In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African Americans in Chicago

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African American Studies African Americans in Chicago
Christopher Reed
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0103


Just as Haitian-born Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable’s proactive career as explorer, trader, city founder, and finally wealthy entrepreneur concluded a successful linear journey during the later 18th century, the saga of Chicago’s African American population followed an amazingly similar route. Testing the adage of “If you can’t make it in Chicago, you can’t make it anywhere,” the epic of the African Americans of Chicago since the early 19th century and through three centuries can comparably be likened to the parable of the immovable object of systemic racism, as represented by white racism in all of its nefarious forms, encountering an irresistible force, characterized by the agency and resilience found in the thinking and various actions of African Americans throughout Chicago’s history. The former manifested itself as traditional prejudice and institutionalized discrimination in employment, housing, politics, business, and recreation. The latter was to be found in the attempted and attained aspirations, along with the stubborn persistence, and when necessary, physical resistance exerted through both the Black elites and masses. One force or the other had to yield, and over time many Black aspirations have been realized, if only incrementally. Three major transformations in thinking and behavior over the span of three centuries would have to be experienced and adjusted to before accommodation to urbanized, northern life could be completed. The first required breaking beyond the bounds of total subjection of mind and body by the former slaves, along with the restrictions applied to the purportedly free people of color, who now entered the Emancipation era. Upon experiencing the earliest stages of freedom, absorption into the urban milieu as liberated citizens and workers presented unforeseen challenges. They either embraced competition with whites or found themselves acquiescing retrogressively to their previous social status. What the 20th century presented was the opportunity to progress to a stage of civic-mindedness and participation as true urbanites and even cosmopolites. By midcentury, with the end of the century-long migratory surge of 1840 through the 1960s, a newer phase of a New Negro mentality became apparent. The election of Harold Washington as the city’s first African American mayor introduced them to the totality of life as citizens. Followed by the Obama presidency in the 21st century, Black life could never be expected to resume a static acceptance of life in terms of self-assessment and future outlooks. While existence in Chicago was “no crystal stair,” as Langston Hughes described the torturous climb of life for African Americans in America, it was still, as James M. Grossman has written, a land of hope.

Black Chicago through the Antebellum and Gilded Eras, 1833–1890

Reed 2005 (cited under Early Demographic Growth and Institutional Development) has shown that the early 19th century presented unique challenges to a miniscule Black population composed of both free people of color and fugitive slaves who lived through the fear of being returned to the South into bondage. Curry 1981 chronicled nationally their saga of seeking to join the American mainstream despite racial constraints. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 increased the existential possibility that Blacks residing in the North would experience the danger that Frederick Douglass warned of in facing a return to bondage. The Chicago environs fortunately contained resident Blacks and members of the white population who resisted African American bondage. Fortuitously, through biracial efforts led by African American businessman John Jones, Illinois’ nefarious Black Laws, which had precluded free people from enjoying the rights normally inherent in that status, were eliminated shortly before constitutionally sanctioned emancipation in late 1865. All in all, in embracing competition for limited employment in the service and domestic sectors, according to Spero and Harris 1969 (cited under Gilded Age Growth and Development); participating in the fullest extent of possible political rights, as Joens 2012 (cited under Gilded Age Growth and Development) has shown; joining the US Army to personally work to ensure that emancipation of all the slaves would become a reality, as revealed by Drinkard 1998 (cited under Transition during the Civil War); and as Pierce 1937 (cited under Opportunities for Cultural Advancement) indicated, taking advantage of education for the children, they set out on a course for the fullest future participation in American society. Work 1900 disclosed the relationship between their exclusion from work and criminality. Meanwhile, Woodson 1918 confirmed that the trickle of migrants from the South continued as the total city population started its explosive expansion. Migration was stimulated by participation in the World’s Columbian Exposition, as Reed 2000 (cited under Opportunities for Cultural Advancement) has disclosed.

  • Curry, Leonard P. The Free Black in Urban America: The Shadow of the Dream, 1800–1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

    Curry’s book concerned itself solely with Black populations east of Chicago. The same was true for James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, In Hope for Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest among Northern Free Blacks, 1700–1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). Nevertheless, they provided the model for Christopher Robert Reed, Black Chicago’s First Century, 1833–1900 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005), which explored Chicago with its small African American demographic.

  • Woodson, Carter G. A Century of Negro Migration. Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, 1918.

    The initial attempt to place Black movement, both voluntary and forced, into a migratory context that allowed appreciation of the continuous migratory patterns evident throughout American history, whether during the days of bondage or freedom.

  • Work, Monroe Nathan. “Crime among the Negroes of Chicago.” American Journal of Sociology 6 (1900): 204–223.

    DOI: 10.1086/210962

    The author’s essay was not only the first by an African American in this new scientific journal, but the first to establish the roots of Black criminal activities throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as they related to unemployment and underemployment.

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