Mexicans and Serbs in Southeast Chicago: Racial Group Formation during the Twentieth Century

By Alter, Peter T. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Mexicans and Serbs in Southeast Chicago: Racial Group Formation during the Twentieth Century


Alter, Peter T., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


In the wake of the contentious 2000 federal census, many issues involving the question of race remain and others have arisen. As a result of an increasingly multicultural and multiracial society, Americans ponder what it means to be white and who falls into this category. Indeed, third ward Chicago alderman Dorothy Tillman, who is African American, recently questioned the racial and minority status of Chicago's "Hispanic" residents. In a discussion with a local reporter over ward remapping, Tillman claimed "Hispanics can be white - I can't," referring to the census categorization of "Hispanics" as white. Tillman continued, "How can they be all races and still get a ward? They should be told, 'If you're Hispanic be Hispanic! Don't be all those other things." Seemingly supporting Alderman Tillman's comments in the popular imagination, the famous professional golfer Eldrick "Tiger" Woods has received criticism for not clearly identifying with a specific racial group. His father is African American while his mother is Thai American. Woods also claims Native American and European-American ancestry.1

Certainly, the question of race in twenty-first century American life is complex, as ethnic, racial, national, and language groups struggle to define themselves racially, culturally, and politically. Who is white? Who is not? How is power apportioned according to racial status? These questions did not arise overnight. They have a long history of vexing Americans. Using Chicago's Southeast Side as a case study and focusing on the Trumbull Park housing riots of the 1950s, one can examine the way in which southern and eastern European and Mexican immigrants, African Americans, and native-born Americans have historically struggled with these questions and answers. Moreover, the 1950s serves as a crucial transition time in the urban racial landscape, as the civil rights movement took its first steps while working-class, naturalized immigrants and their children struggled to find their place in the capitalist abundance of the nuclear age.

From the 1880s to the 1980s, southeastern Chicago (including the community areas of South Chicago, South Deering, East Side, and Hegewisch) was a major steel producing area. The South Works steel mill in South Chicago, Wisconsin Steel in South Deering, and nearby Republic Steel were the industrial giants of the region. As a result of once plentiful jobs, numerous immigrant groups-including Mexicans, Serbs, Lithuanians, Greeks, Swedes, Germans, Croats, Slovenes, Italians, Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks, Jews, and Irish-have made this area home. By the 1930s, African Americans also began to move into this area, also finding employment in the mills. This heterogeneity during most of the twentieth century makes Chicago's Southeast Side an ideal place to study racial group formation and these immigrants' roles in it. This essay will explore how Serbs and other southern and eastern European immigrants became white during the 1920s and 1930s and how they defended their newly won white status in the decades immediately following World War Two. Most importantly, this essay will also investigate how Mexicans inhabited a racial middle ground between Black and White, using the Trumbull Park riots as a backdrop.2

From the 1880s to the 1930s, Serbs and other southern and eastern European immigrants, Anglo-Americans believed, constituted an "immigrant problem," presenting a challenge to accepted Anglo-American, democratic, and Protestant norms. Immigrants who came to the United States from southern and eastern Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries generally were not Protestant. They were typically Roman or Greek Catholic, Orthodox Christian, or Jewish. This diversity of faiths presented a major religious problem for the predominantly Protestant American majority. These immigrants also did not speak English, which reformers believed threatened English as the American lingua franca. …

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