Blacks in Chicago: City Is Still a Center of Black Life and Culture. (Cities)

By Bennett, Lerone, Jr. | Ebony, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Blacks in Chicago: City Is Still a Center of Black Life and Culture. (Cities)


Bennett, Lerone, Jr., Ebony


"Goin' to Chicago, Sorry I can't take you."

--Basie's Bad Boys, 1939

OPRAH lives here and Michael and Jesse and Minister Farrakhan. This is the headquarters of EBONY, Jet, PUSH, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Sigma Gamma Rho, and Blues Heaven.

It's the place where organized Black history was born, where gospel music was born, where jazz and the blues were reborn, where the Beatles and Rolling Stones went up to the mountaintop to get the new musical commandments from Chuck Berry and the rock `n' roll apostles.

Drake and Cayton called it Black Metropolis.

Lou Rawls and others called it the Windy City.

Gwendolyn Brooks and others called it Bronzeville.

Whatever it is called, and it has been called other things, some of which can't be printed in a family magazine, the city of Black Chicago--which is not the same place as the city of Chicago---is a legend in Black folklore and one of the first cities of the Black world. Richard Wright, who made Chicago the setting for his novel, Native Son, said it is no accident that "the most incisive and radical black thought" has come from Chicago, for "there is an open and raw beauty about [it] that seems either to kill or endow one with the spirit of life."

For more than 100 years, the city of the big wind and the distinctive flats on the fiat plain near the great sea of Lake Michigan has been the home of champions of the realm and of the spirit.

When Jack Johnson became the first Black heavyweight champion, he settled here.

When Joe Louis became the Brown Bomber, he settled here.

When Jesse Owens became the fastest and when Muhammad Ali became the greatest, they decided that Chicago was their "kinda" town. When Count Basie's Everyman made his big score, he told his lady love that he was going not to Paris nor to New York nor to L.A.--he said he was going to Chicago and that he was sorry he couldn't take her. And although Michael Jordan no longer plays for the Chicago Bulls, he still has a restaurant here and a condo overlooking the Lake, and his statue at the United Center is a standing invitation to slam-dunkers in any field.

Ida B. Wells, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, John H. Johnson, John Stroger Jr., George Johnson, Al Johnson, Ralph Metcalfe, Thomas Dorsey, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad--for more than 100 years, ever since the beginning of The Great Migration, hundreds of thousands of migrants, largely from Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee, have followed the Illinois Central and the yellow brick road to Chicago, making it a place of magic and mystery. John H. Johnson, who came here in 1933 and who created a publishing and cosmetics empire, said that "Chicago was to the Southern Blacks of my generation what Mecca was to the Moslems and what Jerusalem was to the Jews: a place of magic and mirrors and dreams."

What made the Black migrants formidable, and unforgettable, then and now, was their numbers, which created economic and political bases that shaped some of the most creative and daring economic and political leaders America has ever known. The first Black insurance company in the North was founded here, the first Black congressman from the North was elected here, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History was founded here, and Black Chicago, which has "the largest contiguous settlement of African-Americans in the North," is still making firsts and dreams. Cook County Commissioner Bobble L. Steele says that when the bell rings in Chicago, there are echoes in the hearts of Blacks everywhere.

There are some 1,600,000 Blacks in Chicago. There may be more, there may be fewer--nobody knows for sure, and it is a hotly contested and closely guarded secret. (The 2000 census reported 1,053,739 Blacks, 907,166 Whites and 753,644 Hispanics.) But a number of computers say that African-Americans are the largest single ethnic group in the city. …

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