“Exploring African American History in Illinois & Throughout the United States”
Talks on Our History and its’ Artistic Representations
“Exploring African American History in Illinois & Throughout the United States”
Talks on Our History and its’ Artistic Representations
I’m happy to announce the official release of the paperback issue of The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers! On Saturday, April 18, 2-4 p.m., I will be celebrating at 57th Street Books, one of the premier independent bookstores in Chicago. I’m honored to be joined by Chris Benson, University of Illinois journalism professor.
My talk will be titled, “A New Deal Town: The WPA & Black Writers on Chicago’s South Side.” I’ll be discussing the influence of the “Chicago School of Sociology” on black WPA workers, many of whom were students at the University of Chicago including Horace Cayton, Arna Bontemps, and Katherine Dunham.
Among them was Horace Cayton who, as a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Chicago, supervised some two dozen WPA projects. This research became the basis of Black Metropolis, the landmark sociological work he co-authored with St. Clair Drake. Although never a college student, Richard Wright had sought out Louis Wirth, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, who gave him several book titles to read.
I’ll also talk about a letter I discovered by Horace Cayton registering his “most emphatic protest” to the idea of a study of the South Side conducted by the University of Chicago under the auspices of the WPA. The letter was written before Cayton was on the WPA payroll. Ironically, it helped him get a job administering a similar project that would be black-led.
It has been an exciting year taking The Negro in Illinois on the road, whether speaking to historians at the Illinois State Historical Society, or to black senior citizens on Chicago’s South Side. In the coming year, I am happy to announce a paperback edition of the book will be out in the Spring. A paperback issue of my first book The Black Cultural Front has also been released.
As we look back with the turn of the calendar year, I want to highlight several “personal reminiscences” of the poet Fenton Johnson, written while he was on the WPA and never before published. (In a future blogpost, I will write about his other WPA essays). Born in 1888, Johnson was from a family that was among the “old settlers” of black Chicago. His writings are a unique and intimate, if at times critical, portrait of those he called “Negro aristocrats.”
In the decade before the Harlem Renaissance, Fenton Johnson published three books of poetry and founded the magazine Champion to compete with the NAACP’s Crisis. According to editors of the The Negro in Illinois, he was the first to make “a complete break” with 19th century black verse.
“Personal Reminiscences of 8th Regiment Characters: Col. John R. Marshall” was written in two parts, dated July 25, 1940 and August 19, 1940. In Part One, Johnson remembers being invited to his uncle’s house for dinner with Col. John R. Marshall, who was famous as the first African American Colonel, in charge of the all-black 8th Regiment. In Part Two, he tells how Marshall helped him to get his magazine off the ground. These stories spark other memories about Marshall’s rejection of boxer Jack Johnson from the exclusive Appomottox Club, and his part-ownership of the black-owned Binga Bank, where Fenton Johnson worked briefly as publicity director.
A subsequent article, “Eighth Regiment Characters III: Reverdy C. Ransom,” dated 1940, only briefly touches on the Fighting 8th. It is mostly about Reverend Ransom, pastor of the historic Bethel A.M.E. Church, and the first in Chicago to “render the race problem” in his sermons. According to Fenton Johnson, in one of these sermons during the Spring of 1898, Ransom first announced he and Col. Marshall had met with Governor Tanner about forming the Eighth Regiment. The essay mentions the many other institutions Ransom would help establish. Johnson recalls sending his poetry and prose to Ransom, who kindly published them in the A.M.E. Review.
The essay, “Personal Reminiscences of a Few Negro Composers: Will Marion Cook,” dated May 1940, recalls the composer who “dominated” black music at the turn of the century. As Johnson reminds us, Cook met his wife, singer Abbie Mitchell, at the Pekin Theater in Chicago. Johnson was introduced to Cook while a journalist in New York. Cook asked him to work on a song he was writing with fellow composer Joe Jordan, “Why not hook up with us and write the words for us?” Unfortunately, the song never materialized.
Other first-hand recollections of famous African Americans appear in the essay “Chicago Negro Aristocrats,” dated June 18, 1941. “When we speak of Chicago Negro aristocrats,” Johnson writes, “we are reminded of the first of all of them, Mrs. John Jones.” Mary Richardson Jones was the wife of John Jones, a wealthy African American tailor and abolitionist. The one time Johnson met Mrs. Jones was at a dinner held in her honor by his grandmother. Johnson’s portrait is unflattering. He calls her a “stern dictator” whose ideals were of the “lily white type.”
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.
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.
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.
Richard 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 United Packinghouse Workers of America. 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.
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
On 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.
Those 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.
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.
This 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.
I’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.”