The following is an excerpt from The Multiracial Promise: Harold Washington’s Chicago and the Democratic Struggle in Reagan’s America by Gordon K. Mantler, available wherever books are sold.
THEY CALLED IT the promised land. The warmth of other suns. The Black Metropolis. For at least four generations, African Americans flocked to Chicago to escape the living hell of the South’s Jim Crow racial caste system and to seek out greater opportunity for themselves and their families. They went far from home, braved far worse weather, into a far more urban area in the hopes of finding better jobs, schools, and lives than they had in the South. Sometimes they followed a father, an aunt, or some other relative to the city. Sometimes they simply jumped on the Illinois Central or another railroad line to see where it would take them. They went to other cities, too, such as Detroit, Baltimore, and Los Angeles. But more than any place, the destination was Chicago. On the other side, they often found themselves working in the industries that made the city famous—meatpacking, steel, and the railroad. Or they worked in the defense industry sparked by war in the 1910s and again in the 1940s. They also found conditions that were better—but not much better—than those they left behind in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and elsewhere in the Deep South. Housing in the city’s Black Belt, even for middle-class African Americans, was usually crowded and cramped, prone to fires and rats. Petty crime and worse, sometimes spilling from Black neighborhoods’ lucrative and illegal numbers rackets, plagued the streets, as did trash and grime. The public schools were better than those in the South but strikingly segregated and increasingly crowded and underresourced. And while many Blacks lived just a short train ride away from the downtown Loop, most businesses there refused to serve them.
A must read for scholars and activists alike.Jakobi Williams, author of From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago
The 1919 race riots were particularly eye-opening and unnerving for African Americans, revealing how violence reinforced the city’s inequalities. Sparked by the stoning death of Black swimmer Eugene Williams, who crossed an invisible Black-white demarcation line at the Twenty-Third Street beach on Lake Michigan, the violence lasted more than a week. Thirty-eight people died, 23 of them Black, and another 537 were injured, two-thirds of them Black, as white mobs indiscriminately attacked them in their own neighborhoods. Blacks, many of them veterans of World War I, fought back, preventing worse carnage. But despite Blacks’ clear signal that they would valiantly protect themselves and their communities with guns and fists, whites’ message to African Americans, new arrivals and longtime residents alike, remained crystal clear: Do not linger outside of your neighborhood. Do not take our jobs, or our daughters and sisters. Do not think about moving outside of where we say you can live. Among the leaders of the rioting whites were members of the Hamburg Athletic Club, an Irish American youth gang to which future mayor Richard J. Daley belonged and which he eventually led. Because the white youths were never prosecuted or even investigated for their role in the riots, it is not clear if Daley participated, but many historians reasonably suspect that he did, given how important the gang was to his youth and eventual rise in local politics.
This is the book we’ve needed on Harold Washington and his era of Chicago politics.Simon Balto, author of Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power
The violence by such gangs, in coordination with the police, masked the other organizations behind the solidification of the city’s color line. Alarmed by the seemingly never-ending influx of Black migrants to the South and West Sides, the Chicago Real Estate Board in 1917 established a strategy of “block-by-block segregation,” in which blocks were to be filled with African Americans before another block could be touched; four years later, the board reinforced this rule by calling for the “immediate expulsion from the Chicago Real Estate Board … any member who sells a Negro property in a block where there are only white owners.” Banks, even the Black-owned Binga Bank, the city’s first, made sure to lend only to African Americans buying in areas deemed Black-friendly. The bank’s founder, Jesse Binga, had made a fortune, among other things, by gouging Black renters for subpar housing—illustrating the uncomfortable truth that a significant portion of the Black middle class in Chicago and other American cities may have been unethical landlords themselves. The Board of Education established neighborhood schools as policy. The local Roman Catholic Church established Saint Monica’s Parish as reserved for Blacks only. And the Republican Party organization of Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson, which increasingly depended on African American votes in the city, viewed a concentrated Black electorate as to its advantage in voter organization and turnout. The color line became firmer and firmer even as more and more Blacks flocked to the city.
Gordon K. Mantler is associate professor of writing and history and executive director of the University Writing Program at George Washington University. He is author of Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960–1974.