Sweet Home Chicago: Part II. Building the Black Metropolis

Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world at the end of the 19th century; population doubled to one million between 1880 and 1890, grew to over two million by 1910 and passed three million by 1930. Population growth and economic growth were inextricably linked. Opportunities in the stockyards, meat packing, steel, manufacturing and trade drew people from within the US and from Europe. European immigration halted during the First World War and black migration from the south was promoted to fill industrial demand. Northern labor agents met local resistance from post-Reconstruction white southerners wanting to keep their cheap and indebted labor.

The Chicago Defender aggressively advocated migration as a means to build a black community in the north and as an escape from oppression in the Jim Crow south. The Defender would advance the Race, the term current in the black press and community to define itself. The Mississippi Delta was easily linked to Chicago via the Illinois Central. Its Pullman porters distributed the Defender in the south. W. C. Handy, author of the “St. Louis Blues,” had a sideline while living in Clarksdale, Mississippi surreptitiously supplying “Northern Negro” newspapers to folks in the town as well as to farmers, croppers and hands from outlying counties. Some two-thirds of Defender readership was outside of the Chicago with a heavy concentration in Mississippi.

Photo from Chicago Commission on Race Relations, 1922.

Photo from Chicago Commission on Race Relations, 1922.

Chicago’s black population predominately lived on the South Side in an area white Chicago called the Black Belt. Its residents re-imagined it as the Black Metropolis and Bronzeville. With the turn of the century Great Migration, Bronzeville expanded by 1920 to encompass neighborhoods south of the downtown business district from 18th  to 39th Streets  and then past 63rd Street by 1930. The black population increased from 30,150 in 1900 to 109,458 in 1920 to 233,903 in 1930. Migration slowed substantially in the early years of the Depression and then grew again in the late 1930s, black population increasing from 236,305 in 1934 to 277,731 in 1940. Migrants in search of housing pushed up against ethnic boundaries to the west and east and absorbed previously white neighborhoods to the south. Violence at the margins of black and white neighborhoods and restrictive covenants in white neighborhoods blocked access to the additional properties that could satisfy growing black housing demand.

Drake and Cayton Fi 6 Expansion of Black Belt

Map of the Black Belt. From St. Clair Drake & Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, originally published in 1945

Apartments in older dilapidated buildings closer to downtown were increasingly cut up into smaller and smaller units, creating crowded tenements and kitchenette dwellings. Six or seven families would rent a kitchenette in a flat previously leased to two families, a most profitable deal for landlords. By the 1930’s, housing shortages allowed landlords to rent space to as many as three hundred families in a space that once housed sixty families.  As more immigrants crowded into the poorer northern end of the Black Belt, wealthier and middle class blacks spread south when possible into better (previously white) neighborhoods.  The Great Migration created a “Negro market” for all types of black owned business with real estate speculation among the more lucrative.

Edwin Rosskam April 1941 Children in front of kitchenette apartment, Black Belt, Chicago, Illinois

Children in front of kitchenette apartments, Black Belt, Chicago, Illinois. Edwin Rosskam, 1941, Library of Congress

A decade of violent conflict primarily over housing and the expansion of the Black Belt culminated in the race riot of 1919. The spark was the drowning death of Eugene Williams who had strayed into a white’s only bathing beach and was stoned by white bathers. Thirty-eight died and over 500 were injured in the prolonged rioting. White gangs attacked black stockyard workers and streetcar passengers. Black mobs retaliated against whites working in the Bronzeville. Forty-seven homes were burnt down in the Stockyard district, allegedly by blacks. The New Year ushered in renewed bombing on the South Side, targeting the Washington Park home of Jesse Binga for the fourth time, a successful black realtor who had moved into a primarily white area. Some whites called for more segregation.


Opening intertitle of Oscar Micheaux’s silent film Within our Gates (1920). Chicago based Micheaux, one of the countries most prolific contemporary film makers, made the film to promote a grand narrative of race specific concerns and in response to W.D. Giffith’s Birth of a Nation.

The 1919 riot highlighted the challenge facing the black community which was both dependent upon Chicago’s dominant white economy and excluded from many of its economic and social opportunities. Most employment was in white owned enterprises outside Bronzeville and black consumer dollars often went to white owned stores in Bronzeville. St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton report in their path breaking Black Metropolis: A Study of Negros in a Northern City  that in 1938 about 50 percent of the enterprises in Bronzeville were Negro owned but accounted for less than 10 percent of the money spent. Some white Chicago money came into the Black Metropolis as philanthropy or investment, but black entrepreneurs where essentially cut off from capital from white banks and other investment market sources. Black Metropolis banks (notably the Binga Bank and Anthony Overton’s Douglas National Bank) and black owned and operated insurance companies could re-circulate capital within the community. With employment available primarily in the service sector and the lower income reaches of manufacturing, savings from wage income was not going to feed a significant flow of investable funds through banks or insurance companies.

Drake and Cayton Fig 12 Distribution of Citys Work

Employment data for 1930 collected by the Works Project Administration, for St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Life in a Northern City. 

Confronted with these challenges to advancement of the Race, the Black Metropolis would need to be built on a philosophy of self-help and self sufficiency, the emergence of a “New Negro” consciousness, and the efforts of entrepreneurs who provided legitimate and illegitimate goods, services and employment to the black market place. The creation and growth of the Stroll entertainment and leisure phenomena was a major cultural production of the Black Metropolis. Chicago became a hub of jazz and blues in the 1920s and 1930s while the next wave of blues was incubating in the Mississippi Delta.

As told by cultural historian Davarian L. Baldwin,the New Negro wanted opportunity rather than philanthropy to control both mental and manual labor and to have sufficient economic power to engage in black cultural production and pursue consumption strategies. Boxer Jack Johnson was deemed an early exemplar of an aggressive race consciousness. On July 4, 1910 he defeated Jim Jeffries, “The Great White Hope” to win the heavyweight boxing championship. His victory precipitated the first ever national race riot. Local and state efforts to suppress showing films of the fight were bolstered by a congressional prohibition on the interstate circulation of “boxing films.”

Jacl Johnson in car

Jack Johnson sitting in the driver’s seat of an automobile, Chicago, 1910. Chicago Historical Society

The Black Metropolis by Day

Confined geographically, daytime business activity and night time entertainment shared space within the Stroll. In the early decades of the century, the Stroll was located on State Street from 26th to 39th and centered on State and 35th. The opening of the Savoy Ballroom and the Regent Theater in the late 1920’s shifted the center of Bronzeville activity to 47th Street and South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive).

Bronzeville 11

Regal Theater and Savoy Ballroom. Edwin Rosskam, 1941. Library of Congress

The daytime commercial and institutional Stroll of the 1920s was a city within a city. Bronzeville took great pride in the Wabash Avenue YMCA opened in 1913 and funded through a combination of community and philanthropic donations. It offered comprehensive housing and employment services to new migrants.  The Provident Hospital provided employment for black physicians and nurses. The Eighth Regiment Armory was built for the all black Eighth Illinois, deployed in the First World War. Wendell Phillips High School was an integrated school with a strong overall curriculum offering an excellent music program for future Stroll musicians and a basketball program that sent players to the Harlem Globetrotters. Unity Hall was the headquarters of politician Oscar De Priest, the first African American elected to the Chicago City Council and the first African American congressman from the North. De Priest made his fortune in the stock market and Bronzeville real estate. Institutions of the sacred sphere included Ebenezer Baptist Church and Pilgrim Baptist Church (both associated with the birth and promotion of Gospel music), and Olivet Baptist Church.

Russel Lee Real April 1941 Crowd coming out of Pilgrim Baptist Church. Southside of Chicago, Illinois.jpg 2

Crowd coming out of Pilgrim Baptist Church. Russell Lee 1941. Library of Congress

Notable commercial landmarks included Robert Abbot’s Chicago Defender at 34th and Indiana (with its own printing plant installed after the Defender was denied printing services in the wake of 1919 riot) and Jesse Binga’s Bank at 35th and State. While the Defender played a major role in encouraging black migration from the south to Chicago, Binga played a major role in providing credit and housing for the expanding black population.

Jesse Binga, a legendary figure in the Bronzeville community, entered the real estate business before the turn of the century. In 1905, he leased property in a previously all white area and rented to Negros, earning a reputation as a pioneer in opening new housing to black residents. He soon opened a private bank. After 1915, as population increased substantially with the Great Migration, his property values also increased and he was able to purchase and lease more land as well as purchase the Binga Block, a row of storefront apartments on State Street between 47th and 48th streets. Binga opened the Binga State Bank in 1921, the first African American owned state chartered bank. The bank symbolized a new era for the black community which had very limited access to credit and banking services at Loop banks. Binga prospered along with the growth of the Negro community and he became a symbol of Negro bid for power via respectability.


Binga Bank at 36th and State Street

As deposits at his bank grew exponentially, he built a new bank building. It was hailed by the Chicago Tribune for its rich Ionic architecture “as you would expect to be found in the Loop, but not in the Black Belt.” Bank ownership leveraged Binga’s ability to acquire additional rental property.  By 1926, he owned more frontages on State Street south of 12th Street than any other person. At one time he owned 1,200 leaseholds on flats and residences.

Banking and real estate were cutthroat businesses on the South Side, and a successful entrepreneur could not avoid questions regarding altruism and ethics. Binga, while philanthropic, was criticized for being proud, self-assertive and belligerent and for his possible association with South Side gambling syndicates. More damaging was criticism that he raised rents excessively and reaped substantial profits from a community beset by a housing shortage imposed by segregation. The Defender reported that he “leased homes which rented for $20 and $25 a month and re-rented them to his own people for $10 to $15 more than white renters had been paying.”

In 1929, Binga erected the Arcade Building on the corner of 35th and State, a richly decorated five story office building with a dance hall on the roof. It was his attempt to revive the original center of the Stroll, now losing commercial and entertainment business to the new growth area around 47th and South Park. The location was degenerating into a slum and some questioned whether the project could earn sufficient rents to make it profitable.


Arcade Building and top floor interior

Anthony Overton, a beauty culture mogul, also prospered in the 1920s as did beauty culturists Madam C. J. Walker and Marjorie Stewart Joyner (who held a patent for the first permanent wave machine). They provided beauty products and techniques to black women who otherwise were not served in the consumer market place. Building on his success in beauty culture, Overton expanded into a wide range of enterprises that were central to the development of the Bronzeville market.

The four-story Overton Hygienic Building, at 36th and State housed his Douglas National Bank (one of the first African American owned banks with a national charter), and the Victory Life Insurance Company. Victory, along with the black owned and operated Liberty Life Insurance Company, provided insurance to the under-served northern black population.

Other Overton Hygienic tenants included the Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.), the major booking agent for black musicians and touring companies throughout the South and Midwest with more than 50 associated theaters by 1925. The Chicago Music Company was a music publisher owned by J. Mayo “Ink” Williams manager of Paramount record’s Race Artists Series and later a recruiter for the Vocalion race label. His company recorded prominent musicians of the period including Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox (whose “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” became an early feminist anthem), Ma Rainey, Charles (Cow Cow) Davenport, Blind Lemon Jefferson, William (Big Bill) Broonzy, Tampa Red (Hudson Whittaker), and Georgia Tom (Thomas Dorsey). Dorsey would win acclaim as one of the pioneers of the piano-guitar duo style blues and as the “Father of Gospel.”

overton hygenic wo caption

The Overton Hygienic Building at 36th and State Street. Anthony Overton planned a six-story building but could not raise an additional $200,000 in bond sales.

Overton built the Chicago Bee Building down the street from the Overton Hygienic to house his newspaper of the same name and moved into that building after the failure of his Douglas National Bank.

Commercial Bronzeville grew in the 1920’s and then suffered disproportionately during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Unemployment in Chicago among black professionals was five times as high as among white professionals, three times as high for black versus white skilled and clerical workers, and twice as high for black versus white unskilled workers and those in service trades. Some 30 to 50 percent of families in the Black Belt were on relief compared to 10 to 20 percent in the surrounding native and foreign born white areas.

As Chicago entered the Lean Years, black banks suffered before white banks just as black employees were fired before white employees. Binga State Bank and Douglas National Bank held one-third of all deposits in Negro banks in the United States during the Fat Years of the 1920s. Both were wiped out in 1930 along with other white owned Black Belt and greater Chicago banks.

The loans and investments of Binga State Bank soured with collapse of the Black Metropolis economy and real estate market. There was a run on the Binga State Bank as banks closed throughout the country. Under Jesse Binga’s aggressive management, the bank held too large a portfolio of first mortgages that contributed to its insolvency. More damaging was evidence of personal loans to Binga and allegations of his embezzlement from the bank. While some including, W.E.B. DeBois, claimed that the House of Binga was allowed to fail due to racism, others pointed to Binga’s refusal to give up control in exchange for an infusion of capital that could save the bank.

Binga was tried and found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to serve time in Joliet State Penitentiary. Jesse Binga was not the first Chicago entrepreneur to make risky real estate investments which might have succeeded absent market trauma.  He was not alone among pillars of their communities brought down by the market collapse. Chicago utility magnet Samuel Insull was accused of selling worthless stock to unsuspecting investors and wiped out the life savings of 600,000 shareholders. He was tried for wire fraud and antitrust violations and eventually acquitted.

The failure of the Binga and Douglas Banks was a double blow to Bronzeville. The community suffered a loss of their life savings and a loss of the prestige and Race pride stemming from community ownership of its own banks.

Depression Blues

“Sweet Home Chicago” lauds the Black Metropolis as a migratory “northern Shangri-La.” During the Depression, other blues commented on the Lean Years with pathos and humor. Bessie Smith’s “No Body Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (which was written in the early 1920s and recorded in 1929 before the crash) applied to those on Wall Street as well as those at 47th and South Parkway with its graphic and desperate line “if I ever get my hands on a dollar again I’m gonna hold on to it ’till them eagles grin.”

Tampa Red expressed his anguish in “Depression Blues”:

If I could tell my troubles, it may would give my poor heart ease
If I could tell my troubles, it may would give my poor heart ease
But depression’s got me, somebody help me please.

Blues about the Works Progress Administration (WPA) were an opportunity to share the misery and laugh at government program’s that didn’t do enough to help Bronzeville. In Casey Bill Weldon’s “WPA Blues,” the singer lives in a home about to be torn down as a part of slum clearance:

Well well went to the relief station and I didn’t have a cent
If that’s the only way you stand you don’t have to pay no rent
So when I got back home, they was tacking a notice on the door
This house is condemned and you can’t live there no more

In a follow up “New WPA Blues,” Weldon laments the fate of a gambler whose luck has turned and has to get a job with the WPA. In “That Man of the WPA” Billie McKenzie sings about losing her man when he gets a job working for the WPA.

Before then I gave him my money, even bought his shoes and clothes
I said I gave him my money, even bought his shoes and clothes
Got a job on the WPA and put poor me outdoors.

Peetie Wheatstraw (born William Bunch and billed as the “High Sheriff from Hell” and the “Devils Son-in-Law”) recorded a series of songs on the WPA. In “New Working on the Project” he sings of his fear of being laid off (getting a 304 discharge notice) when the Roosevelt Administration was making cuts in some New Deal programs.

Working on the project, the rent man is knocking on my door
Working on the project, the rent man is knocking on my door
I am sorry Mr. Rent Man, I just got my 304.

Washboard Sam (Robert Brown) preferred the Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) to the WPA. In “CCC Blues” he sings about going down the CCC office:

I told her I needed a job and no relief
On my rent day, she sent me a can of beef
I’m going down, I’m going down, to the CCC
I know that the WPA won’t do a thing for me

Policy Wheels (4-11-44)

Policy gambling and the night time Stroll provided substantial economic support to the Black Metropolis. Better-paying industrial jobs provided disposable income for leisure activities but according to Baldwin, greater support came from the “nickels and dimes used to buy drinks in local dance halls and put on lucky numbers at policy wheels.” Black Metropolis authors Drake and Cayton counted some 500 “policy stations” in the community, almost as numerous as churches and more evenly distributed.

Bronzeville rosskam_edwin_58_2003_426868_displaysize

Policy slips in front of policy wheel location. Edwin Rosskam, 1941. Library of Congress.

Policy, a lottery game before the state shut it down and turned it into The Lottery, involved choosing usually three numbers (a gig) out of those from one to 78. Policy was ubiquitous in the Black Metropolis. John “Mushmouth” Johnson had opened a saloon in 1890 that featured policy. By the 1930’s there were multiple companies running policy pools (wheels) with three drawings a day, the last at midnight helping to sustain activity on the nighttime Stroll. Thousands of porters, runners, bookkeepers and others were employed. A policy station could keep 25 percent of business they wrote, providing supplemental income to hundreds of small businesses.

Policy had a strong hold on devotees, a hold stronger than winning would warrant. The possibility of winning $20 for a dime bet (with odds of 76,076 to 1) “could make a country boy just out of Georgia feel like a big time gambler.”  There was mystery, anticipation and an esoteric language. Dream books and spiritual advisers helped gamblers choose a winning number. Dream books placed numbers against words. Some long time devotees could write poetry with the number equivalents.

Policy was an ideal subject for the blues since it held out a hope of riches but generally left players with nothing. Chicago blues guitarist Blind Blake recorded his double entendre “Playing Policy Blues” with a verse that Aunt Sally’s Policy Players Dream Book suggests either refers to a sexual act or a desire to have his clothes washed. In Kokomo Arnold’s “Policy Wheel Blues” he laments “look what the policy wheel done to me/took all my money and it still won’t let me be.” In his “Policy Blues” Bo Carter sings that he’s “going to put my last dime on that 20, 30 and the little old 10/They tell me that’s my babies initials and will bring my money back home again.” Jim Jackson in his “Policy Blues” sings “I woke up in the mornin’, with one thin dime/The policy man gets that before the clock strikes nine.” Noted Chicago slide guitarist Bumble Bee Slim (Amos Easton) recorded “Policy Dream Blues” and early female blues vocalist Elzadie Robinson recorded her “Elzadie’s Policy Blues” with clarinet accompaniment.

Policy was syndicated in 1931. Drake and Cayton estimated that the syndicate had a gross turnover of a     least $18 million in 1938. To put that figure in perspective, while the Black Metropolis had about 8 percent of the city’s population, the gross from policy was close to one-third of Chicago’s 1939 $57 million city budget. An estimated $500,000 went downtown as protection/kickbacks making policy a lucrative activity for the party in power.

Drake and Cayton Fig 28 Policy Racket

The Policy Racket, from St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, The Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City.

The above Policy Racket schema from Drake and Cayton is informative on many levels. First, it must be noted that while it is racially insensitive by contemporary standards, it is not an atypical stereotyped rendering for the 1930s-1940s. Second, Drake and Cayton were clear about the fact that race was a prime determinant of economic and social opportunity in Chicago. In this regard, the schema clearly illustrates the distribution of roles and the division of the spoils from policy among participants by race with black and white as racial shorthand. The syndicate is dominated by Policy Kings in the Black Metropolis who get the biggest share of policy revenues, although there is one white face at the table. Policy buys protection from police (black patrolman, white police officials) and the white courts. Policy buys patronage and helps to bring in the vote. There is a cut to station owners and wages to employees. A share of the money thrown at policy by the many black players at the bottom eventually goes to the white political bosses at the top. One lucky player has a hit.

Drake and Cayton labeled policy an “unorthodox form of primitive accumulation.” Since most property and business in Bronzeville was white owned, those profits were likely to be reinvested outside of the community. In contrast, policy profits were often reinvested in Bronzeville. When “Mushmouth” Johnson died, part of his wealth went to his sister Eudora (future wife of Jesse Binga) and on to help underwrite Jesse Binga’s bank and real estate empire. Baldwin points out that policy gambling funneled savings back into the community and helped finance many of the clubs and theaters on the Stroll as well as some other prominent businesses. Drake and Cayton estimated that perhaps 20 percent of large Negro businesses were owned by policy people. Policy Kings vied with legitimate members of the Race for respectability within the community. When the Depression weakened legitimate business, policy still employed thousands.

Next: Part III. Jazz and Blues on the Stroll

Bronzeville 18 In front of the movie picture theater Russell Lee 1941

In front of the movie-picture theater, Russell Lee, 1941. Library of Congress.

Notes and Sources

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