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

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Chicago’s Black Elite

  1. Brianna

    I have struggled with this frustration for a long time, and do have other blacks who do not fit the “Black stereotype” that other black Chicagoans have perpetuated. I didn’t grow up on the south side, didn’t belong to Jack and Jill, my condo is not in Bronzeville or Hyde Park. I am a 29 year professional woman. When I try to connect with other young Back professionals, I tend to receive the cold shoulder. I attended a minority recruiting event the other day for a very prestigious business school, and was very social to everyone I encountered, but everyone wanted to stay in their own established social circles. I am sure this problem is widespread, but it seems to be particularly prevalent in Chicago. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  2. I’m sorry for the long time it took me to respond. I doubt that such standoffishness is unique to either Black or Chicago elites. I’ve just posted another extract from Graham’s book that seems to indicate that the D.C. elite is even worse.

  3. Rick

    Briana;

    Hi! I am a Chicagoan, born and raised on the south side of Chicago, grew up in the neighborhood Pill Hill then Beverly Hills in Chicago, was a Jack and Jill kid and was raised by parents’ who migrated from New Orleans to the sister city, Chicago. Being a Jack and Jill kid 30 years ago was great. People have the wrong perception of being Black and Middle/ Upper -Middle Class. I am 40 now and yes, not bragging, was exposed to certain trappings, however; my parents’ kept an open mind and didn’t raise us to be or think we were better. No, you couldn’t be a ball player (football/basketball),or talk show host, etc. You had to come from Old Stock, parents’ were Educators, professional, etc. The further you could trace you lineage/roots…the better. Each region is different as well as each culture, language, etc in the USA. Can you image growing and being labeled as a snob? Better yet, being Black. It didn’t matter how much education or money you had the world still sees you as Black. Being well- dressed and exposed to a higher standard of living should be instilled in everyone. I learned that being a Jack and Jill kid was the “Sweat and tears” of all of our Black Forefathers in America and their struggle was that “All Black Americans” be free..sometimes even Death. There are points Mr. Graham makes are true, however; in anything you have to objective. I believe his point was to say, “hey not all of us are lazy as you all have said about Black Americans.” And look, we are smart as you with what and from whence we come from…Now take that, those of you who are racist Americans. In other words, we can be upstanding citizens in society, too. Trust me, the Gift of Being a Black American is that “We Black Americans have set the trends for the World, from music, dress, fashion and sports. For when we were taken from Africa, we were the smartest ones sent to build this country on Free Slave Labor. Never forget, those of us that have been Blessed still go through (if you had and if you had less of). Every generation should want the next generation to have more. Do you know that most of us Jack and Jill children(now adults) have always had to apologize, feel guilty, etc? Think about a black male child, talking about camp, visiting the vineyard on the east coast, going to Disneyland, having this or that and dealing with other Black male children looking at you like you are crazy or phony. Listen, I know you are intelligent and of course a Nubian Queen and you will attract the right “Folks” in your life..Just stay positive. And speaking of Jack and Jill, the Boule’ Club or even the Order of the Prince Hall, remember that Our forefathers were of Kings and Queens before invaded by other countries and our history stolen. So Rich thoughts of Health, Wealth, Love, Community and Family must be re-instilled in all of us because the USA has tried to belittle us for so long even..with or without Degrees, Houses, etc. And trust me my love, they take Us through Hell to Keep it..but we as a race, survive. In other words, “it ain’t and it wasn’t bad at all being a Jack and Jill kid. For this reason, I can encourage you in whatever God has for you…P.U.S.H….Pray Until Something Happens. And much success to you. One more thing, my father use to say(rest his soul), “everyone doesn’t deserve a front row seat in your life….If they haven’t paid full price, have the usher direct them to the balcony!!!!

  4. Denise

    I think your comments are relevant. Previously my view about Jack and Jiller’s was completelty biased. I thank you for taking the time to break it down by putting it into perspective. I love your fathers quote…
    Peace & Blessings
    Denise

  5. Keenan

    I’ve produced a movie with an Academy Award winning actress. Yet my black elite cousins still will not speak to me. When I ask for an email address, they seem to not know how to contact the person I’m seeking. There are times when you simply have to give up on trying to belong. That’s when you life really begins.

    • lkanony

      INDEED……I couldn’t agree with you more that when you “stop trying to belong” and in addition stop trying to live your life by others’ views and opinions you free yourself to be YOU living the BEST life you can live by YOUR own standards, thus setting your OWN ways and rules of life, having to prove yourself to no one.

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