Richard Wright’s WPA Writings from the Chicago Period

While on the WPA Richard Wright often sought advice from Vivian G. Harsh, librarian at the Hall Branch Library.

While on the WPA, Richard Wright often sought advice from librarian Vivian G. Harsh.

Previously published only in scholarly journals, Richard Wright’s WPA writings from his Chicago period are here for the first time made available to the public, as was intended by this government-sponsored program.

These ten writings were published in The Southern Quarterly following the 2009 Centenary Celebration of Richard Wright’s birthday in Natchez, Mississippi, which I attended. There are essays on the Chicago Urban League, hotels, and tourist sites like the White City amusement park, located on the South Side but prohibited to blacks.

Read the ten writings and an introduction by clicking: DolinarBrian_SouthernQuarterly_Winter2009_v46n2

Wright was most likely the first African American writer to work on the WPA in Illinois. The essay “Ethnographical Aspects of Chicago’s Black Belt” is dated December 11, 1935.

"Ethnographical Aspects of Chicago's Black Belt"

“Ethnographical Aspects of Chicago’s Black Belt”

For those who appreciate the original documents I am also including a copy of Wright’s essay about Washington Park. Read it here:          Richard Wright_Washington Park

The essay is dated March 27 and, although the year is not indicated, it was probably written in 1937. Washington Park, which still exists on Chicago’s South Side, was the place where Communists marched for the Scottsboro boys, Garveyites held parades in elaborate costumes, and Hammurabi Robb gave soapbox speeches about black history. As Wright wrote:

“Here on summer afternoons and evenings, the tourist may hear speeches and debates on any conceivable topic, by speakers representing every conceivable opinion. This is a Chicago open forum.”

I found these writings at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, and Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection in Chicago.

 

“Don’t Spend Your Money Where You Can’t Work”: WPA Document by Black Radio Pioneer Richard Durham

Over the coming months, I plan to post several important WPA documents that were not included in The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers, but will be of interest to scholars and the public. For the first time, Richard Durham’s essay, “Don’t Spend Your Money Where You Can’t Work” is made available here.

To read it click here: WPA documents Richard Durham Don’t Spend.

DurhamRichard Durham was a pioneering radio writer, best known for his series Destination Freedom, a radio program dramatizing African American history broadcast on WMAQ in Chicago from 1948 to 1950. He was blacklisted in the radio industry during the 1950s, and worked as a union organizer with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters. When Elijah Muhammad started his newspaper Muhammad Speaks, he hired Durham as one of its first editors. Durham met Muhammad Ali through the Nation of Islam and helped the boxer write his 1975 autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story. Sonja Williams, professor at Howard University is soon to publish a book on this important black cultural worker titled Destined for Freedom: The Life and Times of Radio Hall of Famer Richard Durham (University of Illinois Press).

Before making his mark in radio, Durham got his start on the Illinois Writers’ Project. He first worked on a study of the black press headed by Horace Cayton, author of the landmark sociology Black Metropolis. In early 1939, Durham joined the WPA and recorded surveys of black newspapers. According to an outline, “Don’t Spend Your Money Where You Can’t Work” was one of ten chapters for an unpublished book on the black press. While the essay is not dated, it was probably written in the late spring of 1939. Soon after, Durham was transferred to the Illinois Radio Project, where he met Oscar Brown, Jr. and Studs Terkel, and it was here that he discovered his love for radio.

Click on picture for larger image.

Click on picture for larger image.

This 29-page essay takes its title, of course, from the “Don’t Spend Your Money Where You Can’t Work,” campaign led by the Chicago Whip from 1929 to 1932. Durham uses this as an opener to talk about the fight against job discrimination. He quotes extensively from the Whip, Chicago Defender, and Anthony Overton’s Chicago Bee. Durham looks at coverage in the black press of A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the rise of the CIO, and the growing interest in Communism.

The original version of this essay can be found in The Illinois Writers’ Project/”Negro in Illinois” Papers (Box 41, folder 7) at the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature. What is attached here is a scanned image of a photocopy. Readers may find some interest in the editorial comments, although it is not clear whose handwriting it is in (Arna Bontemps, editor of The Negro in Illinois, was not hired on the WPA until late 1939). For example, on page 28 a critical comment by Durham was crossed out:

“Truly, the search for democracy in the ‘land of the free’ is a long and weary one.”

This reflects some of the censorship that undoubtedly took place on the project, most likely to avoid gaining the attention of those wishing to paint the WPA’s cultural projects as infiltrated by Communists.

In fact, the WPA’s detractors were not entirely wrong. It was during these years that Richard Durham was a member of the Communist Party and involved in the activities at the local office of the National Negro Congress, where he met his wife Clarice Durham. This is reflected in the heavily Marxist tone of the essay. “The most telling and detrimental form of discrimination,” Durham states at the outset, “is economic discrimination.”

Enjoy reading! BD

Back in Chicago: Upcoming Talk at Revolution Books

ISHS picOn Saturday, April 26, 2-4 p.m., I’ll be at Revolution Books, located at 1103 N. Ashland Ave., near the Polish Triangle in Chicago. I’ll be giving a talk called “Radicals on Relief” looking at the politics of The Negro in Illinois, as many of those who were on the WPA like Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Richard Durham, and Jack Conroy were members of or close to the Communist Party while working on the project. As I will show, sometimes they engaged in self-censorship, and other times they injected political commentary into their writings. To join the Facebook page for the event go here. There will be a book signing afterwards. Thanks to Revolution Books for hosting this event.

Earlier in April, I was the keynote speaker (pictured above) at a banquet for this year’s symposium of the Illinois State Historical Society held at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. I was quoted in the local newspaper about the legacy of Edward Coles, after whom Coles County, where Charleston is located, was named. Coles is known as the second governor who ensured that Illinois remain a free state.

GwendolynBrooksThose following this blog might also be interested in this event on April 24 welcoming the papers of Gwendolyn Brooks at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at UIUC with Chicago poet Haki Madhubuti, whose Third World Press began publishing Brooks’s poetry in the 1960s, and local poet Janice Harrington.

 

“History Symposium Looks at Variety of Civil War Topics, Related Issues and More”

By Dave Fopay, Journal Gazette & Times Courier, March 28, 2014

CHARLESTON — The Illinois State Historical Society’s annual symposium is supposed to a combination of topics, who presents them and who might be interested in them, according to one of the organization’s officials.

That seemed to fit well with Brian Dolinar, who served as the keynote speaker during the banquet at this year’s symposium. He said he was also interested in what others had to say and to learn more about a local historical event at the same time.

“All these people have this great knowledge of Illinois History,” Dolinar said Friday. “It’s been a real lesson for me.”

This year’s symposium took place at Eastern Illinois University’s Booth Library. The historical society announced a year ago that the event would be in Charleston in conjunction with this weekend’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Charleston Riot.

Several activities are planned for today and Sunday for the commemoration of the March 28, 1864, fight in Charleston between Union soldiers and a group of Copperheads, those who opposed the war.

During more than a dozen sessions Thursday and Friday, presenters covered topics directly related to the Civil War but also many related subjects.

During the symposium, Dolinar, a member of the University of Illinois faculty, spoke about his research on a history of African Americans in Illinois compiled by those in the WPA, one of the New Deal programs of the Great Depression.

He said that covered history from before the Civil War, to Reconstruction and after. He shared some history of the Undergound Railroad’s activities in the state and related that there were slave owners in Illinois, mostly in southern mining regions.

But Dolinar also said he “talked at length” about Edward Coles, the second governor of Illinois, for whom Coles County is named. Coles worked against slavery and defended the rights of former slaves, Dolinar noted.

“Edward Coles is largely the reason Illinois remained a free state,” he said.

The symposium is different than other academic conferences that are “kind of closed shops,” Russell Lewis, the historical society’s president, said Friday.

“What’s great about it is it’s open,” he said. “It’s a mix of scholars, history buffs and the general public.”

This year’s event focused on Civil War topics but in a variety of ways because the symposium should address a certain interest but not be too limited, Lewis also said.

“If it’s too narrow, we’re not going to get as many speakers,” he said. “If we can make a connection, it really resonates with people.”

Lewis said another of the historical society’s goals with the symposium is to try to show how events from history can be put in perspective with current problems.

“We don’t live in the past,” he said.

Marching Forward into Spring!

Dolinar UFLThis month, I’m marching into Spring with two events where I’ll be talking about The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers. I’ll be at Figure One in downtown Champaign on Thursday, March 20, 6:00-7:00 p.m. The talk is part of an exhibition called Social Habitat: The Porch Project by Brooklyn-based artist Heather Hart. Figure One is UIUC’s School of Art & Design exhibition space at 116 N. Walnut Street in downtown (south of the Blind Pig). I’m thankful to Rehema Barber for the invitation.

IL_history_web4I’ll also be a guest speaker at the Thursday night banquet for the 2014 Illinois State Historical Society Symposium titled “The Civil War Part III: Copperheads, Contraband and the Rebirth of Freedom.” It will be held at Booth Library at Eastern Illinois University. I’ll be speaking Thursday, March 27, 2014 at 8:00 p.m. after dinner. To register go here. To see the entire list of events click ISHS symposium program.

Thanks to the Urbana Free Library for hosting a wonderful book talk on February 15 that was well attended and where I sold out of books. In the above photo I talk about the legacy of Ishmael Flory, whose appearance at a 1940 congressional hearing was cited by WPA workers in The Negro in Illinois.

You can also listen here to an hour-long interview I did in February on Illinois Public Media WILL’s “Focus.”

What’s Happening in 2014!!

BD MLALast year, 2013, was a great year, largely due to the long-awaited publication of The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers. This coming year, 2014, promises to be as exciting as I continue to promote the book.

BD MLA panelAt the MLA conference, this year in Chicago, I was on two panels―one on Red Chicago, and one on Black Chicago. The latter panel was sponsored by the Black American Literature and Culture Division. I talked about the collection of African American folklore by black WPA writers Katherine Dunham, Robert Lucas, and Onah Spencer. I was joined on the panel by two veterans in the field, R. Baxter Miller and John Edgar Tidwell, as well as Lauren Gantz, a grad student at UT Austin. You can see photos from the panel by poet/scholar Aldon Nielsen at his blog Heat String Theory.

I also visited the University of Illinois Press table at the book exhibit where I got a photo with my book in front of a poster for The Negro in Illinois.

Local Book Talks

I have two book talks coming up locally. On January 25, I’ve been invited to an event in Champaign, Hallways Microcinema Vol. 3, called “Alternative Histories of Black Music. I will be giving a presentation titled, “Playing Second Trumpet in the Second City: Black Chicago Jazz.” It will be followed by screening of the documentary film, A Band Called Death.

Hallways MicrocinemaFor Black History Month, I will be giving a book talk at Urbana Free Library on Saturday, February 15 at 2 p.m. Among other things, I will be talking about mention of Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois in The Negro in Illinois.

To promote the UFL event, I’ll be appearing on the “Labor Hour,” Saturday, February 1, 11 a.m. to noon, on WEFT 90.1 FM, with David Johnson and crew. On Wednesday, February 12, 2-3 p.m., I will be a guest on “ACCESS Live,” WBCP 1580 AM, with Imani Bazzell.

Stay tuned for other talks at the Illinois State Historical Society symposium in March, and Mather Café at 83rd Street in Chicago in April.

The Woodson Branch of the Chicago Public Library Shines a Spotlight on “The Negro in Illinois”

Woodson book event

On Saturday, September 28, the Carter G. Woodson Regional branch of The Chicago Public Library was the site of a celebration of the publication of The Negro in Illinois. The event included a panel discussion with scholars including the book’s editor, Brian Dolinar.

A distinguished panel of scholars of African American History spoke at the event:Darlene Clark Hine (Northwestern), Adam Green (University of Chicago), and Christopher Reed (Roosevelt). The event was taped and aired on C-SPAN’s Book TV. It can be viewed online here.

The location of the event was appropriate due to the library’s close ties to the project.  The Negro in Illinois was initially produced by a special division of the Illinois Writers Project, one of President Roosevelt’s WPA programs. It was researched by a team of more than 100 writers, activists and scholars, including Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Katherine Dunham, and Richard Durham. Beginning with Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, and tracing Illinois Black history and culture through more than 150 years, this study was unprecedented.

The project went dormant and unpublished as the WPA was closed down with U.S. entry into World War II. The research materials and many book chapters were given to Vivian G. Harsh, founder of the Chicago Public Library collection, housed at the Woodson Regional Library.

Pictured, from L to R:  Michael Flug, Adam Green, Brian Dolinar and Christopher Reed.  Not pictured here, but present at the event and speaking on the panel, was Darlene Clark Hine.

At Fundraiser for the Vivian G. Harsh Society

Harshfundraiser 044On Sunday, September 22, 2013, I participated in a panel discussion, “Rethinking the Black Chicago Renaissance,” with Richard Courage, Sonja Michelle Y. Gordon, and Sonja Williams. The event was a fundraiser for the Vivian G. Harsh Society. Here we are with a portrait of Vivian G. Harsh that hangs on the walls of the collection than now bears her name, the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature.