The following essay is adapted from a chapter of the forthcoming memoir, Sacred Ground: The Chicago Streets of Timuel Black, by Timuel Black with Susan Klonsky.
I was under a year old when my parents came to Chicago from Alabama on the train, bringing my 10-year-old sister Charlotte, my 4-year-old brother Walter, and me, the baby. My folks arrived in Chicago with quite a handful; their possessions plus the three of us, and my mother expecting baby number four.
We arrived in August, 1919, mere weeks after the infamous Chicago race riot. Uncounted dozens of Black Chicagoans had died at the hands of white mobs who raced through the few black neighborhoods of the city, setting fires, beating and murdering. The mayhem was the culmination of worsening competition for jobs in the stockyards, the packing plants and the mills. Ethnic European immigrants sought to defend their perceived interests against us, the newcomers. But even knowing about the fresh Chicago violence, my parents were among the tens of thousands who came north anyway. Perhaps they viewed the race riot as an aberration, whereas the white terror that constantly threatened in Alabama was a permanent feature.
My father and mother had migrated twice already, first from tenant farms where they chopped cotton, to the market town of Florence, Alabama, and on from there to the city of Birmingham, but the lure of a real, modern, northern metropolis was powerful.
All of my grandparents and all my great-grandparents had been slaves on cotton plantations. My parents grew up as sharecroppers but had been to grammar school and were highly literate. They had aspirations for their young family, which they believed could not be fulfilled in Alabama. My father—never one to back down from a confrontation—had several narrow escapes from lynching, and my parents agreed it was time to head north. Their story echoes those of European Jews eluding pogroms, or Irish farmers escaping starvation. Their departures reflected no lack of love for home, but a desire for wider horizons. Little did they imagine how narrow their options would remain in the relative freedom of Chicago.
Their northward migration was encouraged by the Chicago Defender, the flagship Black newspaper disseminated throughout the South by the Black railway employees. It was said that every copy of The Defender changed hands at least 5 times. Its editor and publisher Robert Abbott exhorted southern Blacks to come north for opportunity, particularly to jobs in the Chicago stockyards, on the railroad, and in the mills. He was unabashed in his appeal to blacks to take jobs as “replacement workers” when labor struggles resulted in mass firings of strikers.
In the fast-growing industrial economy, Abbott promised, you might start on the bottom, but with a little effort you would rise. His newspaper was peppered with success stories about black entrepreneurs who had arrived with little in the way of capital, but who in Chicago had built churches, hotels, insurance companies, funeral homes, cosmetics and other specialty businesses catering to black consumers. In a burgeoning, segregated market, one had only to hang out a shingle and a black dentist or beautician had a guaranteed clientele at the door. A tiny neighborhood grocery store didn’t require much money to get started, but it could feed an extended family for generations, and I still know south-side families who started with a fruit stand the day they got off the train.
We disembarked at the 12th Street Station —our Ellis Island. We had started out from Birmingham clean and pressed, and we arrived in Chicago thinly veiled with coal dust from the locomotive, our nails grimy despite my mother’s best effort to keep us looking tidy for our grand arrival. We were met by a delegation of relatives and friends. Quite a few members of my family were already in Chicago, including my maternal grandma and several aunts and their husbands and households. So a social network was already in place.
The former Alabamans who had already settled in Chicago immediately set about coaching my parents about how to behave in a big city: Don’t spit on the sidewalk, don’t walk on the grass. Don’t talk too loud. If you’re reading The Defender, put it inside The Tribune. Although my parents were urban folk from Birmingham, it was still different in the North. Even the relatively urban South was provincial compared to Chicago. So the members of the first Great Migration, those of my parents’ and my generation, received this informal but intentional training. The training was profound, almost intrusive and judgmental. One of its pillars was this: Don’t have too many babies. You’re not down south anymore. In the urban south as in the urban north, babies cost money. In farming areas, lots of babies were an asset. You needed more hands to work the farm and feed the family. But in Chicago, it was deemed “country” to have a large brood of kids.
We moved not simply to Chicago, but specifically and deliberately to the south side of Chicago. Our first residence was on the 4900 block on St. Lawrence. When we got there it was predominantly white, mostly Bohemian, Estonian, other white ethnics, but those whites soon ran away. My mother signed my siblings up for what was reputed to be the finest grammar school in the neighborhood. Typically she chose the school based on where the Jewish families sent their kids. As each barrier fell, my aunts would come over and say, “Have you heard? They are renting to colored over on … Street,” and Momma would pack up our household and we’d move closer to what was believed to be the better school. This was the pattern for lots of families, and from then on, it became an expanding black community. The powerful network of mothers moved us along.
The limited availability of living space for blacks in Chicago shaped the African-American community on the South Side. Strict covenants prohibited the sale or rental of housing to blacks beyond clearly circumscribed boundaries. When we arrived in Chicago and throughout much of my youth, the region known as the Black Belt was bordered by 31st Street on the north, by 63rd on the south, by the west side of Cottage Grove on the east, and by the east side of the Rock Island railroad tracks on the west. Just outside this border lay the community of northwest Woodlawn, which was already somewhat mixed, with a scattering of white-collar and professional blacks in residence, but they were still a rarity outside the Black Belt. These boundaries were both unwritten laws and formal statute that stood as late as the early 1960s when the last legal vestiges of housing segregation were formally struck down.
The rapidly growing black population was densely packed within those boundaries, given the enforcement of the restrictive housing covenants, such that the average population in the Black Belt was 84,000 persons per square mile, compared to 21,000 whites per square mile just a few blocks outside the boundary. Whole families occupied tiny apartments known as “kitchenettes,” in which a large house would first be cut up into apartments, and then the apartments subdivided into mini-apartments consisting of one or two small rooms with a stove for both heat and cooking amid the living/sleeping space.
The restrictive covenants were struck down most notably in two cases which went all the way to the US Supreme Court, the first arising in Chicago—Hansberry v. Lee (1940)—followed by Shelly v. Kraemer (1948). (The Hansberry of the first case was the father of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, whose masterwork Raisin in the Sun is based upon her family’s effort to purchase a home in the vicinity of Washington Park).
Paradoxically, the enforced compression of our community and its ensuing density yielded a rich broth of concentrated commerce, creativity, spiritual life and political ferment. Within the Black Belt we had everything—entertainment, religion, politics, shopping—you name it. I could walk to get almost anything I might need. Even the great black entertainers, when they came to perform in downtown Chicago, stayed within the Black Belt. It was said that they could play downtown, but they couldn’t stay downtown. So it was that we got to know such artists as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and many more. Our neighborhood was their home away from home. The boundaries within which we were confined became the center of my existence as a kid, and still later, the cultural, social and political center which propelled the Black arts movement, the civil rights movement, and national and international politics. When we arrived in 1919, no one would have foreseen such influence for our little corner of the city.
I have been here in the same neighborhood continually except for a few brief interludes in other cities and during World War II. I have walked the streets of this neighborhood since 1919. Even now, I can walk from where I live today at 49th and Drexel Boulevard, to every house where I ever lived. So for me this is indeed real, solid, sacred ground. It’s still here. It’s had its ups and downs. We came here as migrants, we have overcome a lot, and there’s still plenty of overcoming to be done. ◊