the domestic field wiped out (because their employers either lost their income stream or faced such a reduction that the luxury of household assistance became too expensive) now resorted to a work pattern to which packinghouse workers had become accustomed. They assembled en masse and negotiated with women who could afford to hire day workers to assist in their households. In a setting black women referred to as a slave market at Roosevelt Road and Halsted Street, they haggled daily for work, just as their counterparts did in New York's "Bronx slave market."
Well-known social worker Thyra J. Edwards captured the poignancy of the period on the other side of the gender line after she visited a shelter for men that occupied the basement of the popular Unity Hall at 3140 South Indiana Avenue. The line of hungry, unemployed men extended out of an alley as better-off neighbors complained of their presence on the sidewalks. She saw some men who looked as though they had just abandoned professional life now no longer distinguishable from other men who had labored in the trenches for a lifetime. All were reduced to a state of near-total dependence on others. "There was a dreary absence of conversation among the eight hundred men then at 'mess.' The Negro in his present strait has lost his traditional readiness either to laugh or sing through a difficulty. This present dilemma is incomprehensible and the voluble, laughing Negro silent and inarticulate."
Housing was available a few blocks away from the food shelters. There, after their meal, hundreds of these same men dragged themselves onto cots and relief from the elements. One-half mile away from Liberty Hall on East 31st Street, the old Royal Gardens Cabaret now also served as a place where a night's sleep was available to the homeless, both white and black. Edwards lamented:
The years gone and fewer, here was the centre of Chicago's 'night life,' a favored rendezvous of young white women from the gold coast and sleek, brown men. A jazz orchestra wailed nightly and there was never floor space ... [now,] here [is] where eight hundred men sleep. Long rows of army cots and to each man two sheets, two blankets and a nightie ... It was only 8:00 o'clock but most of the men had retired although curfew is at 9:00 o'clock.
The depression was no respecter of class. Beyond working people, now suffering because of unemployment, the semi-professional and professional members of black society felt the full pangs of distress. After three years of this grueling economic dislocation, the NAACP's field director found that Chicago was "in perhaps the worst plight of any of our cities, with school teachers, policemen, firemen, and city workers of all classes unpaid for months.... [Compounding the problem,] the working class is [even] harder hit, if that be possible, than the professional and clerical class." Examples abounded on a very personal level. Recently married Mrs. Ida Mae Cress of the Old Settler Griffin family line worked for the Board of Education as a kindergarten teacher until the depression hit and she was laid off because of a shortage of funds. Fortunately for her, the city started a nursery school program (predating the Head Start program of the 1960s) into which she was hired. The Duster family of Old Settler Barnett-Wells lineage lived one-half mile west of the Cress family and the two were linked beyond their family trees. University of Chicago graduates Benjamin and Alfreda Duster suffered through the era around the 3300 block of South Prairie Avenue, a location, as Mrs. Duster reported in the thirties, that was by then considered undesirable. The families that were well-to-do had moved farther south beyond 51st Street and into the Washington Park community. Mr. Duster faced unemployment despite impressive academic credentials. Mrs. Duster recounted how her husband performed some unknown (and never identified) work duty far below his university training in order to make ends meet. "He left early on Thursday mornings and returned home late and exhausted, never uttering a word about his exertion in behalf of providing for his family." A neighbor deliberately cooked overlarge breakfast meals so she could share her abundance with her younger neighbors.
Howard University law graduate Oscar C. Brown Sr. arrived in Chicago in 1925 and began a practice as well as a family. When the depression came, he and his family were hit just as hard. As he recalled:
Living was extremely difficult at the time, because there was not enough to buy the bare necessities of life. Our law associates and a few others would get together and pool our little money and divide it among all of us so no one would be without. If misery loved company, we at least would enjoy unlimited companionship. For a great many Negroes in the United States of America, the depression was not an era; it was a constant way of life.
The economic crisis affected housing too, but not everyone suffered equally. For the poor, the problem came in the appearance of law enforcement officers carrying orders of eviction for non-payment of rent or a mortgage installment. For the upper and middle classes, it meant meeting the opposition of whites who ostensibly wanted to keep their neighborhoods racially pure, and who resorted to the use of restrictive housing covenants to do so. Within what was once the Old Settlers enclave east of South Park Way and south of 31st Street, a mix of people developed that befuddled young newspaper delivery boy George Johnson as he traveled his route. He noticed the appearance of class distinctions:
My route used to take me down to Thirty-first Street, but I was always careful down there. ... [On the other hand] there was one block between Rhodes and Cottage Grove where really well-to-do people lived.... Doctors, lawyers ministers.... [In further contrast, on] Thirty-fourth Street between Woodland and Groveland Park [along Ellis Avenue,] there were no black folks over there. All those were white folks.
Nearby, the thirteenth African American family to settle in old Chicago, the Atkinson family of Old Settlers days, lived on the 3300 block of South Vernon Avenue.
All was not totally lost during this economic crisis, as some bright spots appeared in the midst of the massive collapse of the economy. Pullman porter Walter J. Green and his wife, Malinda, a caterer, maintained their family's standard of living, including the hiring of a part-time driver when Mr. Green was out of town. Future religious leader Bishop Arthur Brazier of the Apostolic faith recalled that his father had continuous employment throughout the Depression working as a maintenance mechanic at a laundry. His mother, in the meantime, took in laundry to wash or visited homes where she completed her tasks. This allowed the family to maintain a large, twelve-room, three-bathroom apartment on Grand Boulevard (now South Parkway), which rented for $30 a month. Other family members lived with them because of the space. Likewise, prominent businessman Charles A. Davis Sr. recollected how his extended family of nearly a dozen persons coped relatively well with three male adults working, albeit it irregularly, at the stockyards. Never guaranteed employment, they nonetheless made daily trips to their former job site in hopes of being selected to work a full day.
Although out of the realms of the professions and skilled, unionized workers, African-Americans who worked as Pullman porters, postal employees, and packinghouse workers experienced a sense of job security that eluded others. Future Chicago Postmaster Henry W. McGee recalled how employment for the U.S. Post Office meant stability during the worst days of the Depression. Postal employees faced layoffs as mail delivery dipped by mid-1931, the volume of business-related mail decreasing. Overall, still, it was one of the better occupational groupings in which to belong. For example, because Atkinson family granddaughter Grace Mason's father was a postal worker, she also could recall youthful days of "genteel poverty with little money, but many other intangible rewards," including a great deal of family and community solidarity.
For youthful, transplanted Mississippian Richard Wright, his postal employment provided frequent bouts of earning enough to feed and shelter his mother, brother, and himself. He worked first as a regular clerk at an hourly rate of 70 cents an hour, with the need to reach the minimum weight of 125 pounds by a specified examination time as his major worry. He and his family ate heartily, and he even had time to practice his writing skills. When his physical exam date arrived, he expected the worst and it occurred—he had failed the examination by virtue of being underweight. Another season passed as he successfully pursued the weight gain needed to secure permanent employment. Yet as the depression grew more severe, his hours were reduced and he finally was released from federal service. Future award-winning poetess Gwendolyn Brooks's family weathered the Depression with Mr. Brooks working at his fulltime, daytime job as a porter along with nighttime work as a painter and various odd jobs. The father and uncle of Chicago historian Dempsey J. Travis both held on to their jobs in the stockyard; after agreeing to a reduction in the hours they worked "from six ten-hour days a week to three eight-hour days."
Across the class divide, the Chicago branch of the NAACP's annual cabaret, held to meet expenses, experienced successful results during the first two years of the decade. Initiated during the early years of the Depression, this fundraising activity depended on the untiring efforts of branch president Dr. Herbert Turner and his wife. The latter used her personal circle of friends to gain support for her efforts. The Turners were socially prominent, and Mrs. Turner, who was much younger than her husband, appealed to those residents of the Black Belt who were well-off and active in the "smart set." This group was not touched by the depression to the extent that the masses of blacks were and the event brought in $500 in 1930 and again in 1931. But by 1932, even the well-off had begun to feel the pinch of the crisis. The cabaret that year received only two-thirds of the support it usually got, prompting the branch's secretary, Archie L. Weaver, to lament that "the depression has hit us all."
Excerpted from The Depression Comes To The South Side by Christopher Robert Reed. Copyright © 2011 Christopher Robert Reed. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author
Christopher Robert Reed is Professor Emeritus of History at Roosevelt University in Chicago and author of The Emergence of the Black Metropolis, 1910–1933; Black Chicago’s First Century, 1833–1900; All the World Is Here: The Black Presence at White City (IUP, 2000); and The Chicago NAACP and the Rise of Black Professional Leadership (IUP, 1997).
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