Brian Dolinar’s new book, “The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers,” was released this summer, and if the title sounds dated it’s because the book began its long road to publication in the late 1930s but was sidelined by two formidable obstacles — World War II and a rejection letter.
How Dolinar came to complete the book is a story of a nearly decade-long effort to do justice to work started by a team of more than 100 African-American writers hired to document black life and history for one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration programs.
To recreate the manuscript, Dolinar searched for missing chapters across several states and painstakingly sifted through more than 10,000 pages of documents typed on cheap paper that at one point had been disintegrating.
Some of the original writers, such as Richard Wright, would go on to great acclaim. And because many of them were novelists and poets, their writing style wasn’t at all dry but literary as they wrote about a variety of issues and people, including entertainers like Louis Armstrong; a young Nation of Islam; President Abraham Lincoln’s Haitian-born barber; and an entrepreneur whose chicken shack later would be featured in Wright’s “Native Son.”
“As a scholar of African-American literature during the Depression, this (project) just jumped out at me,” said Dolinar, 41, who has a doctorate in cultural studies and is the book’s editor. “This was one of the earliest examinations of black life in Illinois, and it’s comprehensive and a fascinating achievement.”
In the 1930s, as part of the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project, each of the then-48 states was putting together books detailing all aspects of life within its borders.
Information about African-Americans initially had been excluded until blacks protested, and President Roosevelt appointed Sterling Brown, one of the most famous black poets and writers of that time, to supervise efforts depicting black life in 17 states.
To head up the Illinois project, Brown paired Arna Bontemps, a black Harlem Renaissance writer, with Jack Conroy, a well-known white writer and radical.
They in turn assembled scores of writers, including Wright, Margaret Walker, Katherine Dunham, Frank Yerby and Fenton Johnson, and had them fan out across the state gathering information on blacks from the time of Chicago’s first non-native settler, Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, to the early 1940s.
Michael Flug is senior archivist for the Harsh Archival Processing Project at the Chicago Public Library’s Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection on the South Side.
“The (writers) scoured old newspapers and they did interviews,” said Flug. “They went through courthouse records. They studied music, art, politics, the movement for the abolition of slavery, the military, black businesses, sports, housing. It was incredibly comprehensive.”
Bontemps and Conroy took the material and had begun writing draft chapters when America joined the war in 1941. Shortly afterward, Roosevelt ended all of the book projects.
Bontemps left Chicago to become a librarian at Fisk University. Flug said Bontemps gave the material to Vivian G. Harsh, then the head librarian at the George Cleveland Hall Branch Library, where Bontemps had written and done research.
“He and Conroy continued writing the book, and in 1943, they submitted the 29-chapter manuscript to a publisher,” said Flug. “But it was rejected and remained unpublished.”
By the 1960s, the collection was being recognized as one of the country’s foremost examinations of black life up through the New Deal era and was being used regularly by researchers. But over the years, chapters from the manuscript disappeared. Some of the documents, typed on cheap railroad manila paper, began to melt away or went missing.
After a massive effort by Harsh archivists to save the documents (by having them encased in Mylar sleeves) and to organize them, Flug tried to revive the book project. From 1992 to 2004, he asked five scholars to take it on. Not one agreed.
“It was an enormous task, and I was looking for somebody willing to do something insane,” said Flug.
On a fall day in 2004, Dolinar visited the Harsh Collection — housed at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library since the 1970s — to research the ways Bontemps and his close friend Langston Hughes had tried to reach a wider audience. Flug directed Dolinar to “The Negro in Illinois” collection and once again told its story.
Dolinar believed the project would be like unraveling a mystery, and he was intrigued by the stories and the lives of the storytellers. He also had just completed a book and was looking for another. Over the years, he searched for the missing pieces at libraries, archives and universities in Chicago, Springfield, Washington and New York.
“Then there was the process of going through the manuscript,” said Dolinar, who lives in Urbana. “Some chapters had two or three authors, and I had to identify the most recent versions of the texts and edit them down.”
He said there were also contradictions that had to be reconciled and re-researched, and editor’s notes that had to be written at the beginning of chapters to explain it all.
Flug said that today, “The Negro in Illinois” collection of documents remains popular and is often used to learn about the Black Chicago Renaissance.
“And now this treasure trove is finally in a book,” said Flug. “In my long career as an archivist, I’ve never done anything that resulted in the publication of a book that I’ve felt better about than this.”
On Sept. 28, Dolinar will join other scholars of African-American history in a panel discussion about the collection and the book, published by the University of Illinois Press, at 1:30 p.m. at the Woodson library.