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The Negro in Illinois

The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 328
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    The Negro in Illinois
    Book Description:

    A major document of African American participation in the struggles of the Depression, The Negro in Illinois was produced by a special division of the Illinois Writers' Project, one of President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration programs. Headed by Harlem Renaissance poet Arna Bontemps and white proletarian writer Jack Conroy, The Negro in Illinois employed major black writers living in Chicago during the 1930s, including Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Katherine Dunham, Fenton Johnson, Frank Yerby, and Richard Durham. The authors chronicled the African American experience in Illinois from the beginnings of slavery to Lincoln's emancipation and the Great Migration, with individual chapters discussing various aspects of public and domestic life, recreation, politics, religion, literature, and performing arts. After the project was canceled in 1942, most of the writings went unpublished for more than half a century--until now. Editor Brian Dolinar provides an informative introduction and epilogue which explain the origins of the project and place it in the context of the Black Chicago Renaissance.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09495-8
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Editorʹs Introduction
    (pp. ix-xliv)

    When the first editions of the American Guide Series were published by the Federal Writersʹ Project, one of President Rooseveltʹs innovative New Deal programs, they depicted a lily-white image of America. In the 1930s, blacks still remained largely invisible in the textbook accounts of American history. There was a great unwillingness to recognize the racially mixed American past. The Harlem Renaissance of the previous decade was a relatively obscure movement led by a small group of artists and intellectuals. With the establishment of the Federal Writersʹ Project, black leaders saw an opportunity to include African Americans in the image of...

  5. Editorʹs Note
    (pp. xlv-xlvi)
  6. [Illustration]
    (pp. xlvii-xlviii)
  7. 1. First, the French
    (pp. 1-5)

    In the spring of 1719 Phillip Francois Renault, a banker of Paris, set out on the adventure of his life. Versed in mining, he assembled complete tools, equipment, ships and men to develop mining interests for the company of St. Phillipe, a subsidiary of the Western Company. Of course, mineral treasures had not yet been found in Upper Louisiana, the area in which this group had rights, but one gathers that Renault had seen visions of a vast wealth buried in the American wilderness.

    Forty-five days later, his ships entered the palm-fringed harbor of Cap Haitien, and Renault undoubtedly had...

  8. 2. Slavery
    (pp. 6-13)

    Early Illinois was anything but an asylum of liberty. In 1734 the laws of Louis XIV were enacted, regulating the traffic in slaves in the province of Louisiana—which included Illinois. A section in these regulations provided that if one parent was free, the child would follow the condition of servitude of the mother. It prohibited the sale of any slave where such sale would break up a family group. Slavery was legalized under English rule when General Gage took possession of the territory and allowed the French inhabitants the privilege of becoming English subjects. They were allowed to retain...

  9. 3. Abolition
    (pp. 14-21)

    Many of the settlers of southern Illinois had come from the slave belt. These men brought with them their outlooks and habits of life, and southern Illinois, later known as ʺEgypt,ʺ became a stronghold of pro-slavery sentiment. With the opening of the Erie Canal, New Englanders, New Yorkers, and immigrants direct from Europe settled in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. These pioneers, too, ʺpacked their beliefs in their traveling bags.ʺ It has been contended by some that the construction of the Erie Canal was more influential in freeing the Southern slaves than were such abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison. For...

  10. 4. The Underground Railroad
    (pp. 22-33)

    On July 13, 1844, the following advertisement appeared in the pages of the Western Citizen, a Chicago newspaper:


    New Arrangement—Night and Day

    The improved and splendid Locomotives, Clarkson with Lundy, with their trains fitted up in the best style of accommodations for passengers, will run their regular trips during the present season between the borders of the Patriarchal Dominion of Libertyville, Upper Canada. Gentlemen and Ladies who may wish to improve their health or circumstances, by a northern tour, are respectfully invited to give us their patronage.

    SEATS FREE, Irrespective of color.

    Necessary clothing furnished gratuitously to...

  11. 5. Lincoln and the Negro
    (pp. 34-40)

    Among the people who abhorred slavery were some who objected to having large numbers of Negroes for neighbors. Two types of anti-slavery sentiment arose, one based upon moral principles and the other upon economic principles. There were those who advocated abolition to elevate the Negro to citizenship and contrasted to them were those who objected to slavery merely because it was an economic evil. But still the Negroes came North and where the Quakers and abolitionists were giving them industrial training intense struggles between white and black labor ensued. These conflicts spread to other sections of the population and became...

  12. 6. John Brownʹs Friend
    (pp. 41-50)

    One night in March 1856, a band of men moved furtively through the unlighted streets of Chicago. They stopped before a darkened house. The leader went to the door and rapped sharply, while the others waited in the shadows. Presently the door was opened, and a shaft of yellow lamplight fell on the man outside. He was tall and gaunt, with piercing eyes and a heavy beard. The man inside extended his hand.


    John Brown grasped the hand of Allen Pinkerton, famous detective and later Abraham Lincolnʹs bodyguard. Pinkerton, an active abolitionist, took some of the men into his...

  13. 7. Leave a Summer Land Behind
    (pp. 51-60)

    As the spring of 1880 wore on, Democratic Senator Daniel W. Voorhees of Indiana, chairman of the committee investigating the phenomenal Negro exodus from the South, announced that he was weary and dissatisfied with the whole proceedings. The Chicago Evening Journal, viewing Voorheesʹs labors with a critical eye, remarked that the Senatorʹs disgust was understandable, since much of the testimony had repudiated the Democratsʹ contention that the Republicans had sponsored the importation of southern Negroes into Indiana and other northern states in order to gain political control. ʺHe first turned pale,ʺ the Evening Journal pursued, ʺwhen Mr. Adams from Louisiana...

  14. 8. Rising
    (pp. 61-68)

    In January 1825 the Illinois Legislature enacted a law providing that common schools be established in each county of the state. These schools were to be open and free to every class of white citizens between the ages of five and twenty-one years, but it was not until the year 1841 that consideration was given Negroes. In that year colored citizens in one Illinois community were allowed to withdraw assessments they had paid into the school fund. Negroes were counted, however, when time came to apportion the State funds, and by this maneuver the township in question received more than...

  15. 9. Churches
    (pp. 69-77)

    The establishment of Negro churches in Illinois dates from the late thirties of the nineteenth century, with the formation of religious bodies in Brooklyn, near East St. Louis, and Jacksonville. Which town was the first to boast a colored church is uncertain, for while Quinn Chapel at Brooklyn is generally credited as the initial institution (as also the first west of the Alleghenies), founded June 1839, there is evidence that in 1837 two Baptist clerics had organized a church at Jacksonville. The famous Quinn Chapel, Chicago—a branch of the African Methodist order like the church of the same name...

  16. 10. Soldiers
    (pp. 78-97)

    One night a band of young copperheads met John Henry, a colored man, and asked: ʺWhat side are you on?ʺ

    John Henry replied truthfully: ʺIʹm for President Lincoln and the government of the United States.ʺ

    ʺYou might expect that from a d——d nigger,ʺ the ruffians commented and administered a beating.

    Ten minutes later a detective halted the man who was still sore from the mistreatment he had received at the hands of the copperheads.

    ʺWhat side are you on?ʺ the detective asked.

    The Negro, half-frightened, replied: ʺIʹm for Jeff Davis and the Confederate States of America.ʺ

    At this John...

  17. 11. Business
    (pp. 98-103)

    In 1837, three of the seventy-seven Negroes included in Chicagoʹs population of 4,170 were business men. Lewis Isabel, the first Negro barber in Illinois, came to the state in 1824, and to Chicago fourteen years later. Abram Hall, an itinerant preacher, who opened a shop in 1844, is reputed to be the first Negro barber to own his business. John Johnson was another barber of the time; the Chicago Public Library is said to have developed from the library and reading room conducted by the Young Menʹs Association above his shop. In the forties, Ambrose Jackson was the first restaurant...

  18. 12. Work
    (pp. 104-109)

    This advertisement published in the Illinois State Register and Peopleʹs Advocate in 1838 indicates one of the few occupations which Negroes at the time were considered capable of practicing.

    Even after the Civil War, colored persons for the most part were restricted to the field of domestic and personal service—as butler, coachman, maid, cook, housekeeper, valet, or janitor. Negroes occasionally conducted businesses, were employed as skilled artisans, and successfully pursued professions, but the greater number of the race gainfully employed were found in the occupations named above, in agricultural work, and at unskilled labor.

    The tasks at which Negroes...

  19. 13. Iola
    (pp. 110-118)

    Almost ten years after ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, the Chicago Evening Journal noted:

    In calculating the features of the ʺwar of the racesʺ in the South, it would be well to remember that white men, and not the Negroes, have charge of the telegraph wires and dispatches. Some of the white dispatches are black with lies, and though highly colored, do not favor the blacks.

    Evidence of white control of the printed word was not confined to the South. Illinois newspapers adhering to the Democratic Party almost invariably treated the Negro with undisguised hostility, while even the Republican press...

  20. 14. The Migrants Keep Coming
    (pp. 119-129)

    Two lanky Negro youths, their overalls powdered with the red dust of a Georgia road, paused at a street corner to listen to their friends and neighbors discussing Kaiser Bill, the Battle of the Marne, the boll weevil, ʺdoodlum,ʺ and other matters interesting to a Saturday afternoon street corner crowd in a small town of the Georgia farming country.

    ʺWhy nʹt yʹall get outa this whole mess?ʺ one of the youths inquired. ʺGo Nawth where you can make big money and live like a man besides.ʺ

    ʺHow you gonna go?ʺ one of the elder sharecroppers inquired mockingly. ʺRide Shankʹs Mare?ʺ...

  21. 15. The Exodus Train
    (pp. 130-143)

    The Great Migration reached flood tide by 1917. The Chicago Defender received thousands of letters out of the Deep South, as did the Chicago Urban League, the organization to which the paper usually referred prospective migrants inquiring about employment. A Birmingham staff correspondent of the Defender wrote early in February:

    The members of the Race in this section of the country are way ahead of the leaders who are just now considering the advisability of going north to better their conditions. The leaders among the churches, ministers, and bishops are telling the cause for leaving, but they are too late....

  22. 16. Slave Market
    (pp. 144-149)

    In the Spring of 1938 the passerby in 16th Street between Avers and Keeler, a half dozen miles southwest of Chicagoʹs Loop, could observe a curious scene, reminiscent of antebellum days in the South. Local white housewives and agents of others residing in distant neighborhoods searched up and down the thoroughfare among the gathered Negro women domestics for the best and cheapest workers, bidding for their services much as southern blacks had been appraised on the block before emancipation. The average price offered for a long, hard dayʹs work was between a dollar and a half and two dollars. The...

  23. 17. Professions
    (pp. 150-151)

    I. C. Harrisʹs Colored Menʹs Professional and Business Directory of Chicago, published in 1885, records the presence of one teacher, four physicians, and eight lawyers. One of the physicians was a woman. Apparently, no Negro dentists, librarians, or social service workers had yet appeared.

    In 1886, Samuel T. Jacobs obtained a transfer for his daughter from the Keith School to the Raymond School upon complaining that a Negro teacher had been placed in Keith. The Chicago Daily Inter Ocean commented:

    It should not have been made a precedent. It stands a precedent. Denial to the next man who objects to...

  24. 18. Health
    (pp. 152-155)

    One bottle of Holland gin, eight pounds of prunes, one bucket of ice cream, four bars of laundry soap, one washboard, one clothes basket, two sponges, one rolling pin, eight pounds of feathers, one pair of crutches, and a steam atomizer were included among the donations to Chicagoʹs first Negro hospital. In a public acknowledgement the hospital signified its need of rubber sheets, ice bags, syringes, shoes, stockings, brandy, plasters, and old linen.¹

    Dr. Daniel Williams, young Negro physician, had called a mass meeting the year before (in 1890) to consider the need of a hospital for ʺthe sick poor...

  25. 19. Houses
    (pp. 156-164)

    When Chicago was incorporated in 1837, the entire population was housed in fewer than 400 dwellings, and most of them were mere shanties. Some Negro-owned property was included in this reckoning. The amount is uncertain, but ten years later there were at least ten Negroes with holdings in the city. Their property was located on Madison, Clark, Lake, and Harrison Streets, and on Fifth Avenue. When the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, some of these property owners fled to Canada, selling their holdings at less than actual value.

    At the time this law was passed, Chicagoʹs Negro community...

  26. 20. Social Life and Social Uplift
    (pp. 165-176)

    In the early days, the swank of the social life in Negro communities was as colorful and as interesting as the era in which it occurred. Various social clubs entertained lavishly and often; individuals gained reputations as entertainers on a grand scale. Receptions, cake-walks, dinner parties and barbeques were common events on the social calendar of the womenʹs clubs, social clubs, lodges and other fraternal organizations.

    The appearance in 1879 of the wife of the United States Senator from Mississippi at a reception in Chicago was a social high point of the era. Because of her conspicuous position as bride...

  27. 21. Recreation and Sports
    (pp. 177-182)

    More than one thousand spectators witnessed a ten-mile foot race for a $300 purse, which took place in Chicago in 1847. A Canadian, Armstrong, beat the Americans, Gildersleeve and Lewis Isabell; nine years later Isabell, a Negro, represented Cook County at the Alton Convention of Colored Citizens of Illinois.

    In 1854, ʺA skating match took place on the canal at Elmira … between Patrick Brown and George Tate, a colored man. Brown won the stakes—$20—with ease, coming out five rods ahead.ʺ Time, two minutes eight seconds. $500 changed hands on this occasion.

    The Chicago Evening Journal on September...

  28. 22. Defender
    (pp. 183-188)

    Among the out-of-town visitors to the African Congress held in conjunction with the 1893 Worldʹs Columbian Exposition was Robert Sengstacke Abbott, almost age 23, principally known as the tenor of the Hampton Quartette, which frequently toured the country. The young man listened to Frederick Douglassʹs address, ʺWhat I Know about Field Slavery,ʺ and heard Ida B. Wells, already famous for her anti-lynching crusade throughout the United States and England, tell of the destruction of her Memphis newspaper, Free Speech, at the hands of a mob. Abbott also was interested in journalism, and had been learning the printerʹs trade at Hampton...

  29. 23. Politics
    (pp. 189-193)

    On September 8, 1865, the Peoria Daily National Democrat inquired:

    This is the question to be answered at the coming elections, whether white men shall govern America, or whether it shall be ruled by Negroes. Shall Africans or Caucasians rule?

    On the eve of the election the same paper exhorted its readers to

    … show by your vote that you will now and forever oppose Negro equality, and its legitimate results…. Do this so that your children shall never blush at being compelled to say that the proud County of Peoria voted in favor of Negro equality.

    Five years later...

  30. 24. What Is Africa to Me?
    (pp. 194-208)

    In the March 6, 1894, issue of the Chicago Inter Ocean, P. O. Gray addressed a letter to Master Workmen Sovereign of the Knights of Labor, who had complained that the presence of Negroes was impeding the progress of his organization in the South and had expressed a desire to see them sent back to Africa. Mr. Gray said in part:

    That I, a Negro, should be interested in the future success of the race is very natural. Therefore, I take exception to your proposition to deport the Negro back to Africa (as being the best way to solve the...

  31. 25. And Churches
    (pp. 209-216)

    The great numbers of southern Negroes whose migration to Illinois began with the last World War, to fill the numerous jobs vacated by homing nationals of belligerent powers, came mainly to Chicago, largest industrial center of the country. They were prompted to the move as much by hope of better social, political and educational opportunities as by promise of good jobs at living wages. Deeply religious, they brought their habits of worship with them, overflowed the assisting churches, and established many others; indeed, in some instances, virtually whole congregations entrained for ʺThe Promised Landʺ and upon arrival reestablished their churches...

  32. 26. Literature
    (pp. 217-222)

    The Cairo (Illinois) Bulletin noted in 1875 that

    … the colored people of a literary turn of mind, of Charlestown, Missouri, have a flourishing debating society; and now a number of the young colored people of Cairo, not wishing to be outdone in this respect, are organizing an institution of the same kind.

    Actually, the Illinois Negroʹs interest in literature had been recorded almost a decade before the Civil War by the organization of the Chicago Literary Society. It passed resolutions condemning the Fugitive Slave Law, assisted in resistance to colonizers and kidnappers, and sent a number of its members...

  33. 27. Music
    (pp. 223-230)

    Under slavery a familiar command on Southern plantations was, ʺMake some noise there!ʺ Let me hear you!ʺ The Negro hands usually obliged by singing. Knowing only a few songs and snatches, they were forced to improvise. A sullen, silent slave was not to be trusted. A slave working in a thicket or plowing in a distant corn field might fall asleep at his job or make a break for freedom; there was a double reason to require a song of him.

    This tradition may or may not have been responsible for the Northern Negroʹs inclination toward music. At any rate,...

  34. 28. The Theater
    (pp. 231-239)

    Commenting on the performance in May 1877 of a Negro troupe playing Out of Bondage, the Daily Inter Ocean described it as ʺone of the very best representations of slave life as it existed before the war that has ever been presented to the public,ʺ and followed the judgment with an editorial stating:

    No one can see the troupe of colored artists now performing at McCormickʹs Hall without gaining a higher opinion of the race to which they belong and being agreeably surprised at the excellence of the entertainment…. To thoughtful people, however, there is more in the performance of...

  35. 29. Rhythm
    (pp. 240-244)

    On a winter night early in 1900, the First Regiment Armory in Chicago

    rocked and swayed with ragtime music … for the celebration of the greatest entertainment by colored talent in the city. Armantʹs colored orchestra fairly carried the dancers off their feet with bursts of staccato harmonies. Colored men and women dressed in the height of fashion swayed and swirled and glided over the waxed floor in the maze of the rag-malia cotillion.¹

    A feature of the evening was a ʺhotʺ piano duel in which ʺthree muscular young fellows took turns at the piano in a ragtime contest, and...

  36. Bibliography
    (pp. 245-252)
  37. Editorʹs Afterword
    (pp. 253-256)

    When The Negro in Illinois was closed down, the editors Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy did not leave behind a conclusion to the twenty-nine chapters they had compiled. As a result, the narrative drops off precipitously at the end of the chapter on ʺRhythm.ʺ The incompleteness of this text may cause us to reflect on what has been characterized as a lack of self-awareness or cohesiveness to Chicagoʹs Black Renaissance. Surely, the failure to publish this work further contributed to the neglect of the movement. Under the supervision of Bontemps and Conroy, this office was arguably the most productive and...

  38. Editorʹs Notes
    (pp. 257-274)
  39. Editorʹs Works Cited
    (pp. 275-278)
  40. Index
    (pp. 279-286)
  41. Back Matter
    (pp. 287-288)