"Part of the Loaf:" Economic Conditions of Chicago's African-American Working Class during the 1920's

By Canaan, Gareth | Journal of Social History, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview
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"Part of the Loaf:" Economic Conditions of Chicago's African-American Working Class during the 1920's


Canaan, Gareth, Journal of Social History


In January 1928, Sheridan A. Bruseaux of the Keystone National Detective Agency, a black Chicago company, sought information about the economic conditions of blacks in the United States from the U.S. Department of Labor. Bruseaux's agency had been hired by an unnamed party to "ascertain why the Negro is constantly being discharged from positions, and even the commonest labor of which he has been previously employed." Conditions in the midwest, he observed, were "alarming" and "getting more serious." [1] A month later, a high-ranking Department of Labor official, Karl Phillips, wrote back expressing puzzlement. Contrary to Bruseaux's assertions, Phillips responded that, "The Negro worker is enjoying the greatest opportunity and happiest period of his work life." African Americans were engaged in occupations previously closed to them, drawing higher wages than ever before and advancing into skilled occupations, he added. If Bruseaux's investigation turned up any evidence that contradicted the Labor Department's data, Phillips continued, it should be sent to him immediately. [2]

Phillips' response was less than candid. Over the previous two years, he had maintained a close correspondence with Morris Lewis, circulation manager of the Chicago Defender, in which Lewis gave frequent reports of persistent unemployment among African Americans in that city dating back to 1925. Agents from the Labor Department's Chicago office had sent similar reports. Phillips, however, sought to downplay the urgent nature of this correspondence in his memoranda to department bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.. "It is believed that the reports [of widespread unemployment in the middle western and eastern states] are exaggerated and do not reflect the true prosperity which has abounded within the ranks of Negro labor during the past year or two," Phillips wrote in one memo dated March 25, 1927--nearly a year before receiving the letter from Bruseaux. "Nevertheless," Phillips continued, "the reports are having a depressing effect, due to the widespread publicity which they are receiving." [3]

The ambiguous tone of Phillips' correspondence has been characteristic of the subsequent scholarship on Black Chicago during the 1920's, which has acknowledged and then brushed aside adverse social and economic conditions in this decade with more positive portrayals of the black community. Black Metropolis, the seminal sociological study by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton on Black Chicago during the early 1940's, characterizes the period of 1924 through early 1929 as the "Fat Years". This was a period, according to Cayton and Drake, in which the African American middle-class expanded, black-owned businesses flourished, an increased number of black workers entered the employment market, and there was a general sense of optimism in the community. It was during these years that community leaders' promotion of an autonomous "Black Metropolis"--a city within a city--held the greatest promise. [4] To varying degrees, Arvarh Strickland, Allan Spear, and James R. Grossman, in later studies of Black Chicago, have offered more nuanced interpretations of economic conditions of Black Chicago during those years. Economic fortune was not uniformly distributed among Black Chicagoans, and the close ties between white capital and African American civic and economic institutions belied the rhetoric of economic independence of the Black Metropolis. The significance of the economic conditions in these years, though, is largely overshadowed by favorable comparisons to migrants' conditions in the South prior to and during the Great Migration in the 1910's, or to the Great Depression of the 1930's. Accordingly, economic and social conditions during the 1920's have been more peripheral than central to discussions of Black Chicago during the early to middle twentieth century. [5]

This study seeks to further investigate economic opportunities and conditions for the African-American labor force, including both "old settlers" and migrants from the South, and to also investigate the impact of the Great Migration on the economic conditions in Black Chicago.

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