Chicago newspaper sparked the 'Great Migration'
African-Americans flocked to South Side for work during World War I
CHICAGO -- Less than half a mile east of U.S. Cellular Field, in the shadow of a subway platform on the city's South Side, is situated a beautiful mural depicting the likenesses of such legendary jazz and gospel artists as Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, and Mahalia Jackson.
Above the faces is painted the name "Bronzeville," indicating not only the neighborhood near which the White Sox play but also one from which has come a long line of prominent African-Americans whose contributions in the realms of music, art, literature, business, politics and athletics have made Chicago a beacon of African-American culture renowned the world over.
But how did this northern American city -- which has been called home by jazz greats Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, blues legends Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters, gospel singer Inez Andrews, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, Negro National Baseball League founder Andrew "Rube" Foster, political activist Jesse Jackson and others -- gain such a rich African-American culture dating back nearly a century, to a time when a majority of black Americans lived in the rural South?
A clue lies just a few blocks further east in the form of a vacant, 114-year-old building once occupied by the newspaper that helped spark the largest migration of a people group in U.S. history.
That newspaper is the Chicago Defender, which was founded in 1905 by Robert Sengstacke Abbott and initially headquartered out of a small kitchen in his landlord's apartment. Starting with a 25-cent investment, Abbott transformed a weekly, four-page handbill into the most influential African-American newspaper in the country in less than a decade.
A lawyer by trade, Abbott was continually advocating for the relocation of Southern blacks to the North, particularly to Chicago. His interest was out of concern for his people, who were suffering unspeakable racial prejudice, oppression, and violence in the post-Reconstruction South , but also in the hopes of having a thriving African-American business community of which he could be part.
"[Abbott's] paper had been spreading the word of opportunity [in the North] for years," said Dr. Christopher Reed, professor emeritus of history at Roosevelt University in Chicago and author of Black Chicago's First Century. "He had always been inviting blacks to come north. He said, 'better to freeze on the streets of Chicago in the dead of winter than to be misled into thinking that you were enjoying the warmth of Georgia's lynching bees.'
"And Abbott, being a very good businessman … said look, I'm going to become a booster of where I live and this is going to help me in my business. … For years, people were aware that there was this 'paradise' called Chicago where blacks could advance in politics, where their children could go to school, where they could get decent jobs … [and] where they could get housing that might not have been the best, but it beat housing in the South."
Even though the Defender was a Chicago newspaper, it was read widely in the South, despite white newspaper distributors' refusal to circulate it and consequences for reading it if someone was able to obtain a copy.
"If you were caught reading the Defender in Southern towns, you might be punished," Reed said. "[So] how did the Defender get to the South? You could mail [it], but the Southerners could interfere with the mail as they had done before the Civil War. Pullman [train car] porters, who were friends of Abbott's and vice-versa, would take bundles of Defenders through the South and throw them from the back of trains as the trains were leaving stations.
"And then blacks went out and grabbed a bundle or grabbed two or three Defenders and maybe 10 or 20 people would read it themselves, or hundreds would hear people reading what was in the Chicago Defender."
One particular Defender editorial, dated Aug. 5, 1916, helped spark the migration of over 100,000 black Southerners to Chicago between 1916-18, and many more that followed thereafter -- totaling approximately 500,000 by 1970. In all, some 7 million Southern blacks would move to various northern cities to pursue opportunity over that period.
In part, the editorial read: "The world's war has proved a blessing to us. The shutting down of immigration, due to the war, has created a demand for our labor … [and since] we need an opportunity to earn our bread and to protect our homes as other men … our only hope is to leave that country [the South ] at once for a better land."
While Abbott had been advocating for what he called a "Northern Drive" for years, he now seized on a moment in history when a real mass movement could be possible, setting the stage for "the Great Migration."
"The Defender … had been advocating a northern migration for years, but it was a subtle message," Reed explained. "When the war [WWI] started, you had this editorial and you had this very active effort to get blacks to come north. … [Abbott] seized upon the moment."
|"The world's war has proved a blessing to us. The shutting down of immigration, due to the war, has created a demand for our labor … [and since] we need an opportunity to earn our bread and to protect our homes as other men … our only hope is to leave that country [the South ] at once for a better land."|
|-- Robert Sengstacke Abbott, 1916|
Abbott's dream of a mass African-American move to the North was realized primarily because of two factors, as he described in his 1916 editorial: the shutting down of European immigration into the United States following the outbreak of World War I, and the resulting shortage of industrial labor in northern U.S. cities.
"It's not the 'Northern Drive' as a slogan or as a movement that gets the [Southern blacks] to come," said Reed. "It's the whole shift in attitudes by northern employers and by the federal government, [which felt] there must be enough workers in America's plants -- meaning northern plants -- to produce the processed foods and the other goods that constitute war materials that had to be available to ship to the [soldiers fighting abroad]."
Many northern industrial companies sent recruiters to the South in search of labor to replenish their war-depleted ranks. For a time, even the federal government tried to entice Southern blacks to move to higher geographic latitudes.
"Blacks were persuaded [to move north] by government agents from the Department of Labor for a very short period [of time] because Southern whites needed blacks in the South to work for virtually nothing," Reed explained. "[The white Southerners] pressured the federal government to stop the official government sanction that had blacks coming north.
"But then the companies that needed workers -- the big meat-packing companies and some of the steel companies -- they'd send agents to the South to induce workers to come north. And sometimes they had [train] tickets," Reed added.
"The biggest impetus, though, [came] from the African-Americans themselves, who metaphorically represented a great big volcano ready to explode," said Reed. "And the explosion would be one of talent, energy and creativity. You just couldn't move under the legal restrictions in the South. Now, here was a chance. The Northerners for the first time -- that is, employers and government officials and civic leaders -- said we welcome more of our black citizens into the Northern ranks. That had not been the case until World War I."
The "volcano of talent, energy and creativity" that Reed cites led to Chicago's South Side becoming a seemingly unlimited source of talented and passionate musicians, artists, scholars, poets, political activists, athletes and others in the decades that followed.
A man who has seen Bronzeville grow and flourish in this regard for nearly that entire span is Timuel Black.
Black, now 94 years old, moved with his parents to Chicago from Birmingham, Ala., when he was an infant in 1919, and he remembers seeing the South Side community sprout in its early beginnings.
"It was very, very interesting," Black said. "Because you see, you had a diversity of the population. You had the business people. Then you had the professionals -- doctors, lawyers. We had diversity, and all of that was concentrated in this ghetto. So in that diversity, we created in that period of time what I call parallel institutions: parallel political institutions, parallel recreational institutions, parallel institutions all the way through. And so it was a feeling of independence and security that those of my generation felt."
Black witnessed first-hand many landmark achievements for African-Americans coming from Bronzeville, and himself became an educator, political activist, community leader and oral historian.
"So many successful blacks in almost every area have had their success in Chicago," said Black, who also helped organize Chicago's delegation to the 1963 March on Washington, and two decades later helped get Chicago's first black mayor -- Harold Washington -- elected to office in '83.
"Harold Washington is one, [and] Oscar De Priest, the first black congressman after Reconstruction. The first 10 black certified public accountants in the country came from Chicago because of the amount of [black] businesses. One of the wealthiest women -- black or white -- at that time in the United States was [a black woman] in Chicago, [Annie] Malone [who moved her thriving cosmetics business to the South Side in 1927]."
Black said the rich musical heritage that African-Americans from the South brought with them to Chicago in the Great Migration immediately struck a chord with white musicians who would come to the South Side to hear the new genres of jazz, blues, and gospel for which Chicago is now famous.
"Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and that group coming in the early part of the 1920's, because the music was so exciting, there were people like Benny Goodman from the west side, and his guys liked that music," Black recalled. "They used to come to the South Side to play with those musicians. There was interplay between the African-American musicians and the Caucasian musicians who liked jazz. And they were friends, and we younger people saw that and were inspired by that."
Dr. Reed agrees that the Great Migration helped to change racial attitudes among some in the North, not only through the sharing of music and culture, but also by what he says was the primary motivation for the migration: the chance to compete for a better life.
"Being competitors, willing to compete and willing to win in competition [is] very important in race relations," Reed said. "In the South, blacks were prevented from competing. .... [As] blacks who migrated said, 'In the South, all the work was done by Negroes, [whereas] in the North, whites [also] worked.' ... And the more they were able to compete and prove to whites they were good competitors, not only did blacks advance in terms of money and class, but they also broke down racial barriers."
On a different field of competition -- the South Side's Major League Baseball venue at U.S. Cellular Field -- the White Sox and Texas Rangers will play in the seventh annual Major League Baseball Civil Rights Game on Aug. 24. And the two teams won't need to look far for their own motivation to compete on the diamond.
After all, over half a million African-Americans in the past century had the courage to move their entire lives thousands of miles in search of a better future for themselves and their families, leading to the creation of a "Black Metropolis" in the historic community of Bronzeville.