On 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.
A book that binds black history in Illinois
Historical volume was more than 70 years in the making
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.
On Saturday, Sept. 28, at 1:30 p.m., we will be holding a celebration for the publication of The Negro in Illinois at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Branch of the Chicago Public Library (95th and Halsted). It is Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, located at the Woodson library, which holds most of the WPA papers that make up The Negro in Illinois.
Women of the Du Sable Memorial Society, 1933
I will be joined by a distinguished panel of scholars of African American History:
Darlene Clark Hine is Board of Trustees Professor of African American Studies and Professor of History at Northwestern University. She is past president of the Organization of American History, and co-editor of The Black Chicago Renaissance.
Christopher R. Reed is Professor Emeritus of History at Roosevelt University and author of Black Chicago’s First Century, 1833-1900 and The Rise of Chicago’s Black Metropolis, 1920-1929.
Adam P. Green is Associate Professor of American History and Master, Social Sciences Collegiate Division, at University of Chicago. He is the author of Selling the Race: Culture and Community in Black Chicago, 1940-1955.
Copies of the book will be available for sale. Book signing after the program.
Program co-sponsors: Vivian G. Harsh Society, South Side Community Art Center, Black Chicago History Forum
Edited by Brian Dolinar
An extraordinary document of the African American experience
A major document of African American participation in the struggles of the Depression, The Negro in Illinois, was produced by a special division of the Illinois Writers’ Project, one of President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration programs. The Federal Writers’ Project helped to sustain “New Negro” artists during the 1930s and gave them a newfound social consciousness that is reflected in their writing.
Headed by Harlem Renaissance poet Arna Bontemps and white proletarian writer Jack Conroy, The Negro in Illinois employed major black writers living in Chicago during the 1930s, including Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Katherine Dunham, Fenton Johnson, Frank Yerby, and Richard Durham. The authors chronicled the African American experience in Illinois from the beginnings of slavery to Lincoln’s emancipation and the Great Migration, with individual chapters discussing various aspects of public and domestic life, recreation, politics, religion, literature, and performing arts. After the project was canceled in 1942, most of the writings went unpublished for more than half a century–until now.
Working closely with archivist Michael Flug to select and organize the book, editor Brian Dolinar compiled The Negro in Illinois from papers at the Vivian G. Harsh Collection of Afro-American History and Literature at the Carter G. Woodson Library in Chicago. Dolinar provides an informative introduction and epilogue which explain the origins of the project and place it in the context of the Black Chicago Renaissance. Making available an invaluable perspective on African American life, this volume represents a publication of immense historical and literary importance.
A section of The Negro in Illinois can be read at Google Books.
Early Praise for The Negro in Illinois
“For decades, scholars and enthusiasts of the Black Midwest have lamented the abortive end to the WPA’s The Negro in Illinois project, the most ambitious New Deal study of African American life and history. Now this treasure can enjoy the wide readership it always deserved. Working with the Harsh Research Collection and other archives across the country, editor Brian Dolinar has located all twenty-nine chapters of the original survey, written by the cream of the Chicago Renaissance generation, and supplemented their work with illuminating and helpful annotation. The result is equal parts epic, elegy and captivating ledger of the contributions and circumstances of African Americans in Illinois, from frontier and slavery days to the emergence of the Black Metropolis. This volume is testament to the extraordinary capacities of African Americans in Chicago and Illinois, and to how their story encapsulates that of a nation.”
—Adam Green, author of Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940-1955
“Brian Dolinar’s efforts are impressive along two scholarly fronts. He has presented a first-class introduction to the monumental New Deal Era’s writing project to preserve black Chicago’s history and culture that was embodied in the research and writings of Arna Bontemps, Jack Conroy, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker and others. Then, he has untiringly resurrected all 29 chapters of the historic Illinois Writers’ Project labeled The Negro in Illinois, providing posterity with long sought-after meanings of things past in the vaunted Black Metropolis of the early twentieth century.”
—Christopher Robert Reed, author of The Rise of Chicago’s Black Metropolis, 1920-1929
“An exciting act of scholarly recovery. The Negro in Illinois papers, at long last available, are an invaluable guide to the role of American writers in crafting one of the first composite narratives of African American life. This dynamic volume shows us history from below in the making and being made.”
—Bill V. Mullen, coeditor of Afro Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African Americans and Asian Americans
“This landmark study provides a unique window onto the work of the Illinois unit of the Federal Writers’ Project. A commendable work of historical recovery.”
—Richard Courage, coauthor of The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago, 1932-1950
On June 15, a panel was organized by the Black Chicago History Forum to launch the publication of Dewey Jones’ novel Dark Days: A Tale of Love Along the Color Line. Jones was a journalist and longtime book reviewer for the Chicago Defender. Written in 1935, the novel was self-published by Dewey Roscoe Jones II, who spoke about his father’s life. Literary scholar Richard Courage put Dewey Jones and his novel in the context of other works of African American literature from the 1920s and 1930s. This event marked the publication of one of the lost novels of the Black Chicago Renaissance. I bought a copy, had it signed, and it’s on my summer reading list.
Passing along news of this panel on Dewey Jones featuring colleague Richard Courage, co-author with Robert Bone of The Muse in Bronzeville.
The Black Chicago History Forum Presents a panel discussion on the pioneering editorial and literary work (1923-1935) of Dewey Roscoe Jones, Sr. at the historic Chicago Defender
Panelists who will discuss his writings and novel, Dark Days, include Dewey Jones II, Professor Richard Courage, and Heather Robinson of the South Side Community Arts Center.
Where: Quinn Chapel AME Church,
[Chicago’s First African American Congregation]
2401 South Wabash Avenue
First Floor Assembly Hall
When: Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 2:00 p.m.
The Black Cultural Front: Black Writers and Artists of the Depression Generation describes how the social and political movements that grew out of the Depression facilitated the left turn of several African American artists and writers. The Communist-led John Reed Clubs brought together black and white writers in writing collectives. The Congress of Industrial Organizations’ effort to recruit black workers inspired growing interest in the labor movement. One of the most concerted efforts was made by the National Negro Congress, a coalition of civil rights and labor organizations, which held cultural panels at its national conferences, fought segregation in the arts, promoted cultural education, and involved writers and artists in staging mass rallies during World War II.
This book examines the formation of a black cultural front by looking at the works of poet Langston Hughes, novelist Chester Himes, and cartoonist Ollie Harrington. While none of these writers were card-carrying members of the Communist Party, they all participated in the Left during their careers. Interestingly, they all turned to creating popular culture in order to reach the black masses who were captivated by movies, radio, newspapers, and detective novels. There are chapters on Hughes’s “Simple” stories, Himes’s detective fiction, and Harrington’s “Bootsie” cartoons.
Collectively, the experience of these three figures contributes to the story of a “long” movement for African American freedom that flourished during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Yet this book also stresses the impact that McCarthyism had on dismantling the Black Left and how it affected each individual involved. Each was radicalized at a different moment and for different reasons. Each suffered for their past allegiances, whether fleeing to the haven of the “Black Bank” in Paris, or staying home and facing the House Un-American Activities Committee. Yet the lasting influence of the Depression in their work was evident for the rest of their lives.
Praise for The Black Cultural Front:
“Brian Dolinar’s The Black Cultural Front is essential reading for students and scholars of the African American Left. Deeply researched and eye-opening, Dolinar brings up challenging questions about the politics of popular culture to provide a rare, ingenious, and powerfully argued reconceptualization of the literary and artistic achievements of three major black radicals.”
―Alan Wald, H. Chandler Davis Collegiate Professor, University of Michigan
“While The Black Cultural Front focuses on the above three writers, it is also a formidable history of a repressive period in American history that is little known for its political horror to many of today’s citizens. At the same time, this repression stimulated an incredibly rich intellectual and artistic output by African American writers who not only understood the economic underpinnings of the racial and political repression, but reflected them publicly in their literary works and at their own peril. Brian does a magnificent job examining a portion of this literature in its historical context.”
―Belden Fields, co-editor of The Public i