African-American Historian Discovers 19th-Century Black Renaissance in Chicago

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Christopher R. Reed is a research scientist at Roosevelt University.
Christopher R. Reed is a research scientist at Roosevelt University.

The mass exodus of Southern Blacks to northern cities during the early 1900s set the stage for an awakening of Black consciousness. Life in the segregated communes of Chicago’s south side fostered an unprecedented explosion of music, visual arts and literature from the start of the Great Depression to 1950, dubbed the Chicago Black Renaissance.

But Black Chicagoans were leading cultural and intellectual revolutions long before Lorraine Hansberry and Louis Armstrong arrived on the scene, researchers have found.

Noted history scholar Christopher R. Reed and colleagues at the National Endowment for the Humanities documented the beginnings of African-American patronage dating as far back as 1890 for their project, which began more than two years ago.

“There’s been an assumption that intellectualism among African Americans in Chicago was rare prior to the Depression, but we have found ample evidence of a black arts community being active nearly 50 years earlier,” Reed said in the press release.

The scientists poured through national archives, conducting hours of interviews to create a collection of stories from Black artists, musicians and writers who worked in Chicago from 1890 to 1930.

“Not only did we find evidence of affluent African American patrons of the arts, for instance, having their portraits painted 100 years ago; we also have been able to document that members of Chicago’s black working class supported the arts back then.”

“Root, Branch and Blossom: Social Origins of Chicago’s New Negro Artists and Intellectualism,” will be presented at the Roosevelt University library in Chicago on June 26. The forum, free to the public, will feature presentations by Reed and team researchers Richard A. Courage and Claudia Jacques.

Researchers plan to record their findings in a book to be published next year by the University of Illinois Press. An accompanying website will spotlight the era’s prominent Black artists and intellectuals and their projects.