Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Beyond Chicago's Black Metropolis: A History of the West Side's First Century, 1837-1940

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Beyond Chicago's Black Metropolis: A History of the West Side's First Century, 1837-1940

Article excerpt

1

Current research on the west side of Chicago has invalidated the belief that the attributes of the central core of the metropolis represent the sum of its distinctive features. New findings, or better, the rediscovery of new meanings in extant data challenge conventional thinking, methodology and conclusions about what is in actuality a disparate settlement with unique features, thereby qualifying it as an appropriate subject of local history.1 Previously, the character of African American life within an expansive metropolitan area seemed wholly understandable using the model of Chicago's south side as analyzed by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton in their tome, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in A Northern City (1945). Drake's coauthorship with Cayton of Black Metropolis represented a high-water mark in urban research and stimulated inquiries into the meaning of the African American experience for decades. Its influence has been such that traditionally, scholarly sources and media have defined both contemporary and historic African American life by the lifestyles of the nearly one million residents of Chicago's famed south side. Richard Wright, renowned novelist and transplanted Chicagoan, wrote in his erudite introduction to this classic that "especially has no other community in America been so intensely studied, has had brought to bear upon it so blinding a scrutiny as Chicago's south side."2

Over time, this declaration was elevated into a binding truth. Supposedly, life as it unfolded in the Black Metropolis served as a template for explaining African American urban life everywhere. Drake and Cayton had, in fact, presented this very argument when they wrote: "Black Metropolis (the South side with its 250,000 inhabitants in 1945) is ... a city within a city ... Peripheral to this Black Belt are five Negro concentrations, which are, in a fundamental sense, parts of a Black Metropolis."' Although hindsight renders this claim as assuredly problematical, it must be remembered that these social scientists prepared this tome to stimulate thinking on urban living, not to stifle it.

Examination of the west side community's history required an approach relevant to its particular historical development to determine in what sense the west side was, or was not, an appendage of Black Metropolis, significant in itself as the African American attempt at building a city within a city. Consequently, a new paradigm had to be developed. First, in terms of finding a meaning within this setting, the a priori approach (involving deductive reasoning or conceptualization separated from evidence or experience), has usually been an effective tool. But, by allowing the data to lead us inductively rather than relying initially on unsubstantiated conceptualization, a different pattern of life was discovered on the west side of Chicago during the first century of African American settlement, 1837-1940. Second, methodology rested on a search for the obscure as well as the readily available among extant written materials, the former being the stuff of history Leon E Litwack has recently labeled as interior history.4 Community and institutional records overlooked years ago, as quantitative methods dominated research, were reconsidered again. The example of church histories shows that as far back as 1863, with the establishment of Providence Baptist Church, and in 1872, with St. Stephen A.M.E. Church, the formation of religious institutions provided the bases for significant community cohesion and growth.

Third, comparative history provided a most effective tool of analysis. The latter represented a channel of inquiry which afforded a clear understanding of the many diverse and seemingly unrelated subjects we encountered in historical and social science study While for years, academicians and their lay counterparts had chosen to pursue these projects in a macrocosm, analyzing subjects in a general frame of reference too often allowed only a limited appreciation of their basic features. …

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