Chicago Black Renaissance

The Chicago Black Renaissance (also known as the Black Chicago Renaissance) was a creative movement that blossomed out of the Chicago Black Belt on the city’s South Side and spanned the 1930s and 1940s before a transformation in art and culture took place in the mid-1950s through the turn of the century. The movement included such famous African-American writers as Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Arna Bontemps, and Lorraine Hansberry, as well as musicians Thomas A. Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines and Mahalia Jackson[1][2][3][4][5] and artists William Edouard Scott, Elizabeth Catlett, Katherine Dunham, Charles Wilbert White, Margaret Burroughs, Charles C. Dawson, Archibald John Motley, Jr., Walter Sanford, and Eldzier Cortor. During the Great Migration, which brought tens of thousands of African-Americans to Chicago’s South Side, African-American writers, artists, and community leaders began promoting racial pride and a new black consciousness, similar to that of the Harlem Renaissance.[6] Unlike the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Black Renaissance did not receive the same amount of publicity on a national scale. Among the reasons for this are that the Chicago group participants did not present a singularly prominent “face”, wealthy patrons were less involved, and New York City—home of Harlem—was the higher profile national publishing center.[1]

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The Chicago Black Renaissance was influenced by two major social and economic conditions: the Great Migration and the Great Depression. The Great Migration brought tens of thousands of African Americans from the south to Chicago. Between 1910 and 1930 the African American population increased from 44,000 to 230,000.[7] Before this migration, African Americans only constituted 2% of Chicago’s population.[8] African American migrants resided in a segregated zone on Chicago’s south side, extending from 22nd Street on the north to 63rd Street on the south, and reaching from the Rock Island railroad tracks on the west to Cottage Grove Avenue on the east.[7] This zone of neighborhoods was known as the “black belt” or “black ghetto.”

The Pekin Theatre (also called Pekin Inn or Pekin Café), located at 2700 State Street in Chicago, in the 1910s-20s, was purported to be the first Chicago Theatre owned and operated by African Americans. Many early jazz artists played there, most notably Joe “King” Oliver.
Archibald Motley “Blues,” 1929.
Lester Bowie, with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Jazz Festival Zeltweg (Spielberg), 1983.

African Americans saw Chicago, and other cities of the north, as a chance for freedom from legally sanctioned racial discrimination. Migrants mainly found work in meatpacking plants, steel mills, garment shops, and private homes.[7] The Great Migration established the foundation of Chicago’s African American industrial working class. When the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression resulted, thousands of people lost their jobs. African Americans were hit particularly hard. This catastrophe allowed for an emergence of new ideas and institutions among the black community. With a revitalized community spirit and sense of racial pride, a new black consciousness developed resulting in a shift toward social activism. African Americans on the south side coined the word Bronzeville, a word that described the skin tone of most its inhabitants, to identify their community.[7]

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