” Economic Conditions Of Chicago’s African-American Working Class During The 1920’s

“Part Of The Loaf:” Economic Conditions Of Chicago’s African-American Working Class During The 1920’s

Gareth Canaan

In January 1928, Sheridan A. Bruseaux of the Keystone National Detective Agency, a black Chicago company, sought information about the economic conditions of blacks in the United States from the U.S. Department of Labor. Bruseaux’s agency had been hired by an unnamed party to “ascertain why the Negro is constantly being discharged from positions, and even the commonest labor of which he has been previously employed.” Conditions in the midwest, he observed, were “alarming” and “getting more serious.” [1] A month later, a high-ranking Department of Labor official, Karl Phillips, wrote back expressing puzzlement. Contrary to Bruseaux’s assertions, Phillips responded that, “The Negro worker is enjoying the greatest opportunity and happiest period of his work life.” African Americans were engaged in occupations previously closed to them, drawing higher wages than ever before and advancing into skilled occupations, he added. If Bruseaux’s investigation turned up any evidence that contradicted the Labor Department’s data, Phillips continued, it should be sent to him immediately. [2]

Phillips’ response was less than candid. Over the previous two years, he had maintained a close correspondence with Morris Lewis, circulation manager of the Chicago Defender, in which Lewis gave frequent reports of persistent unemployment among African Americans in that city dating back to 1925. Agents from the Labor Department’s Chicago office had sent similar reports. Phillips, however, sought to downplay the urgent nature of this correspondence in his memoranda to department bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.. “It is believed that the reports [of widespread unemployment in the middle western and eastern states] are exaggerated and do not reflect the true prosperity which has abounded within the ranks of Negro labor during the past year or two,” Phillips wrote in one memo dated March 25, 1927–nearly a year before receiving the letter from Bruseaux. “Nevertheless,” Phillips continued, “the reports are having a depressing effect, due to the widespread publicity which they are receiving.” [3]

The ambiguous tone of Phillips’ correspondence has been characteristic of the subsequent scholarship on Black Chicago during the 1920’s, which has acknowledged and then brushed aside adverse social and economic conditions in this decade with more positive portrayals of the black community. Black Metropolis, the seminal sociological study by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton on Black Chicago during the early 1940’s, characterizes the period of 1924 through early 1929 as the “Fat Years”. This was a period, according to Cayton and Drake, in which the African American middle-class expanded, black-owned businesses flourished, an increased number of black workers entered the employment market, and there was a general sense of optimism in the community. It was during these years that community leaders’ promotion of an autonomous “Black Metropolis”–a city within a city–held the greatest promise. [4] To varying degrees, Arvarh Strickland, Allan Spear, and James R. Grossman, in later studies of Black Chicago, have offered more nuanced interpretations of economic conditions of Black Chicago during those years. Economic fortune was not uniformly distributed among Black Chicagoans, and the close ties between white capital and African American civic and economic institutions belied the rhetoric of economic independence of the Black Metropolis. The significance of the economic conditions in these years, though, is largely overshadowed by favorable comparisons to migrants’ conditions in the South prior to and during the Great Migration in the 1910’s, or to the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Accordingly, economic and social conditions during the 1920’s have been more peripheral than central to discussions of Black Chicago during the early to middle twentieth century. [5]

This study seeks to further investigate economic opportunities and conditions for the African-American labor force, including both “old settlers” and migrants from the South, and to also investigate the impact of the Great Migration on the economic conditions in Black Chicago. In looking at issues relating to unemployment, income, work conditions, and living conditions among black workers during this period, the economic and political dimensions of the Great Migration, as a fifteen-year progression during the late 19 10’s and 1920’s, take on greater importance. In order to do justice to the perseverance of Black Chicagoans and to better understand the motivations of those who challenged the traditional political leadership in Black Chicago during the 1920’s and 1930’s in the years immediately prior to the Great Depression, it is necessary to clearly identify the hardships and trials they endured on account of decreasing economic opportunities, increased housing shortages, and neighborhood deterioration.

Cayton and Drake rightly attribute great significance to the Depression’s impact on the black community. The Depression was a cataclysmic event that did much to erode confidence in the middle class’s dream of racial advancement through economic self-help. Cayton and Drake’s characterizations of the 1920’s and 1930’s, however, obscure the fact that for Chicago’s black workers, the economic and living conditions were already in decline during the 1920’s. Job opportunities were limited; residential units were substandard, overpriced, and overcrowded; and workers received low wages. [6] As severe as the Great Depression was, it only further exacerbated pre-existing conditions within the black community. The struggle for “part of the loaf”–the struggle for survival–was more common among African-American workers and their families than economic prosperity. Economic and social advancement for workers–both individually and collectively–came slowly, if at all. Thus, during a period in which the Washingtonian model of racial uplift through economic self-help was being challenged by the “New Negro,” the conditions in which lay the seeds of political radicalization of African Americans, so often identified with the 1930’s, were very much in evidence during the 1920’s. [7]

Economic Opportunities and Unemployment

The 1920’s were a time in which unemployment became a rising concern in Black Chicago. In the early years of the decade, the post-World War I economic recession threatened to nullify the economic gains made by blacks during wartime. Leading community voices such as the Chicago Urban League and Chicago Defender preached thrift and efficient work habits, and encouraged workers to accept pay cuts without complaint and to bypass labor unions’ protests of layoffs and wage cuts. Despite a short recovery from 1922 to 1924, African-American workers in Chicago were plagued by unemployment and poor job security for the second half of the decade, the result of discriminatory hiring and firing practices plus continued migration of Southern blacks to Chicago. During this decade, the net migration of African Americans to Chicago was 104,000 as compared to 61,000 during the 1910,s. [8] At the time, neither the federal or state governments recorded unemployment statistics, and therefore job placement statistics and descripti ve eyewitness accounts instead served as indicators of employment conditions. Even these accounts were not wholly reliable. Employment agencies often turned away job seekers when the labor surplus was high–and also did not account for those who chose to look for jobs without using employment agencies; and statistics of job placements did not specify whether or not the applicant had found permanent or temporary work. [9] Moreover, although the 1930 U.S. census indicates that the number of gainfully employed African-Americans increased during the 1920’s from 65,878 in 1920 to 129,467 in 1930, the proportion of blacks of working age, who were not gainfully employed remained largely the same, decreasing slightly from 68 to 65 per cent over the ten year period. According to the census, the number of Black Chicagoans who were not gainfully employed actually increased from 31,083 to 69,766 during the decade, though this group includes all of those who were ten years old and over, not all of whom were in search of e mployment. More to the point, neither this figure nor the figure enumerating gainfully employed blacks takes into account how many African-Americans were seasonal laborers subject to long layoffs at slack times during the year. [10] In the 1920’s, unemployment menaced Black Chicago, and caused such institutions as the Chicago Urban League to refer to the employment situation as being depressed for much of the decade.

As the 1920’s approached, the black community in Chicago could look back on the 1910’s with a sense of having made progress in the job market. Labor shortages combined with increased production during World War I brought an unprecedented number of black laborers to Chicago’s major industries. Blacks advanced in the food industries, for instance, as a result of the cessation of European immigration during the war. Throughout the nation, the number of blacks working in packing and slaughterhouses increased by 363 percent between 1910 and 1920. While the proportion of foreign-born whites in this industry fell from 64.2 to 38.2 per cent during these years, nationally, the proportion of blacks rose from less than 10 to approximately 25 per cent. [11] This trend was very much in evidence in Chicago, which had the largest number of blacks working in this industry. As labor historian James Barrett has noted, there were ten to twelve thousand blacks were working at the Union Stockyards in Chicago in 1917. Between 1909 and 1928, the proportion of African Americans working in the meat packing industry in Chicago rose from 3.0 to 29.5 per cent. The biggest increase took place during the World War. Whereas in 1915, 1,100 blacks were working at the packing plants, there were 6,510 by 1918. Between January 1916 and December 1918, the proportion of African Americans working in one major packinghouse went from 3.7 to 22 per cent, with an increase in numbers from 311 to 3,621. [12]

During the war years, according to the U.S. census, there was an increase from 18.5 to 36.1 percent of the proportion of total African American male workers in manufacturing and mechanical occupations in Chicago. Out of the total number of workers in these occupations in Chicago, the proportion of blacks rose from 1.0 to 4.0 percent. While the gains made by African American workers were not always as dramatic as in the food industry, there was evidence of progress in other occupations. In Chicago’s steel industry, blacks accounted for 10 to 12 percent of the workforce by 1920. [13] In similar fashion, the proportion of black carpenters rose from 0.4 to 1.2 percent. During this same time, the proportion of blacks in the more traditional service-oriented occupation of chauffeurs dropped from 10.0 to 5.4 percent during the 1910’s despite increasing in number from 220 to 928. A study by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations revealed that out of 119 manufacturing and non-manufacturing establishments in Chicago in 1919, there were 19,070 African Americans employed whereas in 1915, the total was 5,947. Elsewhere the Commission found that in 136 establishments, there were 21,987 blacks counted as workers. [14]

African American women in Chicago enjoyed increased job opportunities between 1910 and 1920 but, unlike black women in other northern cities, were largely shut out of industry. In 1920, 21.4 percent of Chicago’s African American female laborers worked for manufacturing firms. In a survey of 38 companies, 13.8 percent of the total black women employed held jobs at meatpacking houses and 16.7 percent labored as sewers and sewing machine operatives. Yet of the 170 firms employing African American women for the first time, only seven percent gave them jobs in occupations that could be regarded as factory work. The rest of the companies employed black women primarily in areas of domestic and personal service. [15] There were more jobs available for African American women outside of industry. The Chicago Commission on Race Relations compared the number of black women employed by 38 manufacturing firms in 1910 to the number working in 1920, and found that 44.3 percent of the total black women employed found jobs in clerical positions with an increase in number from 163 to 1,400. There were 543 African American women working as laundry operatives as compared to 184 in 1910. Furthermore, one taxicab company employed 100 black women to clean cabs, whereas in 1910 there were none. The proportion of black women to all women working as domestic servants grew from approximately 10 to 24 percent. During these same years, the number of African American female clerks in retail stores increased from 43 to 518, and the African American women employed as schoolteachers grew from 53 to 138. [16]

The immediate postwar years created a labor surplus in Chicago’s industries. As wartime production in industry contracted, African-American workers were fired and replaced by whites who had returned from the war and needed employment. Lila Earl and Rena Livingston, both of whom worked at the National Box Company, a subsidiary of the Morris and Company meatpacking establishment, testified before a federal arbitrator that black women were being laid off and replaced by white workers. In Earl’s case, she quit after being transferred from her regular job to one where she had to work with heavier equipment. “After a while I seen three white girls take my seat,” she recalled, “and I said, ‘Why are you doing this? … if you have to change me around like that you give me my time and I will go home.'” The number of African Americans working at the major packinghouses fell from 6,510 in 1918 to 5,379 in 1920. Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), estimated the total nu mber of black packing house workers in Chicago to be approximately 8,000 in 1920, a sizable number when compared to 1910, but still a drop-off from the war years. [17]

African Americans experienced mixed results in the job market in 1920 itself. The year “furnished the extremes in the industrial world,” the Chicago Urban League commented in its Annual Report. “It began with an unprecedented demand for workers for practically all kinds of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, and closed with widespread unemployment affecting practically every industrial pursuit.” Early that year, jobs opened up for black women in low paying white-collar occupations. Montgomery Ward in Chicago hired 60 African American women as clerks and stenographers. [18] Overall, 2,000 African American women found jobs as clerks and typists. But by the year’s end, all had been laid off. There now existed, according to the Chicago Urban League, “an alarming state of unemployment.” Consequently, the 15,000 jobs that the League found for blacks during the year marked only temporary advances. [19] By November 1920, the League was experiencing “the greatest slump in its employment service during its four years’ wor k in our city.” Its employment bureau found jobs for only 127 out of 1,073 applicants during the week of November 14. This did not include another 500 who were unable to secure interviews with the employment service’s help. For that entire month, only 608 out of 5,000 applicants obtained employment through the Urban League. Attendance in the employment office increased by 100 per cent and job placements fell by 50 per cent. In response to the situation, the League issued “a general warning to all workers to stick to their jobs.” “At present,” the League announced the following month, “the League finds itself unable to hold out hope to the large number of unemployed.” [20]

The recession that came at the close of 1920 continued through 1921. For the African American community, the situation continued to deteriorate. Bread lines were forming and jobs remained scarce. “The condition of unemployment is causing untold misery and suffering,” observed the Chicago Whip. “High prices prevail while wages are being cut … the breach and cleavage [between capital and labor] is widening.” When the major meatpacking companies announced wage cuts in March 1921, the Chicago Defender advised black workers to not join in union protests. “This is not time for rocking the boat,” commented the Defender. “We must live, and if we cannot get a whole loaf we will take the part of the loaf we can get.” [21] Throughout much of the year, employment prospects remained bleak. In November, the Chicago Urban League’s employment bureau could find jobs for only 436 out of 3,800 applicants. The following month, jobs were available for 917 out of 3,271 applicants. This slight improvement during the holiday seaso n dropped, however, by February 1922 when 672 out of 3,022 applicants got jobs. By this time, J. Millen Simpson, the League’s director of Personnel and Records, informed the NAACP’s Walter White that the situation was “slightly encouraging,” but that it was “easily seen that we have a long way to go.” [22]

The situation in 1921 would have been worse were it not for the large number of blacks working as strikebreakers during the 1921-22 meatpackers’ strike. An estimated 5,000 jobs in the industry became vacant as a result of the strike. African Americans filled roughly half of these jobs. In addition, the strike opened up skilled jobs in the packinghouses previously unavailable to blacks. Chicago Urban League Industrial Secretary William L. Evans reported that for the first time, black electricians, carpenters, and steamfitters were working at the Morris and Wilson companies. [23]

The years 1922 and 1923 saw a resurgence in black employment in Chicago. In eight meatpacking plants alone, there were 7,597 employed, an even higher number than that at the peak of the war effort in 1918. In the two largest packing plants, over one-third of the employees were African Americans. Overall in Illinois, the proportion of African American skilled workers rose by nearly 40 percent during the first half of 1923 and total black employment rose by 45 percent. With national figures from the U.S. Department of Labor showing a proportionate increase of roughly 39 percent for black skilled workers and over 40 percent for all African American workers, it appeared that both Chicago and the nation had recovered fully from the post-war recession, and that the national and local recovery would lead to greater employment opportunities for African Americans. [24] The improved situation was reflected in the Chicago Urban League’s employment bureau’s performance record from October 1922 through September 1923, in which it procured jobs for 11,644 out of its 13,300 clients. Nevertheless, the League voiced frustration in having “been able to make comparatively few openings for colored labor in factories and industries which did not employ them.” Companies such as the skilled garment trades and the telephone companies still refused to hire African Americans. Thus, although the number of employed blacks increased, the League concluded that it could not “feel proud” of its work. [25]

Despite several years’ improvement in job placements for African Americans, large-scale unemployment was prevalent in Chicago’s black community by 1925. In February of that year, the local branch of the U.S. Labor Department advised black workers, “Whenever there is an opportunity, grab it and hold on to it; let the matter of salary be of secondary importance these strenuous days. It’s better to have a half loaf than no loaf at all.” [26] “Labor conditions in Chicago are not at all good at the present time,” Morris Lewis observed in a letter to Karl Phillips. “Foundries, steel mills and kindred lines are by no means overly active. Railroads are not doing much building or construction work, despite many pretentious programs that have been announced.” Black laborers were, however, still “working in fair numbers” at the packinghouses. [27]

Reports of high unemployment among blacks in Chicago persisted throughout the rest of the decade. In 1926, a new shelter was opened for impoverished African American workers, particularly those employed on the railroads, who had been recently laid off. The shelter housed as many as 300 people a night. Another shelter managed by Reverend Bailey Gibson had already been in existence for years and averaged 250 people a night. The need for these shelters, according to G.W. Harsch of the U.S. Employment Service, arose because “Many Negroes come to this city seeking employment which in many instances there [sic] are unable to secure. The result is they become destitute.” [28] “The general situation of industry during the year ending October 31, 1926,” reported the Chicago Urban League, “has shown signs of continued depression, but not as exhibited in 1924-25.” Despite some modest improvements over the previous year, the League conceded, “The demand even for common labor has not been altogether encouraging, there bei ng many times more men on hand than need to fill the vacancies.” By the year’s end, the only available work was temporary labor for the holiday season. In the meantime, full-time workers were continuing to be laid off. [29]

As unemployment among African Americans deepened, the Wabash Avenue YMCA took notice. A black middle-class institution well known for its close ties with employers of black workers, the Wabash Avenue YMCA during the 1920’s normally referred employment inquiries to the Urban League. In early 1927, its Executive Secretary, George R. Arthur, reported that the “unemployment situation has given us grave concern during the past month. The present figures at the State Employment Office show 152 applicants for every 100 jobs available. As most jobs are of the unskilled labor type, the ratio of colored men is very high.” [30] Unemployment was starting to drain the pockets of its members, thus making it difficult for many to renew their memberships. Most were having difficulty paying their rents and more than a few were receiving five-day eviction notices. Many were unable to pay more than 50 cents or a dollar to renew a three-dollar membership. The YMCA was also having problems with delinquent room rents from boarders in its dormitory. This was not a temporary situation. For the rest of the decade, the Wabash Avenue YMCA reported a reduced income, which in turn led to staff and budget cuts because of delinquent membership fees and delinquent dormitory rents. [31]

Similarly in 1927, the Chicago Urban League’s Annual Report stated that the 1926-27 fiscal year had the highest unemployment of any year since 1921. There were 2,414 placements that year compared to 3,515 in 1925-26 and an average of 238 applicants for each 100 job openings during the year. Renewed migration from the South, high costs of living, lack of decent housing, and low wages further burdened the League that year with a “much larger number of persons to be helped than during previous years.” [32] During the next year, the Chicago Urban League reported some progress in securing employment for African Americans in different capacities at three Standard Oil gas stations and at the South Center Department Store which hired 114 blacks. This progress was negated, though, by wholesale dismissals of black labor by some employers in favor of white labor. [33]

There were several reasons why unemployment was high among blacks in Chicago during the 1920’s overall. The first is that migration from the South remained active throughout the decade, causing the African American population to grow enormously. During those years, according to the U.S. census, the number of African Americans living in Chicago grew from 109,594 in 1920 to 233,903 in 1930. Thus for the second successive decade, Chicago’s black population more than doubled. The migration obviously increased the surplus of African American labor in Chicago. While the proportion of blacks in the workforce remained largely the same between 1920 and 1930–a figure which indicated that blacks held on to the gains they made during World War I–there was a greater number of African Americans looking for work by the end of the decade. [34]

Community leaders were aware of the strains that continued migration placed upon existing local institutions and realized the inability of the Chicago community to absorb all newcomers. Consequently, whereas leading figures such as Robert Abbott of the Chicago Defender actively encouraged Southern blacks to migrate to the northern cities during the 1910’s, they were more circumspect during the 1920’s. “Some people think we are engaged in persuading southern Negroes to come here,” The Chicago Urban League commented in its 1922-23 Annual Report. “That is nor true at all, and never was true. On the contrary, whenever business is slack, we send warnings throughout the South that work is not available in Chicago.” [35] Despite such disclaimers, migration from the South continued. Although a larger number of African Americans were unable to find gainful employment in the North, many Southern blacks continued to seek escape from the oppressive racial climate. The Chicago Defender, in mid-decade, ran articles reporti ng atrocities in the South under the headlines, “Spring to See Greatest Migration in History” and “Mob Rule Causes Biggest Exodus in History of the South”. In the year between September 1, 1922 and August 31, 1923, an estimated 478,700 African Americans left the South. According to the U.S. Labor Department, 4.74 percent of this number–approximately 22,000–came to Illinois. The influx of migrants continued throughout the decade. “Laborers are coming to Chicago from all sections of the country,” the National Urban League observed in 1927. “There is no movement away from the city.” [36]

The unemployment situation was aggravated by the high turnover rate of blacks in most occupations. During the World War, it was common for blacks, seeking out jobs that paid the best, to go continually from one place of employment to another. As long as the labor shortage in Chicago’s industries existed, African American workers could quit one job and be secure in the knowledge that they could easily find new employment. James Grossman has pointed out that the national job turnover during the 1910’s was estimated as being as high as 300 percent. The major causes of labor turnover during the 1920’s were voluntary separation-quitting–and layoffs or discharges of workers, particularly seasonal employees. Alma Herbst, in her study of African American workers in the meatpacking industry in Chicago, noted that of the workers who left their jobs voluntarily between 1922 and 1926, over 70 percent had been employed for three months or less. While quitting a job in such a short time might have indicated to some that m igrants adjusted poorly to the conditions they encountered in the industrial workplace, white workers quit at a higher rate than blacks during the mid 1920’s. Whites, however, often were likely to be rehired more quickly than blacks, and it was not unusual for black workers to be laid off and replaced by newly hired whites. In the case of African American turnover, most had quit with the expectation of finding new jobs, but in the constricted labor market of the 1920’s, many went jobless for long periods of time. Herbst’s data for the years between December 2, 1922 and November 27, 1926, show that, with the exception of 1923, there was generally a higher turnover rate in the meatpacking industry among African Americans and white women than among white men. The trend during the early and middle 1920’s was for a decreasing rate of turnover. The turnover rate for all workers, for example, was 13.6 per cent in 1925 as compared to 23.1 per cent in 1919. In January 1926, the turnover rate among black male meatpacke rs was 31.1 per cent compared to 18.2 per cent among white men, the highest it had been since June 1923. Although the monthly turnover rate among black male meatpackers decreased to 15.4 per cent by the year’s end, the monthly turnover rate of blacks in Chicago’s industries varied from 30 to 35 per cent in 1926. [37] At a time in which employment opportunities were declining, black workers in large numbers were willing to risk unemployment for an indefinite period of time in the hope of finding better jobs. In reference to a specific case regarding African American labor turnover at the Excelsior Laundry in 1926, Morris Lewis cited “very low” wages as the primary cause. With an increase in wages, Lewis reasoned, “the item of labor turnover would correct itself.” In some cases, workers refused to return to jobs that paid too little. In 1926, for example, the Chicago Urban League reported the reluctance of experienced women to work for piece rates at lamp shade factories because of the relatively low wage. [38]

Further contributing to the high turnover rate of African American workers was the irregularity of their employment. The correspondence between Chicago-based correspondents for the Labor Department and Washington bureaucrats made frequent mention of unemployment seasons. G.W. Harsch of the U.S. Labor Department observed in 1927 that the unemployment situation early that year was “one which generally occurs in the larger industrial centers during the winter months.” [39] Usually this was because of layoffs of workers hired for the holiday season. In the food industries, the summer months were also slow times in which many workers were temporarily laid off. These slow seasons affected African American workers more than their white counterparts. During the slow seasons, a higher number of black workers than whites lost their jobs and their proportion in the workforce decreased noticeably. At one meatpacking establishment, the total proportion of black men in the workforce declined to 15.3 from 8.3 per cent durin g the slow months in 1926. At the same time, the proportion of white men working at this firm actually increased from 56.1 to 60.6 per cent. While these fluctuating turnover rates were less pronounced among black female workers in the meatpacking industry, there were also serious decreases in their numbers during the slow seasons. Approximately one-third of them lost their jobs. Even during the busier seasons in the meatpacking industry, it was not unusual for workers to have less than a full week’s work if there were light cattle shipments at the end of the week. Pullman porters’ contracts lasted only a month and, although most were likely renewed, there were no guarantees. As A. Philip Randolph noted in the Chicago Defender, there were “thousands of porters known as extra men,” unemployed porters who hung around a company’s offices looking for work should an extra train be dispatched or another porter’s contract not be renewed. They “considered it almost Christmas to get a run from time to time.” [40]

In searching for the causes of high unemployment among African Americans from the middle to late 1920’s, it is important to note that overall unemployment was much more widespread throughout the United States than generally acknowledged by the Labor Department. As early as 1924, United Charities in Chicago was running full-page advertisements in its monthly publication, Human Service, stating, “Unemployment Has Brought Distress to Many Families,” and appealing to readers to mail charitable contributions without delay because “Hungry little children are crying for food that only you can help them get.” During February of that year, there was a ratio of 155 applicants for every l00 positions available through the Illinois Free Employment Office. A total of 18,278 persons sought assistance from the Illinois Free Employment Office during that month. The unemployment situation in Chicago and downstate, the United Charities editorialized:

which in January and February [1924] reached serious proportions, has brought to the United Charities a proportionally greater number of cases than any other cause of distress, and while employment conditions are apparently improving somewhat, a prolonged period of unemployment is reflected in the calls for relief received by the United Charities for a considerable period of time after the peak of unemployment has been reached.

In August of that year, the United Charities was still referring to the unemployment situation as a crisis and as an “unusual unemployment situation which has existed during the spring and summer months of the present year which has brought the United Charities face to face with a serious emergency which, unless it can be met immediately, will mean disaster to hundreds of unfortunate homes.” [41]

Several years later, settlement house workers, both locally and nationally, were sounding alarms about persistent unemployment. Unemployment was the key topic at a December 1927 afternoon program hosted by the Chicago Federation of Settlements. The keynote talks were “How It [unemployment] Affects the Family and Individual,” by Mary McDowell of the University of Chicago Settlement House; “The Why, the Wherefore, and the Trend [of unemployment],” by Sidney Wilcox of the Illinois Industrial Commission’s Labor Research Bureau; and “The Police and the Unemployed Boy,” by I.J. McDonald, the Deputy Chief of the Chicago Police Department. [42] By the summer of 1928, the National Federation of Settlement Workers viewed the unemployment situation to be serious enough to warrant the establishment of a special committee to investigate unemployment and its effect on families. The following summer in July, Survey editor Paul Kellogg’s keynote address to the National Conference of Social Work focused on the issue of unempl oyment. In his address, Kellogg identified “unemployment and its twin, irregular employment as hazards of modem production, as needless by-products of industrial change and progress, as man-made things which man can compass and control.” These discussions and concerns regarding the perceived trend in unemployment occurred much earlier than the October 1929 stock market crash. Labor historian Frank Stricker, in his study of economic conditions in the U.S. during the l920’s, argues that when the time lost by part-time workers out of the full work week is considered in calculating unemployment statistics, the estimated unemployment rate increases by two per cent. Citing figures computed by Paul Douglass based on calculations including part-time labor, Stricker argues that unemployment among workers in transportation, manufacturing, mining, and building fluctuated from between 7.5 and 12.0 percent nationally between 1923 and 1926. Therefore, when A. Philip Randolph wrote that the “industrial depression” would lik ely hinder the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ collection of dues in 1928, he was referring to a nationwide trend. [43]

Wages and Occupational Mobility

Having a job did not necessarily guarantee economic security for African American workers and their families. Black workers often had to contend with discriminatory policies regarding pay and promotions, which, in turn, made it harder for them to bring home sufficient income to support their families. In 1919, African Americans worked in the stockyards at an average wage of forty cents an hour. Other occupations offered blacks higher wages. Three companies in the building trades paid unskilled laborers 50 to 70 cents an hour in 1919. Relatively few blacks worked in this area, however, and the average hourly pay rate for blacks employed at 36 companies surveyed by the Chicago Urban League in 1919 was 48.7 cents. [44] The wages were even lower for women. In 1919, a woman working at Morris and Company could expect to earn 25 cents an hour after raises and take home a weekly wage ranging from 7 to 13 dollars. Similarly, 25 cents an hour was also the maximum wage for African American women at the National Box Comp any during this time. One woman testified to a federal arbitrator that her highest weekly wage was $15.12 for 58 hours of work during the final week of January in 1919. This was an improvement, however, from the 13 and a half-cent an hour wage earned by women at the National Box Company in 1917. By comparison, during this same period, black and white men working on loading gangs for the same company made 36 cents an hour. In other industrial trades that included clothing, cigar, and twine factories as well as laundry rooms, women made anywhere from 9 to 35 dollars a week. The Chicago Commission on Race Relations reported “a deep-seated suspicion existing among the clerical force of a firm employing a large number of colored girls that the white girls employed by the same company received a higher wage than that paid the colored girls. The suspicion grew out of the mistake of an employment manager in mistaking a colored girl for a white one.” [45]

There was little improvement in African American workers’ wages during the 1920’s. In March 1921, the wages of packinghouse employees were reduced by 8 cents an hour for hourly workers and 12 and a half per cent for piece workers’ rates. Black men and women who crossed the picket line during the 1921-22 strike accepted these lower wages. African American women, for example, were hired at 30 cents an hour to perform work that had been previously done for forty-five cents an hour. [46]

During the years that followed, wages at the meatpacking factories improved slightly. In 1923, workers at the Armour and Swift packing plants received a five cents an hour raise to a minimum rate of 42.5 to 47 cents for men and 35 to 37 cents for women. This made the average weekly pay for unskilled laborers 17 dollars for men and $15.20 for women. For semi-skilled labor, men made 50 cents an hour and women 45 cents, with the weekly pay being $21.20 for men and 18 dollars for women. The average weekly earnings in the meatpacking industry increased by only ten per cent for the rest of the decade. African American men working at 24 meatpacking establishments during this time made less than 55 cents an hour, the maximum pay for semi-skilled workers. Over half made less than 50 cents an hour. By comparison, 90.6 per cent of the white male workers reportedly had an hourly wage of 50 cents or over. The discrepancy in hourly wages reflected the lack of promotions among African-American laborers. While these figures indicate that an overwhelming proportion of white workers were either semi-skilled or skilled laborers, it also indicates that African-American workers could expect to not advance past semi-skilled labor positions during the early to middle 1920’s. At these same establishments, 90.8 per cent of the African American female workers made 37.49 cents an hour or less while 78.5 per cent of the white women made comparable wages. [47]

Wages also remained low in occupations that were for the most part comprised of African-American workers. Laundresses early in the decade worked for four dollars a day and also received money for transportation and meals. African American women working for piece rates at the lampshade factories in 1926 could hope to earn no more than 18 to 20 dollars a week. Fulltime domestic servants made 15 to 20 dollars a week in 1927. In 1928, their employers cut the weekly pay to 8 to 15 dollars. The sleeping car porters employed by the Pullman Company, who were among the better paid black workers, made $72.50 for a full month’s work. Although this was a marked improvement from the $27.50 monthly rate they earned prior to 1916, this was still a small amount and noticeably less than the 160 dollars a porter would have earned each month had he been promoted to conductor, a position held exclusively by whites. As Lorenzo Greene and Carter Woodson wrote in 1930, “The actual gains of the Negroes in industry, trade, and transp ortation … cannot be accurately estimated because of the differing wage scales maintained for the two races.” [48]

These differing wage scales created considerable hardships in black workers’ lives. A Chicago Urban League investigation of the Argo Corn Products and Refining Company factory in 1920 cited low wages as one of the primary reasons why its African American employees lived a “hand to mouth” existence. The other causes cited included other outside financial pressures related to calamities at home, recently arrived friends or family members from the South in need of money, and the necessity of returning to the South for emergencies. [49] In her study of the income and living standards of unskilled workers in Chicago, Leila Houghteling observed that of the 87 African American workers included in her 467 person sample during 1924-25, approximately half of them made less than $1200 a year. By comparison, of the 336 whites included in the sample, 71.9 per cent of whom were foreign-born, only 19.5 per cent made less than $1200 a year. The significance of this number, and its implications for African-American workers’ f amilies, becomes more notable when one considers the statistics cited by labor historian Frank Stricker. Stricker designates $1500 as being the poverty level for a family of four in the U.S. in 1929, which puts the amount of money brought home by African American workers as falling woefully short. His data also indicate that nationally, the household income of 34.5 per cent of nonfarm families in 1929 fell below the poverty level. Stricker’s point is well taken with regard to national trends, but it is also important to add that specifically in Chicago, black workers were proportionately more heavily burdened than their white counterparts by low wages during these years. [50] In order for the majority of African American families to have sustainable incomes, it became necessary to take in boarders, or to have other family members seek out work. In Houghteling’s study, nearly 50 per cent of the mothers in African American households worked as wage earners as compared to 18 per cent of the mothers in white hous eholds. At the Wabash Avenue YMCA, nearly 90 per cent of the boys who came there had two parents who worked. [51] Moreover, 50.6 per cent of the African American households in Houghteling’s study took in boarders as compared to 14.7 per cent of the white households. [52]

For the most part, African Americans had few prospects for promotion and occupational mobility in the workplace. Employers often stereotyped them as being lazy and inefficient. The presence of any black laborers with poor work habits caused employers to stigmatize the entire black workforce. Black women in the workforce were described by management as an “industrial liability” and had even fewer chances than black men for occupational advancement. The superintendent at the Argo Corn Products and Refining Company, “placed all colored girls with undesirable whites.” The packinghouses often refused to give black women jobs where their hands would touch the meat, for fear that the public would not buy meat touched by black hands. [53] The 241 skilled or semiskilled African American workers in the packinghouses in 1920, accounted for a meager 1.1 per cent of the entire labor force in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. A black worker at the Argo Factory in 1920 reported receiving only a 2-cent raise after having been there for a year. [54] Similarly on the railroads, there were few opportunities for promotions and pay raises. Nationally in 1924, there were 136,065 African Americans working for the railroads, out of whom 115,937 or 85 per cent, U.S. Department of Labor statistics revealed, were employed either as common laborers or as service workers, such as porters. Most of the remaining workers held unskilled positions such as brakemen or firemen. [55] Quite often, this was a means for the railroads to keep down wages for African American workers who sometimes undertook tasks normally performed by the higher paid switchmen and engineers. As a result of employers’ discriminatory practices, Lorenzo Greene and Carter Woodson reported, many blacks on the job had “become discouraged, feeling for them there is no chance of promotion.” [56]

During the decade, according to U.S. census figures cited by Estelle Hill Scott in her study of occupational mobility, the total number of skilled black workers increased from 4,025 in 1920 to 8,296, indicating that some African Americans were earning promotions in the workplace. Yet, these individual gains did not negate the fact that in all occupations, nearly 80 per cent of African American laborers held unskilled or semi-skilled positions in 1930, which was roughly equivalent to the proportion of black workers in unskilled or semi-skilled occupations in 1920, 81 per cent. By comparison, little less than 50 per cent of foreign born white laborers and 27 per cent of native-born whites worked as unskilled or semi-skilled laborers in 1930, with over 20 per cent foreign-born whites and 14 per cent of native-born whites holding down skilled positions. [57] Whereas it was becoming increasingly difficult for workers of both races to hold on to jobs during the middle to late 1920’s, the jobs that were open for Afr ican Americans were usually at the lower end of the occupational ladder. It was considerably harder for black workers than their white counterparts to both keep their jobs and to advance to more skilled and better-paying positions.

At a time in which job prospects were decreasing, low wages and lack of job promotions further undermined black workers’ economic security. The fact that many laborers worked long hard hours did not guarantee adequate raises or promotions to better jobs with higher wages. Nor did hard work and long hours assure that workers, particularly those with many children, could adequately support their families on income derived from solely from their wages. Consequently, black families were harder pressed to pay for such necessities as rent, food, and clothing. In response to these conditions, larger numbers of African American families supplemented their incomes by having multiple wage earners and through subletting or renting rooms to boarders. Whereas African Americans were not the only workers during this time whose incomes suffered from lower wages, a disproportionate number of African American workers’ families, as compared to whites, suffered from low wages and from total family incomes which hovered around an d below the poverty line.

Working Conditions

African American workers faced not only a restrictive wage scale and limited employment opportunities, but also, like their white counterparts, poor working conditions. Black workers, being at the bottom of the occupational ladder, were exposed to more hazardous conditions in the workplace whether in the packinghouses, laundries, or upholstering factories. During this time there were no comprehensive government insurance programs for work-related disabilities, making it difficult to document the number of workers that lost work because of on the job injuries or illness. There is ample evidence, however, from workers’ testimonies, U.S. Department of Labor inspectors, and several journalists that employers took few precautions to ensure the safety of the workers, particularly in occupations with the highest proportion of African-American workers.

The packinghouses, where so many African-Americans worked, also presented some of the worst working conditions for black workers in Chicago. It was here, according to historian James Barrett, “the system offered chronic insecurity of employment, domination by superintendents, foremen, and straw bosses, and the personal alienation that is an inescapable product of mass-production work.” One job that was available for black women at the packinghouses was washing fat. Melvina Thomas, who worked at Morris and Company, described her work as consisting of “washing fat right out of the water … first the water is cold, and then it is hot.” Thomas stopped working at Morris and Company after slipping and falling down wet stairs at the plant. The accident left her bed-ridden for 26 days, and unable to return to work. [58] At Wilson and Company, one U.S. Labor Department inspector reported in 1924, “floor in beef kill [is] especially wet and slippery. [There] seemed to be grease from work.” A similar report came from a n inspector at the Swift plants where the “floors in most depts. are wet and sloppy.” At the Omaha Packing Company which employed 172 African American women out of a total of 264 women workers and 435 African Americans overall, the sausage packing and toilet rooms had poor ventilation. In addition, there was “no opportunity for girls on standing jobs to sit. They have no seats.” Working conditions in the stockyards resulted in many cases of pulmonary and dermatological diseases among the workers. “The dusty wool houses and fertilizer departments produced a kind of infectious brown lung,” historian Rick Halpern has noted, “hundreds of workers suffered from ‘pickle hands’ and ‘hog itch’, debilitating eczema-like conditions caused by constant contact with brine or entrails.” These conditions reflected longstanding occupational hazards in the meatpacking industry where in 1917, one out of every two workers at the Armour plant suffered work-related injuries or illnesses. This was in an industry in which African Am ericans occupied the least desirable and most dangerous jobs. Furthermore, management gave black workers segregated dressing rooms that lacked proper heating in the winter and had poor sanitary conditions. [59]

Hazardous working conditions were not confined to the meatpacking industry. At the National Box Company, Nancy Smith quit after injuring her shoulder while stacking boxes in 1919. “Oh, yes, I got sick,” she remarked. “I got so with my shoulder. I could hardly use it. That was from stacking boxes … that is, by throwing them up so high and stacking them so high.” [60] Another worker at the National Box Company, upon being asked at a federal arbitration hearing whether the work was easy, replied, “No, sir, it is hard. That is why I didn’t work on any longer.., they had me trucking boxes from here to State Street, a long way out on the platform, and throw them down the chute.” The Nachman Spring Company, which manufactured spring cushions, had a “knife machine” in which the knife was unguarded and “seemed risky.” [61] An inspector at another factory that made mattresses commented in a report in 1924, “Lint and dust [are] simply appalling. [I] do not see how anybody could last in any great length of time.” At th e Wooden Bags and Burlap factory, which employed 27 African Americans and no whites, the dust from the burlap made it necessary for workers to wear a cheese cloth over their mouths and noses. [62] At laundries, there were problems of poor ventilation, overwhelming degrees of heat and moisture, narrow aisles, and lack of natural lighting. [63] A reporter from the Chicago Defender touring the Moras Stuffed Date Factory in 1926 learned that the women were working under “miserable conditions. No dressing room is provided, nor is there a place to eat lunch. Other facilities are considered dangerous and harmful to the best interest of the worker’s health.” The Moras factory had attracted attention after its employees, almost all of whom were African American women, staged a walkout and picket in protest of intolerable and unhealthy working conditions. [64]

Quite often, a worker’s health and livelihood hung precariously in the balance at the workplace. Debilitating injures were commonplace in work areas with slippery floors and stairways, and heavy unguarded machinery. Similarly, unsanitary conditions, lack of ventilation, and uncontrolled room temperatures increased workers’ susceptibility to illnesses. While workers of both races were exposed to the same conditions in such places of employment as the packinghouses, the risks were greater for African Americans, most of whom worked in the less desirable jobs. This, too, was another area in which black workers suffered from their employers’ discriminatory promotional policies.

Housing and Living Conditions

As bad as work conditions were for African American laborers, living conditions at home were often worse. High rents, overcrowding, deteriorating buildings, and poor sanitation characterized many of the black working-class neighborhoods. The conditions reflected residential segregation in Chicago, which confined the growing black population to fixed neighborhood boundaries. Over the course of the 1920’s, the residential boundaries did not move while the population doubled. Historians Allan Spear, Thomas Philpott, and James Grossman have all written at length about the combined impact of residential segregation and the huge increase of Chicago’s black population on the living conditions in African American neighborhoods. [65] Spear has commented that one major development of the Great Migration during the 1910’s was that “the population increase was reflected less in the expansion of the black belt than in a sharp rise in the density of Negro settlement within the black enclave.” As one community leader commen ted in 1920, Chicago was trying “the dangerous housing experiment of placing 125,000 Negroes in the quarters formerly provided for 50,000.” [66]

High rents exacted by both white and black landlords compounded the economic stress placed upon African American workers and their families by low wages. After listening to testimony from a realtor in the Black Belt in 1919, federal arbitrator Samuel Alschuler noted that it was improbable that a packinghouse worker could afford to pay the rent for an apartment on the South side on his or her own wages alone. “The war period … has passed,” the Defender observed in early 1921, “and we are getting back to a normal basis. The grocer, butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker are cutting prices … The rent hog alone is demanding more. There isn’t a shadow of an excuse for his demands. There is nothing in the industrial situation that justifies it … In almost every line wages have been reduced.” [67] There were disproportionate strains on African-American workers’ families’ incomes and budgets as compared to white workers’ families, who had higher income levels and more options in their choices of housing and neighborhoods, where they were more likely to find better structural conditions and less exorbitant rents. The stark contrast in the expenditures on rents was highlighted in Houghteling’s study in the mid-1920’s where over 80 per cent of the African American workers’ families in the survey spent over 23 per cent of their earnings on rent. In comparison, 80.7 per cent of white worker’s families spent less than 20 per cent of their total income on rent. [68]

As a result of low wages and high rents, African American families sought to supplement their incomes by renting rooms to boarders. Sixty-two per cent of a total of 274 families examined by the Chicago Commission on Race Relations rented rooms to lodgers. This, in turn, led to overcrowding in apartments and poor sanitary and health conditions in the rooms. Alice Q. Rood’s 1924 study of housing conditions in a seven block area on Federal Street between Forty-fifth and Fifty-third Streets, for example, found that sleeping rooms often did not meet the legal requirements for number of people and space. In addition, most buildings were in disrepair with crumbling walls and stairs, leaky plumbing, and bad lighting. [69]

Living in overpriced, overcrowded, and run-down apartments, however, was preferable to the alternative, which was having no housing at all. There were African Americans during this time that simply did have homes. Some found lodging at the Wabash Avenue YMCA dormitory, which assigned four men to a room for two dollars a week. There were even reports of labor camps for homeless workers on the outskirts of Chicago, near Kensington. In these camps, the Defender editorialized in July 1926, “men are allowed to live in near barbarism… these men are said to be living lives of delinquency and dehabilitation.” [70] While it is not clear how widespread these camps were, the problem of homelessness undoubtedly worsened as jobs became more scarce and rents increased during the 1920’s.

In addition to the poor quality of housing, the African-American neighborhoods had little to offer in the way of parks and recreational facilities. There was little relief for those living in overcrowded apartments. “One may find in the territory known as the ‘black belt’,” Irene McCoy Gaines, industrial secretary of the Chicago YWCA, wrote in 1920, “more than 10,000 colored girls without recreational facilities.” Rood’s study noted that in the neighborhood between 45th and 52nd Streets along Federal Street, most backyards were filled with shacks, accumulated garbage and refuse, junk collected by junk collectors, and even “an occasional pig.” Consequently, there was no room for children to play there and they had to go out in the streets for lack of a nearby playground or park. During the 1920’s, the second ward in Chicago, which was 71.6 per cent African American in 1920 and 86.6 per cent African American in 1930, had only 7.52 acres of public parks and playgrounds. The average population to each acre of pub lic park area in that ward was 8059.9 people per acre. For the whole city of Chicago, the ratio was 507 people to each acre of public and private parks and playgrounds. [71]

Overcrowding and limited recreational facilities contributed to the juvenile delinquency problem in African American neighborhoods. Renters wrote to the Chicago Whip explaining their inability to support their families on their incomes, and lamenting the “lodger evil” which stole away their spouses and children. [72] In early 1920, Irene McCoy Gaines linked the corruption of young African American women with unemployment and lack of recreational facilities. The young black woman, Gaines commented, “is so seldom discussed and is given so little encouragement that we are all forced to agree that she is the most neglected of a rather neglected group of American citizens … The colored girl is almost without employment, except of the most menial sort, and receives less protection from public opinion than from the law.” Elsewhere, Judge Edgar Jones informed an audience of Wabash Avenue YMCA workers that of the 1,500 young African American males who appeared in the juvenile Court during the first 10 months of 1925 , almost all had said that they had “no place for recreation except for pool rooms and streets.” The Wabash Avenue YMCA observed that due to crowded housing and lack of employment, young black males were pushed into streets and the pool halls or into gang life until they were finally arrested for “something or other.” A study of juvenile delinquency in Chicago by University of Chicago student Earl R. Moses revealed that it had grown disproportionately in black neighborhoods during the 1920’s. In 1920, when blacks comprised 4.1 per cent of the city’s population, 12.2 per cent of those arrested for delinquency were black. By 1930, African American youths accounted for 21.2 per cent of the arrests while blacks overall accounted for 6.9 per cent of the total population. [73]

The general conditions of apartments and overcrowding, combined with a lack of adequate healthcare facilities, led to a high incidence of illnesses in the African American neighborhoods. “The problem of high Negro death rates,” one observer commented in 1929, “is the problem of proper housing, adequate playgrounds, day nurseries, hospitals, and preventoria, visiting, housekeepers, humane public and private consideration; health supervision and medical care. According to surveys conducted by the Chicago Department of Health and by the Chicago Negro Health Committee, in the mid-1920’s, the death rate among blacks living in Chicago was 22.5 for every 1,000 people as compared to 10.8 per 1,000 among whites. The infant mortality for the black population was 118.6 per 1,000 babies born. For whites, the rate was 71.4 per 1,000. With regard to illnesses among African Americans, health agencies dealt with “practically every case known to United Charities.” The most common illness was tuberculosis. The tuberculosis rat e in 1925, the Chicago Health Commissioner reported, was five times higher among blacks than whites. [74] In this, Chicago was similar to other major cities in the north, where the death rates among African Americans in 1925 hovered between 19.4 per 1,000 in Detroit and 25.7 per 1000 in New York City. Dean Dutcher observed, “It is hardly needful to quote the alarming rates for deaths due to tuberculosis and pneumonia for Negroes in urban communities.” [75]

High unemployment, low wages, and poor working conditions all had a detrimental effect on social and living conditions in the African American neighborhoods in Chicago. Social issues such as health and living conditions and rising juvenile delinquency, which were important concerns raised by members of the African American middle-class and white reformers, were related to economic conditions. This is crucial because inefficiency in home economics and maladaptation on the part of migrants from the South were often identified as causes for unemployment, poor health conditions, and delinquency. [76] Yet, work-related health conditions could easily lead to unemployment and to living in impoverished conditions. Moreover, African American laborers earning low wages were often unable to purchase the necessary quantity of nutritious food-stuffs needed for healthy diets. Discriminatory policies regarding employment and wages, therefore, contributed to substandard living and health conditions in African American worker s’ households.


Why, if working and living conditions were bad and unemployment a persistent problem, has it been argued that the 1920’s were generally a time of optimism and prosperity for blacks in Chicago? There are several explanations for this overly positive assessment of the economic conditions of Black Chicago during the 1920’s. First, characterizations of the 1920’s as a time of prosperity in the United States, in general, have been exaggerated. The enduring image of the 1920’s has been that described by Frederick Lewis Allen in Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s, which shows mass consumer spending, abundant economic opportunities, and high employment. [77] Yet, an estimated 34.5 to 50.1 per cent of urban families lived under the poverty line. Blacks were not the only ones struggling to survive economically during this time, though a greater proportion of African American families were living in poverty. Income was unevenly distributed during the 1920’s. The total income of the top 0.1 per cent of Ame rican families equaled that of the bottom 42 per cent in 1929. Correspondingly, 32.4 per cent of the total wealth in the country in 1929 was owned by the top 0.5 per cent of Americans. [78] As the previously cited reports of the National Federation of Settlement Workers indicate, unemployment in the United States during the 1920’s was higher than generally believed at the time. [79] Frank Stricker has noted that “In that decade there were no annual national unemployment censuses by the Federal government such as we have today and it is unlikely that we will ever have completely satisfactory statistics.” In addition, there were no relief rolls during the 1920’s by which unemployment numbers could be tabulated. Employment agencies such as that of the Chicago Urban League compiled data based on the ratios of job applicants to available jobs. But those statistics accounted for only those who sought work through the employment agencies. Revised estimates, however, have placed the unemployment rate of industrial wo rkers as averaging 12.95 per cent between 1921 and 1926. [80] What the unemployment level was for blacks as compared to the national average is not clear. It should be noted, though, that from 1925 to 1929, the Urban League’s reports concerning unemployment of blacks in Chicago grew increasingly urgent.

Contributing to the misconceptions of economic prosperity in 1920’s Black Chicago, was the black middle-class leaders’ promotion of the “Black Metropolis.” They presented an optimistic picture of Black Chicago to whites and to blacks in other parts of the country. This reflected, in part, Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of social and economic advancement through self-help. The more African Americans were able to help themselves, it was believed, the more likely they could effectively challenge myths of white supremacy and achieve social and political equality. Thus, accumulation of wealth, acquisition of property, professional advancement, and employment were all means of advancing the race and promoted accordingly even if the image did not match the reality. [81]

Conversely, most African American civic leaders, academics, and journalists feared that candid discussions of impoverished economic conditions, unemployment, and disease and mortality rates would reflect poorly on the race. Most were much more concerned with emphasizing positive advances made by blacks since emancipation. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1913, for example, Thomas Jesse Jones of the U.S. Department of Interior was obliged to argue in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, that declining birthrates among African Americans did not mean that blacks were dying as a race in the post-slavery era. Similarly, in 1925, A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen engaged in a formal debate with fellow Socialist Ben Reitman at the Metropolitan Community Center over the question, “Can the Negro Survive as Equal of the White Man?” [82]

Concern about image, therefore, caused African American civic organizations to be guarded in their public depictions of their communities and neighborhoods. While the Chicago Urban League was issuing reports about the unemployment crisis in late 1928 and early 1929, the National Urban League’s March 1929 issue of Opportunity featured articles by E. Franklin Frazier and Claude Barnett praising the economic advances of blacks in Chicago. Although both authors acknowledged some of the difficulties experienced by blacks both at home and at work, the emphasis was on progress. While other articles in the same issue, by H.L. Harris and Mary McDowell, documented health-related issues and housing shortages in Black Chicago, the editorial board in Opportunity wrote of accomplishments which “cannot be lightly dismissed.” The editorial concluded:

It would be misleading to say that the Chicago Negro has met the traditional handicaps of his race completely. Problems in industry, in housing, in recreation and race relations still must be solved. But if they are ever solved in America, they will be solved in Chicago where the Negro himself is making a heroic effort to determine his own destiny. [83]

Similarly, the Chicago Urban League bulletins in the Chicago Defender in February 1929, consistently stated that there was “no encouragement in the labor condition” under headlines, “League Survey Shows More Jobs for Women.” More telling, though, was a letter on the Defender’s editorial page that same month. The writer, a 20 year old African American man, stated, “The greatest need of my people is places of employment. I am asking our business men and financiers to give us one or two factories employing 600 men and women. Our leaders have raised money for banquets, thousands for lodges and churches, thousands to parade boulevards and streets in gay costumes and they can raise thousands for factories.., my people are not doing so well. I visit from 15 to 25 homes daily and see the conditions.” [84]

The “Fat Years” ended, according to Cayton and Drake in early 1929, when the Defender “sounded an alarm” about unemployment. [85] Yet, concerns had been raised about unemployment among Chicago’s African American population long before then. After several relatively good years following the depression of 1921, reports from the local black newspapers and civic organizations about unemployment were consistently gloomy. The problem of unemployment, though, was only one of several serious issues that confronted African American workers. In the workplace, they had to contend with low wages, minimal chances of promotion, and hazardous working conditions. This resulted in a high turnover rate and in one case, a strike by non-union women workers at the Moras Stuffed Date Factory in 1926. Moreover, low wages played a part in crowded and unhealthy living conditions in the African American neighborhoods. During the 1920’s, despite the rise of African American political power in city politics, the only major effort at rel ieving the problem of overcrowding in Black Chicago was the construction of the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments, built in 1927 with money provided by the philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. This did little to alleviate the wretched living conditions for black workers as many were unable to afford living there. “The race problem in Chicago is an economic problem, purely and simply,” wrote C.E. Thompson, director of the Lincoln Industrial Health Bureau and Employment Service, “and until it is recognized as such and the proper remedy applied, it will ever remain.” [86] This was in 1928, a full year before the Great Depression. The following years would be even harder economically on Chicago’s African American working class. The trying economic conditions black workers faced during the Great Depression, however, were already prevalent during the 1920’s. For many, conditions in this decade set a bleak context for inital adjustments to northern, big-city life. The effect of high unemployment and the economic stru ggle brought about by low wages and working conditions on community politics is a topic that needs further research. Such research may very well reveal that the relationship between economic and social struggle with African American political protests, so often associated with the Great Depression and the 1930’s, had its roots in the economic and social conditions of Black Chicago during the 1920’s.


Special thanks to Dr. Eric Arnesen, Jason Digman, Carla Burnett, Stephen Brown, John Glover, Sean Harris, Ana Maria Kappelusz-Poppi, Jane Anderson, and the Journal of Social History’s referees for their thoughtful suggestions and comments on earlier drafts.

(1.) Sheridan A. Bruseaux, Letter to Karl Phillips, January 14, 1928, Black Workers In the Era of die Great Migration, 1916-1929, James R. Grossman, editor (Frederick, Md., 1985), reel 13, p. 722.

(2.) Karl Phillips, Letter to Sheridan A. Bruseaux, February 18, 1928, Black Workers, reel 13, p. 723.

(3.) Karl Phillips, Letter to H.L. Kerwin, Director of Conciliation, U.S. Department of Labor, March 25, 1927, Black Workers, reel 15, p. 693.

(4.) St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, 4th ed. (1945; rpt. Chicago, 1993), p. 78.

(5.) Strickland writes, “Even during the prosperity of the late 1920’s there was no great demand for Negro labor; and new job opportunities came at irregular intervals.” Spear writes “much of the rhetoric of Negro achievement rings false when compared with the reality of Negro life in Chicago. The advantages of separate development were far outweighed by its disadvantages.” Grossman states that discrepancies in household income exacerbated class differences in Black Chicago, but argues that with their absorption in the industrial society of the Northern city, migrants from the South enjoyed greater social and economic autonomy than they had in the South. He argues that it was only eventually after arrival that the migrants’ dreams “collapsed under the weight of continued racial oppression and the failure of industrial capitalism to distribute its prosperity as broadly as the migrants expected.” Elsewhere, Lizabeth Cohen writes that while Chicago’s African American middle-class failed to establish an economica lly independent black community during the 1920’s, black workers expressed their cultural and economic independence through mass consumption–i.e. purchases of “clothing, trinkets, cars.” Arvarh Strickland, History of the Chicago Urban League (Urbana, 1966), p. 84; Allan Spear, Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto, 1890-1920 (Chicago, 1967), p. 226; James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (Chicago, 1989), p. 265; Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (Cambridge, England and New York, 1990), p. 154. See also Christopher Robert Reed, The Chicago NAACP and the Rise of Black Professional Leadership. 1910-1966 (Bloomington, 1997), pp. 60, 68.

(6.) Cayton and Drake concede that that the economic reality did not always measure up to the ideal portrayed by civic leaders during the 1920’s. In their discussion of the “Fat Years”, they write, “to some the dream [of the Black Metropolis] was inspiring. To many it was a makeshift dream, a substitute for the real American Dream of complete integration into American life. To some who watched Negroes inherit the city’s slums, crowded together amid squalor and vice, where schemers, white and black, battened on their blood, the dream seemed a fraud and a delusion. … To others, the development of a greater Black Metropolis was a tactical maneuver within the framework of a broad strategy for complete equality. The very preacher, editors, and politicians who did the most to keep the dream of Black Metropolis alive only half believed in its ultimate realization.” Elsewhere, Cayton and Drake write, “There were prophets of doom in the Twenties, but a general air of optimism pervaded the Black Belt, as it did the w hole city.” Cayton and Drake, pp. 81-82, p. 80.

(7.) For arguments regarding political radicalization of African Americans in the North amid economic depression during the 1930’s, see Cayton and Drake, pp. 84-87; Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein, “Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of American History 75 (December 1988): 786-811; Beth Tompkins Bates, “A New Crowd Challenges the Agenda of the Old Guard in the NAACP. 1933-1941,” American Historical Review 102 (April 1997): 340-377; Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights As a National Issue (New York, 1978); August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW (New York, 1979).

(8.) Otis Dudley Duncan and Beverly Duncan, Negro Population in Chicago: A Study in Residential Succession (Chicago, 1957), p. 34.

(9.) Leila Houghteling, The Income and Living Standards of Unskilled Laborers in Chicago (Chicago, 1927), pp. 29-32; Frank Stricker, “Afluence for Whom?–Another Look at Prosperity and the Working Classes in the 1920’s, Labor History 24 (Winter 1983): 17-20; Estelle Hill Scott, Occupational Changes Among Negroes in Chicago (Report of Official Project 665-54-3-336 conducted under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, 1939), p. 9.

(10.) Scott, p. 8.

(11.) Dean Dutcher, The Negro in Modern Industrial Society, An Analysis of Changes in the Occupations of Negro Workers, 1910-1920 (Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1930), p. 59.

(12.) James Barrett, Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago’s Packinghouse Workers, 1894-1922 (Urbana, 1987), p. 190, p. 39, pp. 48-49.

(13.) Dutcher, pp. 70-72; Spear, p. 163.

(14.) Dutcher, pp. 76-77; Annetta Dieckman, “The Effect of Common Interests On Race Relations In Certain Northern Cities: A Preliminary Study of Industry,” (unpublished manuscript, n.d.), Annetta Dieckman Papers, University of Illinois at Chicago Main Library Special Collections, Box 4, Folder 43, pp. 10, 12; The Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot (Chicago, 1922), pp. 363, 623.

(15.) Chicago Commission on Race Relations, p. 380; United States Department of Labor, “Negro Women in Industry,” Bulletin of the Women’s Bureau (no. 20), p. 7.

(16.) Chicago Commission on Race Relations, p. 380; Dutcher, pp. 78, 80, 85-86.

(17.) Alschuler Hearings, Black Workers, reel 2, p. 529 and pp. 535-539; Lorenzo Greene and Carter G. Woodson, The Negro Wage Earner (1930; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1969), p. 272; Chicago Commission on Race Relations, p. 361; Walter White, “The Success of Negro Migration,” The Crisis, 19 (January 1920): 113.

(18.) Chicago Urban League, Fourth Annual Report (1920), Chicago Urban League Papers Supplement [87-34], University of Illinois at Chicago Main Library Special Collections, Box 1, Folder 3, p. 5; “The Horizon,” The Crisis, 19 (April 1920): 340.

(19.) Chicago Urban League, Fourth Annual Report (1920), p. 6; Chicago Urban League, “Urban League in Drive to Raise $30,000,” Chicago Whip, March 19, 1921, p. 3.

(20.) Chicago Urban League, “Industrial Bulletin No. III,” Chicago Whip, December 25, 1920, p. 5; Chicago Urban League, “Hold On To Your Jobs Says Urban League,” Chicago Whip, November 27, 1920, p. 8.

(21.) “Under The Lash Of The Whip,” Chicago Whip, March 26, 1921, p. 2; “Lowering the Wage Scale,” Editorial, Chicago Defender, March 19, 1921, p. 8.

(22.) J. Millen Simpson, Letter to Walter White, March 3, 1922, NAACP Papers (Bethesda, Md.), part 10, reel 10, pp. 361-362.

(23.) William Evans, “Negroes In the Packing House Strike of Chicago,” NAACP Papers, part 10, reel 10, pp. 365-366. James Barrett, James Grossman, and Rick Halpern all write of the meatpacking companies’ recruitment of black strikebreakers in 1921. Citing the need to maintain employment and also organized labor’s exclusionary practices, the African American middle class leadership sought to discourage laborers from joining the Amalgamated Meat Cutters’ strike against wage cuts. In addition, the companies opened an employment office in the African American community to hire replacement workers during the strike. The middle-class’s opposition to the strike, and to organized labor in general in 1921, can also be explained by the large contributions the major companies made to organizations such as the Urban League, the Wabash Avenue Y.M.C.A., and also to African American churches and newspapers. Barrett, pp. 254-255, p. 258; Grossman, pp. 200-204, pp. 227-235, pp. 239-241; Rick Halpern, Down on the Killing Floor : Black and White Workers in Chicago’s Packinghouses, 1904-54 (Urbana, 1997), pp. 59-61, pp. 70-71.

(24.) Greene and Woodson, pp. 274-275; Chicago Commission on Race Relations, p. 374; Barrett, p. 48; U.S. Department of Labor, Inclusion of Negro Workers in Northern Industries (July 9,1923), Black Workers, reel 13, p. 545.

(25.) Chicago Urban League, Seventh Annual Report (1923), p. 7.

(26.) “Employment,” Chicago Defender, February 14, 1925, p. 12.

(27.) Morris Lewis, Letter to Karl Phillips, n.d., ca. 1925, Black Workers, reel 15, p. 373.

(28.) Chicago Urban League, Tenth Annual Report (1926), pp. 7-8; National Urban League, Urban League Reports on Industry for December (January 15, 1927), Black Workers, reel 16, p. 20; G.W. Harsch, Memo to Karl Phillips, March 28, 1927, Black Workers, reel 15, 694.

(29.) Chicago Urban League, Tenth Annual Report (1926), p. 11.

(30.) Young Men’s Christian Association, Wabash Avenue Branch, Minutes of the Committee of Management, February 15, 1927, Papers of the Wabash Avenue YMCA, University of Illinois at Chicago Main Library Special Collections, Box 7, Folder 2. This was not the first time during the 1920’s that the Wabash Avenue YMCA suffered budget problems because of unemployment. The Chicago Metropolitan YMCA’s General Secretary reported in October 1924 that the Wabash Avenue YMCA was “finding it harder than usual” to sell memberships because of “a considerable amount of unemployment affecting colored men than others.” The Wabash Avenue YMCA operated with an accumulated budget deficit through the end of 1926 when it was wiped out largely with the aid of a $5,000 contribution from the Chicago Metropolitan YMCA’s Board of Management. William J. Parker, Report of General Secretary to Board of Directors, YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, October 16, 1924, YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago Papers, Chicago Historical Society, Box 58, Folder 2, p. 1; George R. Arthur, Note from Executive Secretary, Wabash Avenue YMCA, n.d., ca. January 1927, Papers of the Wabash Avenue YMCA, Box 7, Folder 2.

(31.) George R. Arthur, Report of the Executive Secretary to the Committee of Management of the Wabash Avenue Y.M.C.A., November 16,1927, Papers of the Wabash Avenue YMCA, Box 7, Folder 2; Report of the Executive Secretary to the Committee of Management of the Wabash Avenue Y.M.C.A., February 23, 1928, Wabash Avenue YMCA Papers, Box 7, Folder 2; George A. Arthur, Report of the Executive Secretary to the Committee of Management of the Wabash Avenue Y.M.C.A., April 26, 1928, Papers of the Wabash Avenue YMCA, Box 7, Folder 2. By the end of 1928, the Wabash Avenue YMCA was not the only local YMCA branch experiencing budgetary problems in Chicago. In April 1928, the 111th Street YMCA was suffering a “most difficult” financial situation “due to the unusual business and industrial depression in the community.” Only 8 of the 24 local YMCA branches met their operating expenses in 1927, and all branches were instructed in 1928 to revise their budgets by reducing operating expenses and curtailing programs. Young Men’s C hristian Association, Metropolitan Chicago, Financial Report for the First Quarter of 1928, YMCA of Chicago, YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago Papers, Box 58, Folder 6, p. 2; William J. Parker, Report of General Secretary, YMCA of Chicago, January 26, 1928, YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago Papers, Box 58, Folder 6, p. 1; Young Men’s Christian Association, Metropolitan Chicago, Meeting of Board of Managers, October 18, 1928, YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago Papers, Box 58, Folder 6, p.9.

(32.) Chicago Urban League, Eleventh Annual Report (1927), p. 7.

(33.) Chicago Urban League, Twelfth Annual Report (1928), p. 8.

(34.) Cayton and Drake, p. 8; Duncan and Duncan, p. 302.

(35.) Chicago Urban League, Seventh Annual Report (1923), p. 3. For discussion of the Defender’s campaign to promote African American migration to the North during the 1910’s, see Grossman, pp. 55, 81-85.

(36.) Neil R. McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (Urbana, 1989), pp. 263-271, 277; “Spring to See Greatest Migration in History,” Chicago Defender, February 21, 1925, p. 11; “Mob Rule Causes Biggest Exodus in History of the South,” Chicago Defender, July 24, 1926, p. 1; U.S. Department of Labor, Negro Migration Nears Half-Million Mark During Year (October 24, 1923) Black Workers, reel 13, P. 548; United States Department of Labor, Inclusion of Negro Workers in Northern Industries (July 9, 1923) Black Workers, reel 13, p. 546; National Urban League, National Urban League Reports on Industry for December, 1926 (January 15, 1927), Black Workers, reel 16, p.20.

(37.) Grossman, p. 195; Alma Herbst, The Negro in the Slaughtering and Meat Packing Industry in Chicago (1932; rpt. New York: Arno Press, 1971), pp. 128-131,134-136,143; “Turnover Too High Among Race Workers,” Chicago Defender, October 23, 1926, part 2, p.2.

(38.) Morris Lewis, Letter to Karl Phillips, October 15, 1926, Black Workers, reel 15, p. 414; Chicago Urban League, Tenth Annual Report (1926), pp. 12-13.

(39.) G.W. Harsch, Memo to Karl Phillips, March 28, 1927, Black Workers, reel 15, p. 694.

(40.) Herbst, pp. 98-103; United States Railroad Administration, case no. 27/16, “Question as to the proper role for colored porters on passenger trains in applying General Order No. 27,” Black Workers, reel 4, pp. 382-3 84; A. Philip Randolph, “History of the Struggle of Pullman Porters For Economic Justice,” Chicago Defender, January 5,1929, p. 14.

(41.) Advertisement, Human Services, 1 (February 1924), pp.2-3; “Unemployment Boosts U.C. Calls,” Human Service, 1 (March 1924), pp. 1, 3; “Unemployment Brings Crisis in United Charities Work,” Human Service, 2 (August 1924), p. 1. During the 1930’s, the United Charities’ Martin Bickham distinguished between the “incidental poverty” which characterized economic conditions during the mid-1920’s and the “mass poverty” which was characteristic of the Great Depression during the early 1930’s. In a chapter from an unpublished manuscript, Bickham described the differences between incidental and mass poverty, “Any fair review of the social conditions that existed in Illinois communities previous to the present decade would indicate that such poverty as then existed was incidental poverty. By this I mean poverty that involved certainly less than 5% of the total population of any community. For instance: In a recent review of the existence of known poverty in the Chicago and Cook Count area, from the period 1920 to 19 29, in no single year was it found that more than 8,500 families were on the combined lists of the public and private relief agencies. Assuming then that there was a marginal group of families that were currently in social destitution but not on the known relief lists, it was evident during these ten years that at no time were more than approximately 10,000 families, or less than 50,000, in real poverty conditions. This is certainly nor over 1% of the total population of the area.” From 1921 to 1923, African Americans accounted for approximately ten per cent of the United Charities’ cases, and between 1924 and 1932, this figure increased to twenty per cent despite comprising 4.1 percent of the total population in Chicago in 1920, and 6.9 per cent in 1930. Yet, even if one accepts Bickham’s formulization of incidental and mass poverty, it is impossible to use his equation to measure the incidence of poverty among African Americans in Chicago because as was noted by leading social organizations as the Chicago U rban Lea e and the Welfare Council, many other social agencies did not provide services to African Americans. Martin H. Bickham, “From Incidental to Mass Poverty,” (Chapter 2 of unpublished, undated, and untitled manuscript), Martin H. Bickham Papers, University of Chicago at Illinois Main Library Special Collections, Box 143, Folder 7, pp. 8-.9; Gudron Rom, “Centennial History of the United Charities of Chicago (1857-1957),” United Charities of Chicago Papers, Chicago Historical Society, Box 17, Folder 1, pp. 226-227; Chicago Urban League, Tenth Annual Report (1927), p. 9; Chicago Urban League, Eleventh Annual Report (1928), p.9; “The South Side Survey: A Survey of Social and Philanthropic Agencies Available for Negroes in Chicago, Made under the Joint Auspices of the Council of Social Agencies and the Graduate School of Social Service Administration of the University of Chicago, July 1930-June 1932,” Welfare Council Papers, Chicago Historical Society, Box 145, Folder 1.

(42.) Chicago Federation of Settlements Meeting Program, Tuesday, November 1, 1927, at the Union League Boys Club #2, 524 N. Lincoln St., Lea Demarest Taylor Papers, Chicago Historical Society, Box 9, Folder 1.

(43.) Charles C. Cooper, Letters to Lea Demarest Taylor, July 26, 1928 and July 31, 1928, Lea Demarest Taylor Papers, Box 1, Folder 7; Paul Kellogg, Abstract of Address to be given at the National Conference of Social Work, Tuesday July 2, 8:00 P.M., Lea Demarest Taylor Papers, Box 22, Folder 4, p. 2; National Conference of Social Work, The Conference Bulletin, 32 (August 1929), pp. 7-8, Lea Demarest Taylor Papers, Box 22, Folder 4; Stricker, pp. 18-19; A. Philip Randolph, Letter to Milton Webster, March 7, 1928, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Potters Papers, Chicago Historical Society, Box 3, Folder 3.

(44.) Greene and Woodson, p.274; Chicago Commission on Race Relations, pp. 374, 367, 366.

(45.) Alschuler Hearings, Black Workers, reel 2, pp. 404-405, pp.464-467, p.473 p. 478, p. 525-526, p. 484; Chicago Commission on Race Relations, p. 369.

(46.) S.C. Frazee, Superintendent, Wilson and Company, Notice to Employees, March 8, 1921, Mary McDowell Papers, Chicago Historical Society, Box 10, Folder 15; Notice to Plant Employees of Boyd, Lunham, and Company on the Hourly Wage, March 14,1921, Mary McDowell Papers, Box 10, Folder 15; John F. Hart and Frank McElroy, Testimony to the U.S. Department of Labor, Black Workers, reel 1, p.316.

(47.) “Industrial Relations, Armour and Co.,” (1923, 1923, and 1934), Mary McDowell Papers, Box 10, Folder 15; Stricker, p. 14; Herbst, pp. 85, 83.

(48.) Chicago Commission on Race Relations, p. 371; Chicago Urban League, Twelfth Annual Report (1928), p. 11; A. Philip Randolph, “History of Struggle of Pullman Porters for Economic Justice,” Chicago Defender, January 25, 1929, p. 24 and February 9, 1929, p. 5; Greene and Woodson, pp. 343-344.

(49.) William L. Evans, “An Inquiry Into the Working Conditions of Colored Workmen Employed By the Argo Corn Products and Refining Company, Argo, Illinois” (1920), NAACP Papers, part 10, reel 10, pp. 373-374.

(50.) Houghteling, p. 25; Stricker, pp. 23-24.

(51.) Cohen, p. 200; Houghteling, p.57; Young Men’s Christian Association, Wabash Avenue Branch, Minutes of the Committee of Management, December 7, 1926, Papers of the Wabash Avenue YMCA, Box 7, Folder 2.

(52.) Houghteling, p. 48.

(53.) Herbst, p. xx, 77-79; United States Department of Labor, “Negro Women in Industry,” p. 44; Evans, pp. 376-377.

(54.) Chicago Commission on Race Relations, pp. 366, 390, 366; Greene and Woodson, pp. 275, 328; Evans, p. 369.

(55.) Greene and Woodson, pp. 268-269.

(56.) For example, see United States Railroad Administration, case no. 27/16, “Question as to the proper role for colored porters on passenger trains in applying General Order No. 27,” Black Workers, reel 4, pp. 382-384; Greene and Woodson, p. 275.

(57.) Hill, pp. 182-185, 230.

(58.) Barrett, p. 58; Alschuler Hearings, Black Workers, reel 2, pp. 401-407.

(59. United States Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, “Factory Schedule, Wilson and Co.,” April 1, 1924, Black Workers, reel 18, pp. 650-657; United States Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, “Factory Schedule, Swift and Co.,” April 25, 1924, Black Workers, reel 18, pp. 658-666; United States Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, “Factory Schedule, Omaha Packing Co.,” February 8,1924, Black Workers, reel 18, pp. 645-649; Halpern, p. 94; Barrett, p. 69.

(60.) Alschuler Hearings, Black Workers, reel 2, p. 546.

(61.) Alschuler Hearings, Black Workers, reel 2, p. 555; United States Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, “Factory Schedule, Nachman Spring Company,” May 1, 1924, Black Workers, reel 18, pp. 749-753.

(62.) United States Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, “Factory Schedule, Burton-Dixie Corporation,” April 5,1924, Black Workers, reel 18, pp. 799-805; United States Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, “Factory Schedule, Wooden Bags and Burlap,” April 3, 1924, Black Workers, reel 18, pp. 782-785.

(63.) United States Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, “Factory Schedule, Bismarck Hotel,” March 4, 1924, Black Workers, reel 18, pp. 807-810; United States Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, “Factory Schedule, Del Prado Hotel,” March 6, 1924, Black Workers, reel 18, pp. 820-823; United States Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, “Factory Schedule, Munger’s Laundry,” February 7, 1924, Black Workers, reel 18, 824-828; United States Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, “Factory Schedule, (Illegible) Laundry,” February 1, 1924, Black Workers, reel 18, pp. 829-832.

(64.) “Strikers Go To Jail For Picket Duty,” Chicago Defender, October 16,1926. Working conditions were poor for African American women in other cities. A nationwide study by the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Labor Department in 1922 found that breaks and lunch periods were short, toilet facilities were inadequate, lighting was poor, a general lack of cleanliness and ventilation in workrooms, and that cool drinking facilities were not provided for women working in overheated and dusty rooms. United States Department of Labor, “Negro Women in Industry,” pp. 23-29.

(65.) Spear, pp. 147-150; Thomas Lee Philpott, The Slum and the Ghetto: Neighborhood Deterioration and Middle-Class Reform, Chicago, 1880-1930 (New York, 1978), pp. 156-160, 180, 248-250; Grossman, pp. 135-137.

(66.) Spear, p. 146; “A Square Deal For The Negro,” Chicago Whip, April 3,1920, p. 6.

(67.) Alschuler Hearings, Black Workers, reel 2, pp. 375-382; “Pulling the Rent Hog’s Teeth,” Chicago Defender, February 26, 1921, editorial page.

(68.) Houghteling, p. 113.

(69.) Chicago Commission on Race Relations, p. 153; Alice Q. Rood, “Social Conditions Among Negroes on Federal Street Between Forty-fifth and Fifty-third Streets,” (M.A. thesis, University of Chicago, 1924) pp. 23-24, p. 15.

(70.) George R. Arthur, Report To the Committee of Management of the Wabash Avenue Y.M.C.A. from the Executive Secretary, March 24, 1926, Papers of the Wabash Avenue YMCA, Box 7, Folder 2; “A Job for Social Workers,” Chicago Defender, July 17, 1926, part 2, p. 2.

(71.) Irene McCoy Gaines, “Plea For the Colored Girl,” Letter, Chicago Daily News, May 27, 1920, p. 9; Rood, p. 20; Harold F. Gosnell, Negro Politicians: The Rise of Negro Politics in Chicago (Chicago, 1935), p. 76; Chicago Urban League, Tenth Annual Report (1926), p.8.

(72.) “Rents Continue to Soar–Leaders Quiet,” Chicago Whip, July 31, 1920, p. 6.

(73.) Gaines, “Plea For the Colored Girl,” p.9; George R. Arthur, Report From the Executive Secretary of the Wabash Avenue Y.M.C.A., January 22, 1929, Papers of the Wabash Avenue YMCA, Box 7, Folder 1; Earl R. Moses, “Preliminary Report on ‘Community Backgrounds of Negro Delinquency’ Submitted to the Committee on Findings and Recommendations for the conference on Juvenile Delinquency in the Negro Community, May 24,1932 at Central Branch Y.M.C.A.,” Welfare Council Papers, Box 145, Folder 1, p.1.

(74.) H.L. Harris, “A High Mortality Rate–Why?,” Opportunity, 7 (March 1929): 81; Rood, p. 9; H.L. Harris, “Negro Mortality Rates in Chicago,” Social Service Review, 1 (March 1927): 58-59, 71.

(75.) Harris, “Negro Mortality Rates in Chicago,” p. 76; Dutcher, p. 117.

(76.) Chicago Urban League, Eleventh Annual Report (1927), pp. 9, 11; Durcher, p. 117. Eva Gertrude Boggs, “Nutrition of Fifty Colored Families in Chicago” (M.A. thesis, University of Chicago, 1929), P. 52.

(77.) Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s (New York, 1931).

(78.) Stricker, pp. 17-18; Robert McElvaine, The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941 (New York, 1984), pp. 38-39.

(79.) See above, note 40.

(80.) Stricker, pp. 17-18, pp. 18-19.

(81.) For a description of Booker T. Washington’s self-help philosophy, see August Meier, Negro Thought in American, 1880-1915: Racial Ideologies in the Age of Booker T. Washington, (Ann Arbor, 1963); Allan Spear also discusses Washington’s influence on the ideology of Chicago’s African American middle-class leadership in Black Chicago, p. ix, pp. 71-72.

(82.) Thomas Jesse Jones, “Negro Population in the United States,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 49 (September 1913), p. 1; Flyer, 1925, Ben Reitman Papers, supplement [98-36], University of Illinois at Chicago Main Library Special Collections, Box 2, Folder 32.

(83.) E. Franklin Frazier, “Chicago: A Cross-Section of Negro Life,” Opportunity, 7 (March 1929): 70-73; Claude A. Barnett, “We Win a Place in Industry,” Opportunity, 7 (March 1929): 82-86; Harris, “A High Mortality Rate–Why?,” pp. 81, 100; Mary McDowell, “Hovels or Homes?,” Opportunity, 7 (March 1929): 74-77, 100; “Editorials,” Opportunity, 7 (March 1929): 69.

(84.) Chicago Urban League “League Survey Shows More Jobs For Women,” Chicago Defender, February 9, 1929, p.5 and February 23, 1929, p. 12; E.L. Williams, “Race’s Greatest Need,” Letter, Chicago Defender, February 9, 1929, part 2, p. 2.

(85.) Cayton and Drake, pp. 83-84.

(86.) Cayton and Drake, p. 660; McDowell, “Hovels or Homes?,” p. 77; Philpott, pp. 263-265; C.E. Thompson, Director, Lincoln Industrial Health Bureau and Employment Service, Letter to John Fitzpatrick, January 24, 1928, John Fitzpatrick Papers, Chicago Historical Society, Box 25.

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