Freedom's Ballot: African American Political Struggles in Chicago from Abolition to the Great Migration

Overview

In the spring of 1915, Chicagoans elected the city’s first black alderman, Oscar De Priest. In a city where African Americans made up less than five percent of the voting population, and in a nation that dismissed and denied black political participation, De Priest’s victory was astonishing. It did not, however, surprise the unruly group of black activists who had been working for several decades to win representation on the city council.

Freedom’s Ballot is the history of ...

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Freedom's Ballot: African American Political Struggles in Chicago from Abolition to the Great Migration

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Overview

In the spring of 1915, Chicagoans elected the city’s first black alderman, Oscar De Priest. In a city where African Americans made up less than five percent of the voting population, and in a nation that dismissed and denied black political participation, De Priest’s victory was astonishing. It did not, however, surprise the unruly group of black activists who had been working for several decades to win representation on the city council.

Freedom’s Ballot is the history of three generations of African American activists—the ministers, professionals, labor leaders, clubwomen, and entrepreneurs—who transformed twentieth-century urban politics. This is a complex and important story of how black political power was institutionalized in Chicago in the half-century following the Civil War. Margaret Garb explores the social and political fabric of Chicago, revealing how the physical makeup of the city was shaped by both political corruption and racial empowerment—in ways that can still be seen and felt today.

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Editorial Reviews

Columbia University - Eric Foner
“In this fascinating and original study, Margaret Garb traces the rise of black politics in Chicago from its mid-nineteenth-century origins to the early twentieth century.  The book is a signal contribution to our understanding of the long civil rights movement on northern soil.”
author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times Robin D. G. Kelley

“By bringing post-bellum black Northern politics out from beneath the shadows of the South, Freedom's Ballot manages to radically alter the common story of the era of Reconstruction and Jim Crow.   For Chicago’s African American leaders, what W.E.B. DuBois called that ‘magnificent drama’ of ex-slaves to bring democracy to America, took on a very different character.  As Margaret Garb powerfully demonstrates, uplift ideology and demands for inclusion took a backseat to more militant goals of political power and racial solidarity.   Anyone interested in how the Windy City became a national center of black political power must read this book.”
president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Earl Lewis
“In a masterful work that reveals the beauty of the historian's craft, Garb illuminates the ways in which politics and the political had multiple meanings for African Americans and their quest for freedom.”
Chicago Tribune - Bill Savage
"This is a well-written book. Far too often, historians write primarily for other historians, and jargon and academic-speak can obfuscate rather than illuminate our history. Thanks to Garb's deep research, her lively prose and her narrative virtuosity, her compelling story of African-American pioneers in the ongoing—and unfinished—struggle for civil rights is that rare book that adds something new to our national conversation about race, cities and America, for scholars and general readers alike."
author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times Robin D. G. Kelley
“By bringing post-bellum black Northern politics out from beneath the shadows of the South, Freedom's Ballot manages to radically alter the common story of the era of Reconstruction and Jim Crow.   For Chicago’s African American leaders, what W.E.B. DuBois called that ‘magnificent drama’ of ex-slaves to bring democracy to America, took on a very different character.  As Margaret Garb powerfully demonstrates, uplift ideology and demands for inclusion took a backseat to more militant goals of political power and racial solidarity.   Anyone interested in how the Windy City became a national center of black political power must read this book.”
Columbia University - Eric Foner

“In this fascinating and original study, Margaret Garb traces the rise of black politics in Chicago from its mid-nineteenth-century origins to the early twentieth century.  The book is a signal contribution to our understanding of the long civil rights movement on northern soil.”
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226135908
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2014
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,277,356
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret Garb is associate professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Read an Excerpt

Freedom's Ballot

African American Political Struggles in Chicago from Abolition to the Great Migration


By Margaret Garb

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-13606-6



CHAPTER 1

History, Memory, and One Man's Vote


"Where shall we lay our chains?" demanded the former abolitionist John Jones of a crowd of "colored men" gathered in a workingmen's association hall at Van Buren and Clark Streets in Chicago in January 1872. "Where? Where?" he cried. The audience of former slaves, Civil War veterans, and a few lifelong Chicagoans roared their approval when Jones offered his answer: "Upon the altar of the Republican Party. Thank God for the Republican Party." In a speech that rambled through the major events in America's past, Jones underscored black people's contributions to the nation's history. The "respect of the civilized world," he contended, goes to those who have a history. "Freedom and Progress" in the future would go to those who supported the Republican Party.

Jones was asking his fellow citizens to do what he had been doing for nearly thirty years. "Let me exhort you to attend the political meetings of your neighborhood, towns and wards," he pleaded. It was through such meetings, where black Americans were schooled in politics, that the newly enfranchised were taught to "vote intelligently." This was how Jones understood his own command of American politics and his own transformation over two decades of abolitionist and civil rights campaigns into a national leader. Less than a decade after emancipation and just two years after black men gained the right to vote, Jones urged Chicago's tiny black population to claim a place in municipal politics, to support the Republican Party, and to use their votes to assert their rights in urban society. Politics, he contended, was the means by which black Americans could write their own history.

The unquestioned leader of Chicago's black community, Jones was a powerful figure. He was barrel-chested, with muttonchop sideburns that curled into the middle of his cheeks. He had a full head of hair well into his fifties. Jones was born on a plantation in Greene County, North Carolina, in 1816 to a free "mulatto" woman and a German-born man. He arrived in Chicago nearly two decades before emancipation and by the time of his speech had built a fortune in real estate and established a reputation as an outspoken advocate for an immediate end to the slave system and for the civil rights of black Americans. His home on Ray Street (later Wells Street) had before emancipation welcomed the antislavery fighter John Brown and sheltered runaway slaves seeking freedom further north across the border. His wealth and status as a spokesman for his race had in 1871 propelled him to victory in citywide elections for the Cook County Board of Commissioners, making Jones the first black man elected to a public office in Chicago.

Jones, in his rousing appeal, asked the crucial question facing late nineteenth-century African Americans: where would black Americans "lay [their] chains." In other words, how would black Americans move from slavery to citizenship? The Republican Party was a good part of Jones's answer. On a deeper level, Jones was raising questions about black Americans' place within the postemancipation nation. Here was the core of African American political debates, argued over among activists, intellectuals, journalists, farmers, businessmen, and labor leaders, but never finally resolved.

As Jones well knew, where black Americans chose to lay their chains was determined, in large part, by where they lived. Black activists living in northern cities, though just a tiny portion of the nation's black population, saw themselves as guiding the national movement for freedom and political rights. Enslaved African Americans had challenged their owners' authority and undermined the slave system in acts large and small. But slaveholders and their representatives in government considered enslaved people "politically inert." Black northerners, by contrast, were visible and vocal political activists. In their published writing, public lectures, and daily lives, free black people represented both the potential achievements of freedom and the lies at the heart of the slave system, which denied black Americans' ability to govern themselves.

Free black people were more than symbols on the political landscape. Many were activists, though denied the rights of citizenship—even recognition of their status as citizens. They organized public gatherings, articulated collective interests, built institutions, and used their resources to advocate for black Americans. Men like Jones (and John Malvin in Cleveland, Robert Purvis in Philadelphia, or the more radical David Ruggles in New York) in the middle decades of the nineteenth century called into being an African American polity and constituted themselves legitimate political actors.

In Chicago, during the decades surrounding the Civil War, Jones worked with black and white activists, establishing political ties with abolitionists across the North and building an interracial, largely elite coalition to fight for civil rights for black people in Illinois. Working with printer Henry Wagoner, white newsman and abolitionist Zebina Eastman, former slave Ford Douglas, and others, Jones elaborated theories of social change and racial equality tailored to the specific experiences of black men and women living in a northern city. This tiny group fought for the abolition of slavery and, with as much determination, demanded civil rights for northern black Americans. Their speeches were passionate calls to black Chicagoans to enter local political contests, first as petitioners and organizers and eventually as voters and candidates. Their work proved essential to mobilizing the city's black population in the years before the Civil War and to spurring a political consciousness among the churchgoers, laborers, aspiring entrepreneurs, and refugees from slavery. Their campaigns for suffrage and civil rights contributed to the formation of a small, vibrant, and highly contested Afro-American political culture in late nineteenth-century Chicago.

* * *

Jones's success in politics and business was the result of some shrewd alliances with the city's midcentury Republican business elite and, significantly of the rapidly changing character of mid-nineteenth-century Chicago. The city, when ones, his wife, Mary, and their baby daughter, Lavinia, arrived in 1845, was fast recovering from the economic depression of the late 1830s and widely seen as a frontier town where a hardworking young man could make his fortune. Just a decade earlier, the Illinois Potawatomi had, after nearly fifteen years of war and a handful of treaty payments, been pushed to lands farther west; the French fur-trading families who had built the swampy village's first tavern and hotel had moved on. Chicago was barely a city with just twenty thousand people—compared to three hundred thousand in New York and ninety-three thousand in Philadelphia—and fewer than two hundred residents of African descent. It was a jumble of houses, shops, and warehouses stretching just four miles along the lakefront and west across the Chicago River to Western Avenue. "Its bustling streets," William Cullen Bryant wrote in a series of letters published in the New York Post, "its villas embowered with trees; and its suburbs, consisting of the cottages of German and Irish laborers ... [are] widening every day." What had been a "raw" and "slovenly" settlement had by 1846, when Bryant's steamer landed at the city's busy harbor, become a "thriving commercial center."

In 1845, Chicago's leaders were engaged in raising funds to restart work on the Illinois and Michigan Canal, among the earliest of the major infrastructure projects that tied the city's economy to eastern capital and established Chicago as a commercial center connecting markets to the east with farmers, planters, ranchers, and miners in the West and South. The ninety-six-mile waterway opened April 19, 1848. Two weeks later a canal boat carrying sugar from New Orleans arrived in Chicago, ostentatiously linking the slave regime to Chicago's fortunes. The sugar would be transferred to a steamboat and shipped across the Great Lakes to Buffalo, where it was held up two weeks while the Erie Canal was cleared of winter ice, and was then shipped to New York City. The canal "brought stone, brick, food and fuel in vast quantities to build up her [Chicago's] trade, and carried away an inconceivable mass of lumber and merchandise."

Over the following decades, railroads, telegraph lines, the arrival of German and Irish workers from eastern port cities, and investment capital funneled west by eastern banks and industrialists transformed the sleepy commercial post into a major industrial center. "It is the type of that class of American towns which have made themselves conspicuous, and almost ridiculous, by their rapid growth," commented a visitor in the 1850s. The railroad along with entrepreneurs like reaper manufacturer Cyrus McCormick and meat-packer Philip Armor propelled Chicago's expansion. Trains deposited Wisconsin pine at the lumberyards just west of the Chicago River, spurring construction of frame cottages that lined the city's muddy streets. "In 1860, Chicago was a thriving young city ... with many large factories; many papers, daily and weekly," wrote Joseph Kirkland in his 1892 history of the city. It was, "in short, a place of great pretensions and still greater hopes."

The Civil War triggered rapid industrialization. Ready-made clothing firms were established during the war to manufacture uniforms for Union soldiers and sailors, producing $12 million in goods annually by 1863. It was the opening of the Union Stockyards on Christmas Day 1865 that in many ways signaled the emergence of the industrial city. The stockyards, built in the town of Lake just south of the city (later annexed to Chicago), introduced the mass-production techniques that were widely used in the following years, though the slaughtering and meatpacking plants used a "disassembly" line to transform livestock into packages of beef and pork. Chicago did not become a center for slaughtering and packing until the 1880s, when refrigerated railcars were introduced. But the packing plants, like McCormick's reaper factory, the planing mills, brass and iron foundries, breweries, and workshops making wagons, gloves, pumps, saddles, and other goods, employed the growing number of skilled and unskilled laborers arriving in the city.

The growth of factory production affected black Chicagoans in important but indirect ways. Industrialization generated new hierarchies in urban labor forces, designating some work as skilled, other work as "menial" and "servile." Skilled workers earned higher wages, enjoyed higher social status, and became leaders in labor and political organizations. Black workers were rarely included among the skilled labor force. More often, they were Chicago's cheapest labor and, designated unskilled, were trapped at the bottom of the urban wage scale. Merchants and artisans used these low-wage black workers—just as they used low wages paid to unskilled European immigrants—to accumulate profits, which could be invested in new technologies and new businesses, and to build their fortunes.

Not until the early twentieth century would significant numbers of African Americans find jobs in industry. Before the Civil War, black men in Chicago owned some commercial property; one was a successful grocer, another a barber, and Jones started out in the city with a tiny tailoring shop. Most black men, however, were stuck in low-wage service jobs, refused work in the higher-paying construction trades or industry. The 1870 census listed nearly 80 percent of African Americans as restaurant and hotel workers, domestic servants, or dockworkers. Dock laborers earned $1.00 to $2.00 per day, while white workers in the building trades could earn as much as $3.50 or $4.00, and the iron and steel mills paid $1.50 to $6.00 depending on the job's skill level. The Great Fire of October 1871 apparently spurred the mayor to approve the formation of Fire Company 21, an all-black force, and in the mid-1870s, city officials hired a small number of black men as police officers. But even as Chicago's industries recovered from the economic depression of the early 1870s, black men found few jobs in manufacturing. More than 60 percent of the black workforce continued to work in domestic and personal services through the 1890s, earning significantly less than even the lowest-paid unskilled white laborers.

African American women, facing equally dismal prospects, worked as servants in white homes or as laundresses and seamstresses for white clientele. Immigrant girls and women often worked as seamstresses in sweatshops, earning as little as a dollar per week or up to five or six dollars per week for skilled seamstresses. All, black and white, worked ten- to fourteen-hour days. The city's commercial laundries were among the major employers of black laboring women. "The colored people have done and are doing remarkably well considering the disadvantages and discouragements under which they live," commented the condescending white writer Joseph Kirkland in Scribner's Magazine in 1892, failing to acknowledge that low-wage, low-skill jobs kept most black families mired in poverty.

Chicago's population expanded rapidly in the years surrounding the Civil War, fed largely by immigrants from northern and western Europe, along with a steady flow of Yankee strivers and a small but growing number of African American refugees from the slave South. In 1860, foreign-born residents made up 50 percent of Chicago's population; ten years later the foreign born were slightly less than half, yet the foreign born and their American-born children would make up close to 80 percent of Chicago's population from the 1870s through World War I. The 1850 census found just 323 people of African descent in Chicago; that number would jump to nearly 6,000 in 1880, still less than 2 percent of the city's population. The wide array of nationalities living in the city, along with the sharpening of collective interests among each national group, created some economic and political opportunities for even a tiny minority like African Americans.

* * *

Chicago, even with its economic ties to the slave South, was widely known as an abolitionist stronghold. Antislavery politics, promoted from the pulpit and exhorted by civic leaders, expanded in the 1840s and 1850s. Many exhibited their abolitionist views by participating in a network of safe havens called the Underground Railroad. In any particular week, there were probably a dozen refugees, typically overlooked by census takers, staying in the homes and churches of the city's abolitionist leaders. Decades later, some of the early settlers remembered black families stopping in the city for a few days or a few months as they "fled from the Kentucky farm or plantation ... anxious to move farther northward, away from any pursuers." Southern Illinois remained generally proslavery; in Chicago, black men and women found sympathetic white friends. The city's white political leaders, mostly of New England birth, were generally well disposed to the abolitionist cause. The Chicago Common Council openly condemned the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, calling it a "cruel and unjust law" and directing the city's police department to ignore requests to round up fugitive slaves.

Chicago politics in the years before the Civil War was governed by a few white men who had made fortunes in Illinois real estate and local commerce. They were, in Donald L. Miller's words, "a frontier aristocracy," an urban elite of self-made men with interlocking business interests and, eventually, family ties. The city's charter, approved by the state legislature on March 4, 1837, established a common council composed of a mayor and aldermen, and divided the city into wards from which the aldermen were elected. Cook County was organized January 15, 1831, with Chicago as county seat. The city's first mayoral election was "sharp and spirited," like nearly all those that followed, pitting John H. Kinzie, the Whig candidate, against William B. Ogden, a Democrat. "Both were members of the old St. James Episcopal Church, both men of wealth for that time and there was nothing in the character of either of the men to give either one an advantage over the other," commented the newspaper owner and later two-term mayor John Wentworth. Ogden won with 469 votes to Kinzie's 237.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Freedom's Ballot by Margaret Garb. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION / From Party to Race

ONE / History, Memory, and One Man’s Vote

TWO / Setting Agendas, Demanding Rights, and the Black Press

THREE / Women’s Rights, the World’s Fair, and Activists on the National Stage

FOUR / Challenging Urban Space, Organizing Labor

FIVE / Virtue, Vice, and Building the Machine

SIX / Representation and “Race Men”

EPILOGUE / Film, History, and the Birth of a Black Political Culture

Acknowledgments
Appendix 1: African American Political Leaders, 1870–1920
Appendix 2: Election Results for Mayoral and Aldermanic Candidates in the First, Second, and Third Wards, 1900–1920
Notes
Index

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