The Legacy of Bronzeville

By Manning, Christopher | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Bronzeville


Manning, Christopher, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Seen by many southern blacks a "promised land," Chicago was a focal point of the Great Migration of the early and mid-twentieth century. By the 1950s their community, also known as "Bronzeville" and the "Black Metropolis," was the nation's second largest black community and had become a center of black cultural production, politics, and entrepreneurship. Their agreement on black Chicago's Generality notwithstanding, intellectuals still struggle to situate Bronzeville's historical importance. Harlem's role in the 1920s renaissance has cast a shadow over black Chicago, and many scholars have wondered how to judge Bronzeville's accomplishments given the city's notorious racial history. Recently several scholars have taken up this question and despite their cogent analyses; Chicago's racial legacy remains ambiguous.

Long-time activist and scholar Timmuel D. Black has lived much of this history. His latest book, Bridges of Memory Vol. 2, tells the stories of sixteen second-generation black migrants who grew up in the city's similarly racially segregated neighborhoods (p. xi). Although, he acknowledges that black Chicagoans' quest for equality has been tarnished by "pervasive racial discrimination," his attention to the black community of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s has a primarily positive feel, which Black often contrasts to the negative circumstances faced by lower-class African Americans in Chicago today.

Repeatedly, Black and his interviewees convey Bronzeville's strong cooperative spirit. Jewel Stradford Lafont speaks of how she could walk down almost any block in her community and would greet by name just about everybody she passed. Clark Burrus remembers that his mother used to make enough food at dinner for "anyone who might happen to come by and knock on the door" (p. 160). Black's interviewees also emphasize the vitality of the predominantly black schools and the ambitions of its students, including Meharry Medical College president Arthur Hiñes; Judge William Cousins, and jazz musician Nat King Cole.

Cole's musical development pointed to the vibrant music scene spanning Bridges of Memory. Tenor saxophonist, Bill Adkins, is one of many interviewees who introduce the reader to the great music educator and bandleader, Walter Dyett, who trained a score of top musicians, including Gene Ammons and Benny Green. Beyond training though, Dyett's connections allowed many of his students to play in the South Side's prominent jazz clubs as backups to visiting musicians. Dyett's and others' stories reveal the complex array of local and national networks that came together to form the nation's most important jazz center.

Black's great familiarity with Chicago and his friendships with the interviewees facilitated his recovery of these networks. This affinity perhaps gives a sense of why Black chose the unusual pattern of including his questions and comments in the interview narrative. A revealing format, it allows the reader to see that Black occasionally seeks and pushes for positive portrayals of Bronzeville, despite comments that point to less than perfect community solidarity or onerous racial segregation (See for examples pp. 34, 50, 110, 264). This deficit is offset though, by the fact that the reader is given access to an authentic conversation between Black and his interviewees, which offer a compelling contrast to the artificial soliloquies of most orally-based texts.

While Black's interviewees give life to Bronzeville's music and entertainment, Bavarian Baldwin's Chicago's New Negroes: Modernity, The Great Migration, and Black Urban Life maps African-American cultural production in the area that lies between the folk and isolated "intellectual geniuses." Baldwin notes that the Harlem Renaissance's artistic and intellectual products contributed just one part to the development of the 1920s so-called New Negro. Rather, Baldwin writes, the evolution of the New Negro was a "much larger socio-cultural transformation marked by race, class, and cultural contestations between white observers, black cultural producers, critics, activists, reformers, and-centrally-black migrant consumer patrons," which played out with particular clarity in Chicago (p. …

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