After the American Civil War, freed slaves began migrating to the northern United States. This trend continued into the beginning of the twentieth century, as the Ku Klux Klan revived in 1915, and as African Americans in the South sought better job opportunities in the North. The migration of African Americans to the North between 1910 to 1960 is known as the “Great Migration.” Because of the Great Migration, the two cities with the largest African American populations are located in the North: New York City and Chicago, respectively.
Because Chicago has a rich African American history, the DuSable Museum of African American History opened up in Chicago in 1961. The museum originally began in the home of its founder, Dr. Margaret Burroughs, but in 1971, moved to its current home, which is a beautiful building that used to be an administration and police lockup facility. Located on the South Side of Chicago, where most African Americans live, the museum is named after Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a Hatian trader who is considered the first permanent non-Native American resident of Chicago.
The main exhibit of the museum provides a timeline of African American history, beginning with the slave trade, but then eventually narrows down to Chicago’s African American history. One aspect of Chicago’s African American history that the museum highlights is the Pullman Car Company, which used to hire African Americans as porters on its trains, and paid them better than many other jobs that hired African Americans at the time. The museum also mentions the story of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago who was lynched when he went to visit relatives in Mississippi, because he allegedly whistled at a white woman. This tragedy, which occurred in 1955, was one of the many injustices of the South that helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Martin Luther King, Jr. actually visited Chicago during the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, he was invited to Chicago to address the segregation there, and started what became the Chicago Freedom Movement. If you would like to learn more about Chicago’s unfair housing situation during that time, read or watch Lorraine Hansberry’s famous 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun. Unfortunately, the violence and poverty of Chicago’s South Side would probably not be in such a sad state if African Americans had been integrated equally in Chicago when they first arrived. Chicago’s historic practice of housing segregation is why such a large number of African Americans live south of the Chicago River in the first place.
Chicago is considered by some to be the birthplace of modern gospel music. The first gospel choir was begun in 1931 in an African American church called Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, which is still an active church today.
This church attests to how the South Side has historically been the home of Chicago’s immigrants. Before being an African American neighborhood, Bronzeville was a Jewish immigrant neighborhood. Note that the Church’s cornerstone is using the Jewish year (which is based on rabbinic calculations of the Bible’s genealogies) rather than the Gregorian calendar. It used to be a synagogue called Temple Isaiah. In case you’re wondering, 5659 is 1898.
Some famous African American jazz musicians lived in Chicago for a while. Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood has the homes of Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. They are still lived in, and not open to the public.
One final exhibit at the DuSable Museum that I thought was kind of fun was an animatronic of Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, who served from 1983 to 1987. The exhibit has Harold Washington talking to you.
If you want to learn more about Chicago’s African American history, then the DuSable Museum is a great place to start.
Sources and Further Reading
Bada, Ferdinand. “Cities with the Largest African-American Populations.” WorldAtlas. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/cities-with-the-largest-african-american-populations.html (accessed October 26, 2019).
“DuSable Museum of African-American History.” The New York Times, January 30, 2013. https://archive.is/20130130235748/http://travel.nytimes.com/travel/guides/north-america/united-states/illinois/chicago/attraction-detail.html?vid=1154654606497#selection-1415.0-1415.42 (accessed October 26, 2019).
“The Great Migration.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. http://americanexperience.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/The-Great-Migration.pdf (accessed October 26, 2019).
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Modern Library, 1995.
Landers, Betsy. “Martin Luther King, Jr. in Winnetka.” Winnetka Historical Society. http://www.winnetkahistory.org/gazette/martin-luther-king-jr-in-winnetka/ (accessed October 26, 2019).
“Museum History.” The DuSable Museum of African American History. https://www.dusablemuseum.org/museum-history/ (accessed October 26, 2019).
Ralph, James. “Martin Luther King, Jr., in Chicago.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1438.html (accessed October 26, 2019).