The Rise of Chicago's Black Metropolis, 1920-1929

The Rise of Chicago's Black Metropolis, 1920-1929

by Christopher Robert Reed

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During the Roaring '20s, African Americans rapidly transformed their Chicago into a "black metropolis." In this book, Christopher Robert Reed describes the rise of African Americans in Chicago's political economy, bringing to life the fleeting vibrancy of this dynamic period of racial consciousness and solidarity.


Reed shows how African


During the Roaring '20s, African Americans rapidly transformed their Chicago into a "black metropolis." In this book, Christopher Robert Reed describes the rise of African Americans in Chicago's political economy, bringing to life the fleeting vibrancy of this dynamic period of racial consciousness and solidarity.


Reed shows how African Americans rapidly transformed Chicago and achieved political and economic recognition by building on the massive population growth after the Great Migration from the South, the entry of a significant working class into the city's industrial work force, and the proliferation of black churches. Mapping out the labor issues and the struggle for control of black politics and black business, Reed offers an unromanticized view of the entrepreneurial efforts of black migrants, reassessing previous accounts such as St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton's 1945 study Black Metropolis.


Utilizing a wide range of historical data, The Rise of Chicago's Black Metropolis, 1920–1929 delineates a web of dynamic social forces to shed light on black businesses and the establishment of a black professional class. The exquisitely researched volume draws on fictional and nonfictional accounts of the era, black community guides, mainstream and community newspapers, contemporary scholars and activists, and personal interviews.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Should be rightfully added to the new historiography of black Chicago."—The Journal of American History
"Presents a full and integrated picture of a dynamic and young community."—Journal of Illinois History

 "A readable and important work in African American and U.S. urban history."—Indiana Magazine of History

"The Rise of Chicago's Black Metropolis, 1920-1929 is well organized, cogently written, and substantially documented. This thoroughly enjoyable work will be of interest not just to Chicagoans, but to scholars of urban studies, black entrepreneurship, and black politics."—Robert L. Harris Jr., coeditor of The Columbia Guide to African-American History Since 1939

"An important contribution to the field of African American urban history and the history of black Chicago in particular. Among other things, Christopher Robert Reed persuasively cites the need for a reappraisal of Cayton and Drake's classic depiction of Chicago's 'Black Metropolis' by illuminating the role of professionals and political and religious organizations."—Robert E. Weems Jr., author of Black Business in the Black Metropolis: The Chicago Metropolitan Assurance Company, 1925-1985

Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
New Black Studies Series Series
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.10(d)

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The Rise of Chicago's Black Metropolis, 1920-1929



Copyright © 2011 Christopher Robert Reed
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03623-1

Chapter One

Demography and Ethos

Much is said of the "New Negro," we haven't seen such a critter, just the same old tinted individual, roused into self-consciousness, awakened to his own possibilities, with stiffened backbone, and new ambitions, new desires, new hopes for the future. —Chicago Defender, 1920 He is a new type of Homo sapiens psychologically.... He has no narrow religious creed, supports human principles instead of race prejudice, ignores the unfounded flattery heaped upon the Negro, does not boast, but achieves [and] has a scientific mind.... He does not seek philanthropy but an opportunity. —Frederick H. H. Robb on the New Negro, 1927 It is the whirl of life that goes on in the "Black Belt" that one thinks of when he talks of the Negro community. —E. F. Frazier, Opportunity, 1929

The Jazz Age was a national period filled with anxieties resulting from the unsettling pursuit of world peace, labor and racial unrest, anticipated economic recession, and a besieged value system. Within the South Side black community, a new sentiment prevailed so it was also the age of the "New Negro." Prohibition challenged the imagination of those who wished to imbibe in violation of the law, leading to highly organized criminal efforts and the creation of an underworld government of sorts. The whirl of life to which Frazier referred could well have been the sound of arriving migrants, whose movement was constant throughout the decade.

The remarkable demographic increase in the African American population of Chicago between 1910 and 1920 of 148.5 percent, and specifically between 1916 and 1919 of 86 percent, was matched in significance by the increase in population from 109,458 persons in 1920 to 233,903 persons in 1930. In and of itself, Jazz Era migration represented an increase of 114 percent over the decade of the twenties. Whenever a demographic milepost was reached during the twentieth century, it now indicated an almost automatic increase. Despite reductions in the labor force as part of a national recession at war's end, it appeared to be the beginning of what Dickens would describe as "the best of times."

For 1920, when the population climbed to 109,458, the percentage of African Americans constituted 4.1 percent of the city's total makeup. The next year, 1921, a time of discouraging economic conditions and labor discord, the black population climbed to include 121,902 persons as the magnetism of life in Chicago continued to beckon to black southerners. By 1923, the increase resulted in a mass of 146,791 old and new black residents. Some black newcomers expressed a sentiment that Chicago offered them a hope not to be found elsewhere or under any other circumstances. One man responded resolutely when confronted with high joblessness in Chicago, "I also know that there is no work in Mississippi, and I had rather be out of work in Chicago than out of work in Mississippi."

Heading toward mid-decade, the surge of migrants continued, and by 1927, a head count around the city in all three of the major geographical divisions found 196,569 persons of African descent in residence. With the possible influence of the devastating flooding that occurred in the Lower Mississippi Valley, this out-migration just might well account for the next federal census year of 1930 showing an astronomical climb of African Americans to 233,903 persons. The phenomenon of black population doubling between 1910 and 1920 seemed to be nearly replicating the pattern again between 1920 and 1930.2 The demographic growth of the Black Metropolis rested firmly on the continuous in-migration of primarily adults from the South—not only from the plantations of the Deep South and small towns but also cities such as Birmingham, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Mobile. The one set of characteristics they possessed in common was, as Congregationalist minister Rev. Harold M. Kingsley described these new residents, they were just as "divergent, vivid and compelling, as any other group or all groups."

* * *

In-migration brought some important and many more obscure arrivals. Among their ranks were professionals, members of the laboring class, refugees carrying the scars of experience with racial violence, and persons filled with wanderlust. Dr. Calvin Paul Davis and his family fled the terror of the rioter and lynch mob in Longview, Texas, arriving in 1920 and reestablishing himself in the medical field. Also from violence-prone Texas, the eight-member family of Scott and Violet Arthur from Paris, Texas, fled the terror of murder and sexual assault against their immediate family members during the summer of 1920. After hiding from vengeance-filled mobs, they finally were able to leave the southwest and arrived in Chicago on August 30, 1920. Another member of Dempsey J. Travis's family left Georgia for Chicago and work at the stockyards. Steelworker Alex W. Walker, both a refugee and fugitive from the Atlanta riot of 1906, arrived from Birmingham's steel mills with his wife, Julia, in 1921.4 Attorney Oscar C. Brown, a World War I veteran from Edwards, Mississippi, and graduate of Howard University, joined his brother in the practice of law in 1925. Another traveler from Mississippi named Richard Wright took the place of the original sojourner from Georgia, Rev. Richard R. Wright Jr., and also left his indelible imprint on this city's life.

Meantime, two individuals destined to contribute to the most influential intellectual wave of thought in sociology during the twentieth century arrived on the campus of the University of Chicago to pursue graduate study. Charles S. Johnson began work as assistant researcher for the monumental study conducted under the auspices of the Chicago Commission on Race Relations in the aftermath of the Chicago riot of 1919. In June 1927, E. Franklin Frazier followed in Johnson's wake, beginning two full years of doctoral-level research and study with the faculty of the famed "Chicago School." The thirty-three-year-old Frazier was making his reappearance in the city after a four-year hiatus following summer graduate courses in 1923.

In a metropolis that swelled with pride for its military traditions, the black military veteran still remained another important element in the ranks of this growing demographic with the exception that he was younger, more assertive, and sometimes more aggressive than his Civil War and Spanish American War counterparts. Collectively these veterans numbered in the hundreds and expanded their individual and overall influence formidably. These men returned from combat in Europe in 1919 with honors and a rugged determination to change race relations in the city and the nation. Within their officers' ranks were exceptional men whose names filled business, political, civic, religious, and fraternal lists as leaders of various spheres in black society—Earl B. Dickerson, William Levi Dawson, William Warfield, Oscar C. Brown Sr., Rev. William Braddan, Franklin A. Denison, and others. Within the ranks of the enlisted men, a similar determination to progress prevailed, one extending far beyond the racist limits set upon them when they left for war and "to make the world safe for democracy." Not all belonged to Old Eighth that had fought as the 370th Infantry Regiment in France; many had served in the famed and decorated 365th Infantry as well as other units. As New Negroes they shaped a transformed way of thinking about themselves, the obstacles they encountered, and solutions that exceeded their parents' and grandparents' wildest imaginings.

* * *

Fortunately for later generations, the character of this ever-expanding mass of humanity was explored during 1927-1928 in the exhaustive work of renowned sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, who penetratingly examined all dimensions of group life through data for the census year 1920, along with acute observation and normal interpersonal contacts. Frazier's contribution on family life as it existed in its various dimensions of class, occupation, age, residence, and marital status throughout the city resulted in his first tome, The Negro Family in Chicago, published shortly after the decade ended. He further expanded his work beyond Chicago into other northern cities and published The Negro Family in the United States in 1939. Both as a detached scholar mingling freely among the populace and as a participant-observer, Frazier matched the perceptive abilities of University of Chicago scholars who preceded him—Monroe Nathan Work, Richard R. Wright Jr., and Charles S. Johnson. While studying the history of the formation of the black community (but not a ghetto) with its many complexities, a valuable and more accurate history of a socially and economically differentiated group within a community was being uncovered, although its internal dynamics were generally overlooked in the latter part of the twentieth century.

Family life and structure was a good case in point. In his study The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, historian Herbert G. Gutman established that the social integrity of the family unit was underestimated and underrated, pointing to greater community stability in the historical past. Using his New York City data, he concluded that the two-headed family structure still predominated up to and beyond the influence of the Great Migration. By extrapolation, he extended his postulation to the entire North and that would have included Chicago. Interestingly enough, Frazier proved one-half century earlier that the two-head household existed in Chicago as a normative model with variations within the total based on income and class. His overall conclusion from examination of the data was that the black family had, indeed, become "progressively stable" in the North in the one or two generations after emancipation.

Distribution by age revealed that the black population in all areas of Chicago was predominantly an adult population and one that was represented almost equally by gender. Frazier acutely used the "zones of settlement," or an ecological model, made popular at the University of Chicago that consisted of dividing the typical northern city into concentric circles of living instead of a static "ghetto." New patterns of life were revealed that advanced understanding of the dynamics of black life undergoing urbanization. This breakthrough moved beyond acceptance of statistical generalizations offered without an explanation to acknowledging variations within a given population. Social researcher Irene Graham wrote, "in spite of the fact that in 1920 the Negro population was still very largely composed of migrants, we find that only 8.3 per cent of the units making up the households had no real family group as a nucleus. And even of this 8.3 per cent, such groups as grandparents and grandchildren actually represent a family relationship, although not technically so."


Excerpted from The Rise of Chicago's Black Metropolis, 1920-1929 by CHRISTOPHER ROBERT REED Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Robert Reed . Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS 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.

Meet the Author

Christopher R. Reed is a professor emeritus of history at Roosevelt University and the author of "All the World is Here": The Black Presence at White City and The Chicago NAACP and the Rise of Black Professional Leadership, 1910–1966.

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