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A History of African American Heritage in Chicago

The massive exodus to the north began in 1915; a population of people weary of pervasive hostility and constraint in their former lives, fleeing a social system comprised of miserable oppression and repeated violence. The primary cities for resettlement became New York and Chicago, metropolises humming with the vigor of big-city life and the excitement of a new beginning. When the Chicago Commission asked African American migrants in interviews on Race Relations in 1922 why they came to Chicago, responses were similar. ?I?m looking for better wages.? ?I wanted to get away from the South, and to earn more money.? ?I wanted to better my living conditions.? One man, when asked what his first impression of Chicago was, responded ?When I got here and got on the street cars and saw colored people sitting by white people all over the car I just held my breath, for I thought that any minute they would start something, then I saw nobody noticed it, and I just thought this was a real place for colored people.? And life was good; if not ideal it was better than the disparaging environment of their prior residence in the South.

This migration coincided with the War. Job opportunities sprang up everywhere as demand increased for more goods and services, and suddenly in 1920 the Negro population of Chicago had soared from 44,103 in 1915 to 109,594. The Illinois Central Railroad brought hundreds on free transportation, on the premise that they would employ their company. The Negro employment rate skyrocketed; the most popular jobs lying within the iron foundries, food products manufacturing, the tanneries, and the mail order industry.

The majority of blacks coming from the south settled in a limited area known as the South Side. Named the ?black belt of the city,? it was the most concentrated area of the African American population of the time. The difficulty of finding residence in the other parts of the city and the abundance of vacant houses aided in this settlement of the South Side. However, as deep-seated racial prejudice was still running rampant throughout the nation, loud protests erupted and whites quickly abandoned residential areas populated by blacks.

Underlying racial hostility between blacks and whites was unfortunately gaining momentum. On July 27, 1919, this animosity was demonstrated in a terrible week of rioting beginning with the drowning of African-American youth Eugene Williams off a Lake Michigan beach. This event was a catalyst for a weeklong violent, bloody warfare. As black workers walked or rode the streetcars west and arrived to begin their shifts at the Stockyards, they were met by angry mobs of white gangs and workers, who attacked them mercilessly and drove them off. The mobs were beyond control. African American community members armed themselves and prepared to defend themselves and their homes against armed white gangs who tore into their neighborhood. The end of the week concluded in death tolls of 23 blacks and 15 whites, 157 persons being injured.

The Chicago Commission on Race Relations was established soon after these staggering race riots, to study the roots and causes of the conflict. Their report on Chicago in 1992, with interviews of hundreds of black Chicago citizens, provided an insightful window into the race problem in the North, which attention was being drawn to due to the Great Migration.

States the Chicago Commission on Race Relations in the document The Negro in Chicago,

?Both races need to understand that their rights and duties are mutual and equal,

and that their interests in the common good are identical: that relations of amity are the only protection against race clashes; that these relations cannot be forced, but will come naturally as the leaders of each race develop within their own ranks a realization of the gravity of this problem and a vital interest in its solution, and an attitude of confidence, respect, and friendliness toward the people of the other race.?

The conflicts between blacks and whites have since subsided a great amount, but residue from the memories of violence and hatred still prevails. It will be a momentous day when we can be united as one indiscriminate, unbiased race, but that day has yet to come.


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