Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City

Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City

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Ground-breaking when first published in 1945, Black Metropolis remains a landmark study of race and urban life. Few studies since have been able to match its scope and magnitude, offering one of the most comprehensive looks at black life in America. Based on research conducted by Works Progress Administration field workers, it is a sweeping historical and sociological account of the people of Chicago's South Side from the 1840s through the 1930s. Its findings offer a comprehensive analysis of black migration, settlement, community structure, and black-white race relations in the first half of the twentieth century. It offers a dizzying and dynamic world filled with captivating people and startling revelations.

A new foreword from sociologist Mary Pattillo places the study in modern context, updating the story with the current state of black communities in Chicago and the larger United States and exploring what this means for the future. As the country continues to struggle with race and our treatment of black lives, Black Metropolis continues to be a powerful contribution to the conversation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226253350
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/10/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 912
File size: 33 MB
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About the Author

John Gibbs St. Clair Drake (1911–90) was an African American sociologist and anthropologist who founded African American Studies programs at Roosevelt University and Stanford University. His books included Social Work in West Africa, Race Relations in a Time of Rapid Social Change, and Black Religion and the Redemption of Africa. Horace R. Cayton (1903–70) was an American sociologist known for his studies of working class black Americans, particularly in mid-twentieth century Chicago. His books included Black Workers and the New Unions and Long Old Road—An Autobiography.

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Flight to Freedom

THE POTTAWATTOMIE INDIANS WHO RELINQUISHED THE CHICAGO PORTAGE to the white man in 1835 had a saying: "The first white man to settle at Chickagou was a Negro." Frenchmen — trappers, priests, and explorers — had touched this portage from time to time during the seventeenth century; and Louis Joliet and Father Marquette crossed it in 1673. But it was a French-speaking Negro, Jean Baptiste Point de Saible, described by a contemporary British army officer as "a handsome Negro well educated and settled at Eschikagou," who made the first permanent settlement, some time around 1790. At "the place of the evil smell," Point de Saible erected a frontier establishment consisting of a large wooden homestead, bakehouse, smokehouse, poultry house, and dairy; a workshop and a horse mill; a barn and two stables. Here the Pottawattomie came to trade; and the English and French, exploring and fighting for dominance in the backcountry, stopped to rest and replenish their stores. Reclaimed from the prairie and wrested from the wilderness, this solitary frontier settlement became the seedbed of skyscrapers and factories. Its trading post was the progenitor of the wheat-pit and its workshop the prototype of factories and mills. The canoes and pirogues that stopped here foreshadowed the commerce of after-years.

Where he came from originally — this Father of Midwest Metropolis — we do not know. According to one tradition he was from Santo Domingo, and planned to establish a colony of free Negroes near the shores of Lake Michigan. Another story would have him the descendant of a Negro slave and a French fur-trader in the Northwest Territory. We know with certainty only that for sixteen years he and his Pottawattomie wife Catherine, his daughter Cézanne, and Jean Baptiste fils, lived at the present site of Chicago. In 1796, for reasons unknown he sold his establishment to one LeMai, who in turn sold it to an Englishman, John Kinzie. Point de Saible then moved to Peoria, where he spent most of the remainder of his life, dying in St. Charles, Missouri. Within the house he had built, so tradition says, Chicago's first marriage was solemnized, the first election held, and the first white child born.

Of Point de Saible one student of early Chicago, Milo Quaife, has written: "He was a true pioneer of civilization, leader of the unending procession of Chicago's swarming millions. Even in his mixed blood he truly represented the future city, for where else is a greater conglomeration of races and breeds assembled together?" With his departure, only an occasional Negro filtered into the city until the late Forties, when a steady, though small, stream began to arrive.


The earliest Negro migrants to Chicago, like those of later years, were refugees from the bondage of America's cotton kingdom in the South. They poured into the city by the hundreds between 1840 and 1850, fleeing slavery. Some remained; others passed through to Canada and points east.

Chicago gradually became an important terminal on that amazingly ingenious combination of secret trails, mysterious hay wagons, hideouts, and zealous people that was known as the Underground Railroad. Up the Mississippi, across the Ohio River, through the Allegheny gaps, over the western prairie, nearly a hundred thousand slaves were passed from farm to farm and town to town during the seventy years' operation of "freedom's railroad." Secrecy was necessary, even in Chicago, for the Illinois Black Code required every Negro who remained in the state to post a thousand-dollar bond and to carry a certificate of freedom. The federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 made it a criminal offense, punishable by a $500 fine, to harbor a fugitive or to prevent his arrest. Yet throughout the Forties and Fifties a few churches and homes in Chicago served as "stations" on the Underground Railroad. The "conductors" — usually church people or political radicals — were recruited mainly from the ranks of white artisans, business people, and Negroes holding free papers. The Western Citizen, abolitionist journal, boasted during the Fifties: "We can run a load of slaves through from almost any part of the border states into Canada within forty-eight hours and we defy the slaveholders to beat that if they can."

Furious and frustrated planters in the lower Mississippi Valley fulminated at this lawless traffic in stolen property. They derisively and indignantly dubbed Chicago a "nigger-loving town." One editor in southern Illinois, a proslavery stronghold, contemptuously dismissed Chicago as a "sink hole of abolition." To the slaves, however, it was a city of refuge, and once within its boundaries they jealously guarded their own illegal freedom while helping their fellows to escape.

Chicago's small group of Underground "officials" received its first open support from a wider public when the murder of the famous abolitionist, Elijah Lovejoy, by a southern Illinois mob in 1837 drew sharp protests from a number of church groups. Several antislavery societies sprang up within the next decade. They flooded the city with pamphlets, presented antislavery dramas, sponsored lectures by eminent abolitionists from the East, and tried to organize political support for the Free Soil and the Liberty parties. Gradually the slavery controversy began to affect Chicago as it had numerous other northern communities. Churches and secular organizations alike were riven asunder as radicals and conservatives divided on points of antislavery principle and tactics.

Despite the local political contests of the Forties, however, the general public had not yet become excited over the slavery issue. It was more immediately concerned with proposals for a Galena and Chicago Union Railroad, over which wheat and corn and hogs would flow in abundance, than with the human freight of the Underground Railroad. Yet no obstacles were interposed to curb the abolitionist minority, and Chicago — with a reputation even then for colorful violence — tolerated some rather rough treatment of slavecatchers who came to ferret out fugitives. More moderate antislavery sympathizers were occasionally disturbed by the activities of the Underground; and on one occasion in 1846, when a group of Negroes, armed with clubs and led by white abolitionists, rescued a slave from his captors and "paraded in triumph," they convoked a public meeting to disavow this show of force. The editor of one influential newspaper declared: "Better even is law, enforced by the standing armies of tyrants, than for a community to be the subjects of every handful of outlaws, black or white, who may choose to combine and set the laws at defiance." Just four years later, however, the Chicago city council itself was setting the law at defiance; and, as for returning fugitives to the South, an influential church newspaper was insisting that "no Christian rightly understanding his duties can engage in it."

This crystallization of public sentiment was due primarily to the Compromise of 1850, which gave the southern planters a revitalized fugitive-slave act in exchange for their consent to the admission of California as a free state. The amended act raised the fine for harboring fugitives to $1,000 and added a prison term of six months. A slave-catcher's affidavit became sufficient evidence in court to identify any Negro as a fugitive. Trial by jury and the right to testify in his own defense were denied the suspected slave. Magistrates were rewarded with a ten-dollar fee for ruling in favor of the master, while only five dollars was allotted for decisions in favor of the Negro. Any bystander could be deputized to assist in a capture. Federal officials who let a slave escape from their custody were financially liable for the entire value of the lost property.

A wave of indignation swept through the North when the terms of the new fugitive-slave act were announced. In Chicago, three hundred Negroes — over half the permanent adult population — met in their Methodist Church, organized a Liberty Association, and set up vigilante groups. Seven patrols of six persons each were assigned "to keep an eye out for interlopers." The Association passed a ringing resolution explaining the Negroes' stand: "... We do not wish to offer violence to any person unless driven to the extreme, in which case we are determined to defend ourselves at all hazards, even should it be to the shedding of human blood, and in doing thus, will appeal to the Supreme Judge of the Social World to support us in the justness of our cause. ... We who have tasted of freedom are ready to exclaim, in the language of the brave Patrick Henry, 'Give us liberty or give us death.'"

White sympathizers, too, were aroused, and it became evident that some justices would refuse to enforce the law. One famous case, soon after the passage of the Compromise, involved a Mr. Hinch, who arrived in town with a devoted slave to help him catch three fugitives. One day when he and the trusty were standing near Lake Michigan, even this faithful retainer deserted to freedom, by jumping aboard a steamer pulling out for Canada. A group of abolitionists threatened to tar and feather Mr. Hinch, so he appealed to a local justice for the protection of his person and for co-operation in recapturing his property. The justice advised him that "immediate flight would be his safest course."

Even the Chicago Common Council, the city's legislative body, took formal action condemning the fugitive-slave act as "a cruel and unjust law ... [which] ought not be respected by an intelligent community." The city police were assured that they were under no obligation to assist in rounding up escaped slaves. At a mass meeting on the night of the Council's vote, a white lawyer made a fiery speech against the fugitive-slave act and closed by "defying the law and trampling a copy of it under his feet, to the delight and admiring cheers of his hearers."

Stephen A. Douglas, Senator from Illinois, had backed the Compromise. He was now so disturbed by this smoldering in the grass roots that he rushed home from Washington to prevent it from becoming a prairie fire. His eloquent and skillful defense of the Compromise won a resolution from his audience condemning the Chicago Council for its "precipitate action." The city fathers would not retreat completely, however. They voted to "reconsider," but refused to "expunge from the record."

But neither Douglas's oratory nor the desire for an orderly community restrained the aroused abolitionists. An official of the Underground Railroad commented in the late autumn of 1850: "This road is doing better business this fall than usual. The Fugitive Slave Law has given it more vitality and activity; more passengers and more opposition, which accelerates business." The Chicago Daily Journal had insisted since the early Forties that "every man that wears the image and likeness of his Maker should be treated as a man." Now, it advocated violent action against slave-catchers with a broad, humorous hint: "We have no doubt but those interested are upon their guard and the gentlemen [i.e., slave-catchers] will return with a flea in their ears." The Democratic Press, organ of "Deacon" Bross, Chicago's most colorful civic booster of the day, declared that the Fugitive Slave Law could be enforced only "at the muzzle of a musket," and declared that "we have known of many attempts being made to take fugitives away from Chicago, but we have yet to learn the first instance in which the thing has been done."

In case after case during the stormy decade between the Compromise and the Civil War, the Negroes and their abolitionist allies outwitted and outfought the slave-catchers. One of the most dramatic of these episodes involved one Eliza, an escaped slave who had found employment as a maidservant in a house of prostitution. A slave-catcher, discovering her whereabouts, came to claim his quarry, escorted by a local deputy. Eliza and a white girl companion both begged the slave-catcher not to take the girl away. They were silenced by a drawn revolver, while Eliza, kicking and screaming, was forced into a waiting hack. An angry crowd surrounded the carriage, and the captors fled into a nearby armory, dragging Eliza with them.

By this time a large group of colored men, armed with clubs and knives, descended upon the armory. The sheriff then appeared with a warrant for Eliza's arrest on a charge of disorderly conduct — a calculated stratagem to get her away from the slave-catcher. As the sheriff emerged from the armory with Eliza, the crowd wrenched her from his grasp and quickly spirited her away to a station on the Underground Railroad. The mob then proceeded to the house of assignation, threatening to level it to the ground in the belief that the owner had revealed Eliza's identity. The ringleaders were arrested but released the next day. Scant wonder that the Cairo (Ill.) Weekly Times was led to complain of the Chicagoans: "They are the most riotous people in the state. Mention nigger and slave-catcher in the same breath and they are up in arms."

Finally, in the spring of 1861, a group of federal marshals threatened to swoop down upon Chicago and other northern cities in one last but futile gesture aimed at appeasing a South on the verge of secession. The Negro community was panic-stricken, and the Chicago Journal, leading antislavery daily, in a dramatic admonition advised every Negro without a certificate of freedom to "make tracks for Canada as soon as possible":

Don't delay a moment. Don't let grass grow under your feet. Stand not upon the order of your going but go at once. You are not safe here and you cannot be safe until you stand on English soil where you will be free men and free women. It is folly for you to remain here an instant, for the slaveholders encouraged by their late success are making and will continue to make the most determined effort to reclaim fugitives from bondage. Strike for the North Star.

The Underground was now functioning in the open. Four freight cars were boldly chartered to carry the fugitives to an embarkation point on Lake Michigan. A Journal reporter was on hand to describe this exodus:

All day, yesterday, the vicinity of the Michigan Southern depot was a scene of excitement and confusion. After the religious services at the Zoar Baptist Church in the morning, which was densely attended, the leave-taking commenced ... the fugitives and their friends, going from door to door, bidding each other good-bye and mingling their congratulations and tears. — The colored clergymen of the city were also among the number, and labored ardently in extending encouragement and consolation to those about to depart. ... In some instances, entire families were going together, in which cases there seemed to be a general jubilation; in others a few members, a wife leaving a husband, or a mother her children, amid tears....

... All the afternoon, drays, express wagons and other vehicles were busy transporting trunks, bandboxes, valises and other various articles of household furniture to the depot. The wants of the outer man had been attended to also, and a goodly store of provisions, such as crackers, bread, beans, dried beef and apples, were packed in, and a barrel of water in each car; for the fugitives were to be stowed away in the same cars with the freight, with plenty of fresh air, but no light, and in a crowded unwholesome state.

As the hour of departure ... drew nigh, the streets adjacent to the depot and the immediate vicinity of the four cars ... were thronged with an excited multitude of colored people of both sexes and all ages. Large numbers of white people also gathered from motives of curiosity, and stood silent spectators of this rather unusual spectacle. The four cars were rapidly filled with the fugitives, numbering one hundred and six in all, and embracing men, women, youth and infants. In the rear car were two or three sick women, who were treated with the utmost tenderness. ... The whole business of the transportation was supervised by two or three colored men assisted by several white people.

After all were aboard, ... the immense crowd pressed up to the cars and commenced the last farewell. ... Here and there was one in tears and wringing the hands, but the majority were in the best of humor, and were congratulated by their friends lingering behind, that tomorrow they would be free. "Never mind," said one, "the good Lord will save us all in the coming day." ... [They were] bidding their friends write when they got to "the other side of Jordan," and not forget them in the new country. The minister of the neighborhood church where they had attended, also went from car to car bidding them to be men when they got to Canada.


Excerpted from "Black Metropolis"
by .
Copyright © 1970 St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton.
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.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Mary Pattillo
Authors’ Acknowledgment
Introduction by Richard Wright
Introduction: Midwest Metropolis


1. Flight to Freedom
2. Land of Promise
3. The Great Migration
4. Race Riot and Aftermath
5. Between Two Wars


6. Along the Color-Line
7. Crossing the Color-Line
8. The Black Ghetto
9. The Job Ceiling
10. The Shifting Line of Color
11. Democracy and Economic Necessity: Breaking the Job Ceiling
12. Democracy and Economic Necessity: Black Workers and the New Unions
13. Democracy and Political Expediency


 14. Bronzeville
 15. The Power of Press and Pulpit
 16. Negro Business: Myth and Fact
 17. Business Under a Cloud
 18. The Measure of the Man
 19. Style of Living—Upper Class
 20. Lower Class: Sex and Family
 21. The World of the Lower Class
 22. The Middle-class Way of Life
 23. Advancing the Race


24. Of Things to Come
A Methodological Note by W. Lloyd Warner
Notes and Documentation
Bronzeville 1961
Appendix: Black Metropolis 1961 Postscript 1969 A List of Selected Books Dealing with the American Negro
Suggestions for Collateral Reading, 1962
Suggestions for Collateral Reading, 1969
Supplemental Bibliography, 2015

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