Alan Spear, Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto, 1967

In 1967, Alan Spear published Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto 1880-1920. Though known for its intense levels of housing segregation, Chicago, Spears argued had not always practiced such strict residential spatialization. The city’s early years exhibited a greater openness or at least not rank hostility toward muted housing integration. Blacks did not huddle into overcrowded under resourced neighborhoods, rather they occupied numerous different communities within the city. Certainly, politically and in terms of civil rights, blacks continued to suffer from discrimination, but in housing fewer barriers emerged. However, increased southern black migration swelled the city’s black population, contributing to rising levels of white hostility culminating in the 1919 Race Riot that violently divided the city along racial lines.

Increasingly forced into the city’s southern sections, a visible Black Belt developed. Discrimination along with high levels of white resentment, contributed to the Black Belt’s growth while also leading some elites to adopt the political tactic of accommodation. In this way, black politicians and civic leaders helped craft the spatially constricted ghettos of twentieth century Chicago. The heterogeneity of the city meant that various ethnic groups competed for power. Alliances between community leaders and politicians often determined political strength. Yet, Spear refrains from associating black solidarity with that of white ethnics, “’any attempt to compare Northern Negroes with European immigrants’ is invalid because ’unlike the Irish, Poles, Jews or Italians, Negroes banded together not to enjoy a common linguistic, cultural, and religious tradition, but because a systematic pattern of discrimination left them no alternative’ (p. 228). Politically, Spears suggests the city held a unified contempt for blacks such that opponents accused Mayor William Hale Thompson (Republican) of being a “nigger lover”. Spears explores the daily lives of the Black Belt communities illustrating that educational opportunities were presented to only a few.

Gilbert Osofsky’s work Harlem: The Making of a Negro Ghetto preceded Spears work by four years. Focusing on the emergence of Harlem as a home to the city’s black community, Osofsky traces the movement of New York’s black population from Five Points to the Tenderloin to Harlem. Previous to occupying Harlem, blacks had resided in smaller concentrations in several neighborhoods. As with Spear’s Chicago, the surge of southern rural blacks hoping to find greater personal and economic freedom in the North drove the expansion of the city’s black population. Gender impacted black migration as women outnumbered men. Osofsky suggests this created internal tensions within the community as women conflicted over men. In moments, he seems to argue that this also contributed to greater incidence of infidelity and illegitimacy. Moreover, Osofsky argues slavery decimated the family structures of native born African Americans, “Slavery initially destroyed the entire concept of family for American Negros and the slave heritage, bulwarked by economic conditions, continued into the twentieth century to make family instability a common factor of negro life.” (134) Marking native black families as “unstable”, Osofsky attempts to explain one reason why the arrival of West Indians in Harlem during the 1920s sparked higher levels of intraracial antagonism. According to Osofsky, West Indians greater affinity for family, its strict regard for the sexual activities of their children, and its partriarchal structure all contrasted sharply with native born African Americans. Earlier intraracial antagonism emerged between the poorer sourthern migrants moving into NYC and its established black population. Novels such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man illustrate this development well. Black newspapers and elites sometimes blamed them for whites’ poor perceptions of their race. However, Osofsky points to an interesting aspect of black attitudes to immigrants. In general, many black elites struggled to define themselves as Americans rather than blacks in an attempt to secure greater citizenship. Many found themselves embittered by the nation’s willingness to accord greater standing white immigrant groups who just arrived on American shores. The tendency toward xenophobia, Osofsky argues, further explains native born black hostility regarding the rising West Indian population. After the epilogue, Osofsky includes a retrospective article in an attempt to provide some context for the years following his study. Once again, he points to a pervasive black nativism as one aspect of the rising anti-semitism that emerged in some black communities during the 1960s and later.

Harlem: The Making of a Negro Ghetto points to the importance of this early period in the formation of fraternal societies, benevolent and protective associations. The proliferation of such organizations during the progressive era led to the development of seminal black institutions such as the NAACP and the Urban League (which formed out of National League for the Protection of Colored Women and the Committee for the Industrial Improvement of the Condition of the Negro in New York among others). White progressives largely ignored African American communities. Additionally, black churches became one of the central organizing institutions (though Osofsky focuses inordinately on the more prominent churches such as St. Phillips)

Unlike Black Chicago’s Black Belt, Harlem developed as virulent real estate speculation resulted in a formerly upper class white community transitioned from a predominantly white enclave to one populated by the black middle classes. As more and more blacks moved to Harlem, whites were unable or unwilling to unify opposition. Organizations like the Afro American Realty Company helped to secure larger swaths of Harlem for black residents. However, the AARC also engaged in speculation that eventually undermined its financial viability.

Though initially, Harlem’s housing stock provided those blacks able to afford its rents, with quality housing that few African Americans of the time could claim. However, by the 1920s Harlem suffered from poverty, overcrowding, educational deficiencies, and other social ills affected many of its residents. Whites failed to understand such developments taking a distorted view of the city’s black community based on its numerous speakeasies, cabarets, and dance halls. “Slumming” by whites only furthered this view that saw only Harlem’s entertainments ignoring its serious social troubles. Even cultural interactions between blacks and whites exhibited a misunderstanding. Alain Locke’s promotion of the New Negro found a white audience that saw it as exotic grafting stereotypes about rhythmic feckless minorities. Cultural productions of the period such as Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven reinforced such ideas as did popular white destinations like the Cotton Club.

Politically, the concentration of blacks in Harlem helped secure municipal power for the community but failed to translate into congressional power, not until Adam Clayton Powell Jr’s 1944 acension to Congress. If Chicago’s black political elite engaged in accommodation, New York’s followed a similar course. The Democratic party and its “Black Tammy Hall” [United Colored Democracy] wielded political power as did the Republican party which enjoyed greater successes in legislative victories. Political dissension existed in each as personal ambition collided with racial uplift.

Both Osofsky and Spears published their works in the 1960s. Black Chicago more than Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto exhibits a sense of victimization, as white hostility serves to drive segregation. When discussing the black community, each author depends on elites and the black press. Critics have argued greater attention to other actors outside of such traditional areas might have strengthened the arguments of each work. More attentive to cultural production, Osofsky’s work explores the cultural aspects of the burgeoning Harlem community than does Spears.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License