Civil War to Civil Rights: African-American Chicago in the Newberry Collection

Across the country, protests have erupted against policing and public policy whose damage is disproportionately inflicted upon African Americans. Chicago has been the site of some of the most relentless protesting. These protests demonstrate that, despite the political accomplishments of the civil rights era and of subsequent decades, racial inequality remains an intractable part of American society. Similarly, events in Chicago early in its history and in the years since stand as testimony that the grievances voiced by civil rights leaders had been incubating for more than a century before the 1950s and 1960s.

Activism for black civil rights in Chicago began with the antislavery movement before the Civil War. White abolitionists sheltered blacks in the city as part of the Underground Railroad, a network of safe havens for slaves fleeing the South. Some fugitive slaves settled in the city; they were joined by additional former slaves and free blacks in the 1840s, creating a small African-American community. As Chicago’s black population skyrocketed with the Great Migration of the twentieth century, the newcomers sought opportunity while confronting racial segregation and discrimination in their pursuit of jobs, housing, education, and recreation.

Beginning in the early twentieth century, black and white Chicagoans from all walks of life joined efforts to end segregation and promote equality. The cause of equality was taken up by members of religious congregations and political parties; clubs for women and youths; sociologists and social reformers; associations of workers, professionals, and business people. They pursued African-American civil rights through electoral politics and government actions, labor and community organizing, boycotts and demonstrations. Engaged Chicagoans also contributed to the movement by celebrating black lives. Writers, editors, dancers, visual artists, and musicians added their voices to the chorus, often using their creative work to explore the consequences of segregation and discrimination, along with other aspects of African-American culture and social life.

Some of these political and artistic efforts remain well known, while others have faded from view. Moreover, even vivid memories can gloss over the complexities of history. This exhibition aims to bring a series of pivotal events and issues in Chicago’s African-American past into focus, through primary sources from the Newberry’s collection. By locating the Chicago protests of late 2015 and early 2016 within a longer tradition of debate, activism, and reform, we encourage conversations about what we can learn from this history. We hope that this knowledge can help shape today’s continuation of the struggle for African-American civil rights in Chicago.