Lisa Materson: African American Women, the Great Migration, and the Obama Presidency

For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877-1932, by Lisa G. MatersonWe welcome a guest post today from Lisa Materson, author of For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877-1932, which has just been released in a new paperback edition. In the book, Materson shows that as African American women migrated beyond the reach of southern white supremacists, they became active voters, canvassers, suffragists, campaigners, and lobbyists, mobilizing to gain a voice in national party politics and elect representatives who would push for the enforcement of the Reconstruction Amendments in the South. In this post, she discusses how Chicago women’s activism helped pave the way for Obama’s presidency.


The beginning of Barack Obama’s second term as the 44th President of the United States offers a moment to reflect on the historical origins of Obama’s presidential election victories. The election and then re-election of the first African American president were national events that marked a sea change in the history of U.S. politics. Obama’s national victories, however, emerged out of the specific historical context of Chicago politics.

Obama—who has roots in Hawaii, Kansas, Kenya, Indonesia, California, New York, and Massachusetts—launched his political career from Chicago, first as a community organizer, then as a three-term Illinois state senator and a U.S. senator. That the nation’s first African American president holds deep political ties to Chicago is no coincidence because Chicago has long been a key historical site of black political power in the U.S.

The political influence of black Chicago emerged decades before Obama announced his first candidacy for president, during the years of the Great Migration when tens of thousands of southern blacks relocated to northern cities. The Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s helped to make Chicago a center of black political power not only because the number of black voters in the city increased exponentially with the arrival of southern migrants, but also because those voters were concentrated in a relatively compact area located in the city’s South Side known as the Black Belt. For example, by 1930 the Second, Third, and Fourth Wards were more than 86, 79, and 58 percent black respectively. White Chicagoans enforced this residential segregation through restrictive housing covenants and violence. Such a concentrated voting bloc could make or break a candidate in primaries and close contests. Politicians paid attention.

Of course it was not just numbers that enabled black South Siders to stake a claim in party politics but also their intense participation in electoral contests. It is not widely known, however, that African American women, many of them southern migrants, were at the forefront of these political efforts to vote and get out the vote. Their political motivations to enter the electoral scene ran deep, as did their experience with the voting booth. They were the generation that witnessed both the disfranchisement of southern blacks and the enfranchisement of women.

Chicago was a place where women cast ballots as early as 1894, more than a quarter century before U.S. women’s full enfranchisement through the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Acutely aware that they had access to the ballot box while the majority of southern blacks did not, black women in Chicago mobilized to make sure that their voices were heard in electoral politics. Many believed that they could also serve as “proxy voters” for those who remained disfranchised in the South.

African American women in Chicago emerged as dedicated voters, canvassers, and even candidates. They worked tirelessly to ensure that neighbors cast their ballots and cast them well—holding political meetings, canvassing door-to-door, distributing flyers, and negotiating with machine politicians. They also traveled beyond Chicago to work with other black women across the nation to push white politicians to end legalized segregation and disfranchisement.

Their efforts paid off. Between 1915 and 1928, black voters in Chicago helped to put more black men into office than any other American city, including a U.S. congressman. This congressman was Oscar DePriest, whose 1928 victory made him the first black American to serve in Congress since 1901. DePriest was a Republican who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois’ First Congressional District. This district became a majority black district between 1926 and 1930.

The first black Democrat to be elected to Congress also came from Chicago. This was Arthur Mitchell, who defeated DePriest in 1934. A black man has occupied this First Congressional District seat continuously to this day. While an Illinois state senator representing portions of the South Side, Obama attempted to win this First Congressional District seat in 2000 but lost in the primaries. Four years later, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate that made him the nation’s fifth black senator and catapulted him onto the national political stage. Chicago’s black voters helped to put him there.

In the decades between DePriest’s election to Congress and Obama’s first inauguration, there were of course many other key figures in Chicago and well beyond who helped to set the stage for Obama’s election to the presidency. Obama won both presidential elections with the support of diverse sectors of the American public. Still, Obama’s rise to national prominence was possible in part because of the tireless canvassing efforts of often unheralded women in Chicago’s South Side decades before. These women, many of them migrants who had weathered southern disfranchisement battles, insisted that their votes and the votes of their neighbors mattered—for Chicago and for the nation. Their electoral activism was instrumental in making Chicago a center of black political power in the U.S. by the early twentieth century. In so doing, they paved a political path that—unbeknownst to them—would eventually help lead to the election of the nation’s first black president.

Lisa G. Materson is associate professor of history at the University of California at Davis.