Introduction to Chicago Race History. Meets M/W/F, 9-5: on-location at Chicago Public Libraries and Chicago Transit Authority. 3 credit hrs.


By: Emily Minehart (BMRC Processing Intern)

A few weeks ago, I walked into work at the Harsh Collection at the Woodson Regional Library with my processing partner Beth in the mid-afternoon. We were both expecting to pull out our book trucks full of acid free boxes and set to work writing folder titles, but we were stopped on the way to our usual conference room. Our supervisor had given our space away to a meeting that was booted out of another room (Lesson: public libraries get crowded and ample space is precious.), so Beth and I did some work in the kitchen. When the other group’s hour was up, we went into our conference room to find it full of some wonderfully chatty historians of Black Chicago who were working on an oral history project. They were happy to learn about the BMRC and Mildred D. Johnson, whose papers we were in the middle of processing.

After a whirlwind of questions and introductions, an older gentleman who had been silently watching us flit between inquiries chimed in: he asked us if we had read Black Metropolis. We both shook our heads, no. The man standing next to me whispered, “You know who that is, don’t you?” Again, I shook my head. The room was full of new faces. “That’s Tim Black,” he said with emphasis. This time I nodded, wide-eyed. You don’t live on the South Side or attend the University of Chicago without having heard of Timuel Black. The man is a legendary Civil Rights leader and historian with close ties to UChicago. I was more than a little star struck. Mr. Black was clearly disappointed that Beth and I had not read Black Metropolis, and strongly recommended that we add it to our reading lists.

The kind soul who had taken enough pity on me to inform me that I was speaking to Mr. Black reiterated the importance of the book, and then asked about what I had learned in school. Confused as to what he meant, I talked about my UChicago history classes. He was referring to something else entirely. [I am paraphrasing from memory.]

“No, but you must have seen documentaries? Or read something relevant? You saw the pictures, at least.”

“I’m sorry, what pictures do you mean?”

“The dogs and fire hoses and beatings. Civil Rights.”

“Oh! Yes, yes I’ve seen pictures, and a documentary or two in high school.”

“Good. That was all real, you know. Young white folks don’t seem to know that. That the hoses and dogs were real, that our people went through that. But we did. And it’s hard for a people to come out of something like that. That’s why Tim wants you to read the book. And that’s why we’re here [he gestured to the gathered historians].” 

I had no idea how to respond. Of course he was right: a lot of people don’t really know, and it is hard. He and his colleagues were so very excited to see two “young white folks” working on a project concerned with Black history, and so very disappointed that we were so ignorant of the subject. I don’t consider myself an ignorant person, but they had a point. In my suburban education, I did a biographical project about Rosa Parks, saw the standard-issue civil rights pictures that show up in most American history textbooks, and wrote a mediocre exam essay about the Reconstruction amendments. I live and work on the South Side, surrounded by the continued ramifications of its turbulent history. But how can I really know?

Later that day, homeward bound on the bus, I overheard a conversation between two Black gentlemen. [Again, I’m paraphrasing.]

“I don’t understand it! It used to be us [Black people] getting shot by the white people who hated us. But it’s not like that now. Now we’re shooting each other, Black brothers shooting each other. And the white people in Lincoln Park and Wicker Park…they don’t know. Or don’t care.”

“Yeah. And the gun laws are useless. Guns are coming from Gary [Indiana]. Black people in Gary are selling guns to Black people in Chicago and then they’re shooting Black people on the South Side. This place is a mess.”

That was a disheartening conversation, taking place on the heels of Hadiya Pendleton’s slaying and shortly before President Obama’s visit to the South Side to talk about gun violence.

I don’t know what the confluence of these conversations means. I don’t know what it says about the remaining unofficial but intense segregation of Chicago, or about the Black collective memory of Civil Rights and Jim Crow. I do know that it’s sad and wrong. I do know that Black Chicagoans shouldn’t have to worry whether or not suburban white kids know that Civil Rights really happened. I know that gun trade regulation loopholes needs to close. I know that my heart sinks every time I read an article about another Chicago shooting. I know that I’m learning a lot spending time on the South Side and in the Harsh archives. 

Mostly, though, I know that the BMRC is doing something important. We’re preserving a history that has been swept under the rug, hidden and neglected because it’s hard. Because it’s an embarrassing part of living in America. Because it’s a difficult truth about Chicago. Because everyone is afraid to touch the “race issue” in a city that riots.  But we have to touch it. We have to know it and own it if things are going to change. Black and white, north and south: we’re one city. We all get ticked off when there are CTA service cuts. We all get annoyed at the crazy weather. We all roll our eyes a little when a politician says they’re going to stop the cycle of corruption. The history (and present!) of Chicago is our history, all of us together. So let’s all know it, embrace it, and learn from it. Not just the fun and easy parts (Skyscrapers! Dying the river green! The goat’s curse!), but the messy, too. (Pullman strikes. Haymarket Square. The 1968 DNC riots. Machine politics.) This has to be a way, one way, to make it better. It has to get better.