Between 1910 and 1950 Chicago was the crossroads of northern urbanity. The first mass movement of black southerners to northern cities occurred during and immediately after World War I. Participants in this Great Migration left their southern homes but brought with them, as Mississippi native Richard Wright notes in his 1945 autobiography Black Boy, the “scars, visible and invisible,” of southern boyhood. Wright was both fascinated and intimidated by his move north. “I was seized by doubt,” he recalled of the moment he walked out of the railroad station in Chicago. “Should I have come here? But going back was impossible. I had fled a known terror, and perhaps I could cope with this unknown terror that lay ahead.”
Wright wrote that, on the one hand, Chicago was the quintessential “self-conscious” and “known” city; on the other, it was the place where the contemporary facts of African American experience took “their starkest form [and] crudest manifestation.” Wright stressed, “There is an open and raw beauty about that city that seems either to kill or endow one with the spirit of life. I felt those extremes of possibility, death and hope, while I lived half hungry and afraid in a city to which I had fled . . . to tell my story.”
Most migrants were barely literate and never left such vivid recollections of their experience. Yet black southerners “recognized that their future lay in the North.” “Northern fever” permeated the black South, as letters, rumors, gossip, and black newspapers carried word of higher wages and better treatment in the North. Approximately half a million black southerners chose to say farewell to the South and start life anew in northern cities during 1916–19, and nearly one million more followed in the 1920s. From the cities, towns, and farms of the Deep South, especially Mississippi, they poured into any northern city where jobs could be found.
Stepping off the trains, African American migrants flocked to Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods. In 1910, 78 percent of black Chicagoans lived in a narrow strip of South Side land known as the Black Belt. From 1916 until 1948, racially restrictive covenants kept other Chicago neighborhoods white. These covenants covered large parts of the city and, in combination with zones of nonresidential use, almost wholly surrounded the African American residential districts of the period, cutting off corridors of extension.
The urban landscape, while segregated and disorienting, was exciting as well. In the early 1920s migrants headed for the Stroll District—South State Street and 35th Street. A decade later migrants headed deeper into Chicago’s Black Belt to the popular Bronzeville neighborhood, whose heart was the intersection of 47th Street and South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard). The massive migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities revealed the creation of “a city within a city” in Chicago, as Bronzeville became the capital of black America. An extended walk in any direction from that intersection would have brought institutions of local black life into view—the Wabash YMCA west on 39th Street and the Provident Hospital east along 51st Street, Supreme Liberty Life Insurance on South Park at 35th, and the offices of the Chicago Defender and the Associated Negro Press just west along 35th. A wide variety of churches and spiritual homes could also be found, among them the Olivet Baptist Church at 31st and South Park, the Metropolitan Community Church ten blocks south, and the small but growing Second Temple of the Nation of Islam further south and west of 63rd and Cottage Grove.
Bronzeville certainly possessed many of the signs of a high quality of life. But it was also a community of stark contrasts, the “facets of its life as varied as the colors of its people’s skins.” These contrasts between urban achievement and profound social problems grew with continued northward migration through the Great Depression and World War II, as Bronzeville’s already crowded tenement apartments absorbed wave after wave of newcomers. As migration picked up steam again between 1942 and 1944, some sixty thousand more new arrivals doubled the city’s black population to 337,000, one-tenth of the total. Buildings abandoned and condemned in the 1930s were reinhabited during the war years, and the Black Belt remained, in Richard Wright’s words, “an undigested lump in Chicago’s melting pot.”
- St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (rev. ed. 1993)
- Adam Green, Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940–1955 (2007)
- James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (1989)
- Allen H. Spear, Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto, 1890–1920 (1967)
- Maren Stange, Bronzeville: Black Chicago in Pictures, 1941–1943 (2003)
- Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices (rev. ed. 1992)
- Richard Wright, Black Boy (American Hunger): A Record of Childhood and Youth (rev. ed. 1991)
- Richard Wright, “Shame of Chicago,” Ebony (1951)