Daily Archives: 11 June 2007

Chicago’s Black Elite

First founded and settled by the black explorer Jean-Baptiste DuSable of [Saint Domingue =] Haiti, in 1773, Chicago was begun as a thirty-acre land parcel. DuSable, working as a fur trapper and trading-post operator, eventually owned in excess of four hundred acres. He and his new Native American wife remained in the area until 1800, when he moved to Missouri.

With an early black population that was much smaller than those of southern cities like Washington, Memphis, Atlanta, and Richmond, Chicago had a small black elite in the mid- and late 1800s—it consisted of only a few families. Most of them lived very integrated lives: They interacted while working together with liberal whites who had been abolitionists when the Underground Railroad moved black southern slaves into the North. The black elite of the period included people like physician Daniel Williams, Pullman Train Company executive Julius Avendorph, caterer Charles Smiley, and attorney Laing Williams. They were all educated people who lived, worked, and socialized among whites. “In fact,” says Travis, who also wrote the book Autobiography of Black Chicago, “at that time, there were blacks living throughout the North Side and elsewhere. Though we were small in numbers, we were represented in every census tract.”

Travis points out, however, that the total black population was still under fifteen thousand people. It was not until around World War I, the time of a major black migration from the South to the North, that a substantial black population arrived in the city. Most of these black southerners came—about seventy thousand of them between 1900 and 1920—as a result of the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper that was read in the South by educated blacks eager to escape their more rural environment. When these blacks arrived in town, the old-guard black families and their social clubs immediately decided who was “in” and who was not. Truman Gibson’s parents and Maudelle Bousfield Evans’s parents were clearly “in” as far as the black old guard was concerned. Interestingly, as old-guard blacks were busy trying to separate the “society blacks” like themselves from the new working-class arrivals, whites were making plans to ghettoize both groups together on the South Side. And they quickly did so by establishing restrictive covenants that moved blacks out of white areas.

In fact, the white community responded quite aggressively to black mobility during the early years of World War I. In the working-class and middle-class white neighborhoods that saw blacks moving in, white residents simply bombed the houses or set them afire. In more upscale neighborhoods like Hyde Park, which surrounds the University of Chicago, white residents organized a full-blown plan to preempt any sales to upwardly mobile blacks who might be able to afford homes in the well-to-do community. My Uncle Telfer, who died before the upscale neighborhood allowed blacks to buy homes there, had saved a copy of Hyde Park’s neighborhood newspaper, published in 1920, which read, “Every colored man who moves into the Hyde Park neighborhood knows that he is damaging his white neighbor’s property. Consequently … he forfeits his right to be employed by the white man…. Employers should adopt a rule of refusing to employ Negroes who persist in residing in Hyde Park.”

Soon after that time, restrictive covenants making it illegal to sell homes to blacks, regardless of their wealth, were strictly enforced.

But regardless of how violently whites reacted to the influx of poor and upwardly mobile blacks, the old-guard blacks of Chicago had their own dismal way of responding to their fellow blacks in this northern city. They were not happy to see them arriving.

“Not surprisingly, elitism was quite evident. But the rules governing black society in Chicago were always slightly different from the rules that were used in the southern cities,” explains former Chicago Defender society columnist Theresa Fambro Hooks. “In the South, black society was determined by the years your family had lived in a particular city and by their ties to one or more of the nearby black colleges like Howard or Fisk or Spelman. But the rules were different in Chicago because almost everybody was new—almost all of them had migrated from the South. There were very few old families and there were no old local black universities to be tied to.”

So the standard for black society in Chicago became, instead, financial success and, to a lesser extent, family ties to a few of the northern white universities. In both regards, the Gibson and Bousfield families were at the top. Acceptance by the right schools, the right churches, and the right clubs proved that.

SOURCE: Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, by Lawrence Otis Graham (Harper, 2000), pp. 189-190


Filed under travel, U.S.