The Chicago Black Renaissance (also known as the Black Chicago Renaissance) was a creative movement that blossomed out of the Chicago Black Belt on the city's South Side and spanned the 1930s and 1940s before a transformation in art and culture in the mid-1950s through the turn of the century. The movement included such famous African-American writers as Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Arna Bontemps, and Lorraine Hansberry, as well as musicians Thomas A. Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, and Earl Hines. During the Great Migration, which brought tens of thousands of African-Americans to Chicago's South Side, African-American writers, artists, and community leaders began promoting racial pride and a new black consciousness, similar to that of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. Unlike the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Black Renaissance did not receive the same amount of publicity on a national setting. This was due to several factors, including the lower profile participants in the movement, the lack of wealthy patrons investing in the movement, and a geographical distance from New York as a publishing center.
The Chicago Black Renaissance was influenced by two major social and economic conditions: the Great Migration and the Great Depression. The Great Migration brought tens of thousands of African Americans from the south to Chicago. Between 1910 and 1930 the African American population increased from 44,000 to 230,000. Before this migration, African Americans only constituted 2% of Chicago’s population. African American migrants resided in a segregated zone on Chicago’s south side, extending from 22nd Street on the north to 63rd Street on the south, and reaching from the Rock Island railroad tracks on the west to Cottage Grove Avenue on the east. This zone of neighborhoods was known as the “black belt” or “black ghetto.”
African Americans saw Chicago, like other cities of the north, as a chance for freedom from legally sanctioned racial discrimination. Migrants mainly found work in meatpacking plants, steel mills, garment shops, and private homes. The Great Migration established the foundation of Chicago's African American industrial working class. When the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression resulted, thousands of people lost their jobs. African Americans were hit particularly hard. This catastrophe allowed for an emergence of new ideas and institutions among the black community. With a revitalized community spirit and sense of racial pride, a new black consciousness developed resulting in a shift toward social activism. African Americans on the south side coined the word Bronzeville, a word that described the skin tone of most its inhabitants, to identify their community.
Jazz, which developed as a mix of European and African musical styles, began in the southeastern United States, but is said to have made its way from New Orleans to Chicago in 1915, when migrants came north to work in factories, mills, and stockyards. As more of the population moved north, the sound developed and grew in popularity. In 1922, Louis Armstrong followed his band leader Joe “King” Oliver to Chicago from New Orleans. He showed a unique talent for improvisation and quickly became jazz sensation. For 30 years, he defined jazz in Chicago. During that time, Chicago heard a number of jazz greats such as Earl “Fatha” Hines, Jelly Roll Morton, Erskine Tate, Fats Waller, and Cab Calloway.
Blues also came to Chicago from the southeast during this period. In contrast to jazz, blues brought a somber tone of life and work in the Mississippi Delta. Towards the end of the Chicago Black Renaissance, Chicago started to change the sound of blues, adding drums, piano, bass, harmonica, and switching the acoustic guitar for electric. The new style was called Chicago Blues. Greats such as Chester Burnett, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Koko Taylor were prominent during this time.
Gospel, though popular before the Renaissance, saw a resurgence in prominence during this time. The “Father of Gospel Music,” Thomas Dorsey, brought hundreds of new gospel songs from the Southern Pentecostal Church to the public by blending the sound with urban style. Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel Music,” made many of these songs mainstream when she arrived in Chicago in 1927.
The writing of the Chicago Black Renaissance addressed the culture of Chicago, racial tensions, issues of identity, and a search for meaning. Prominent writers in the movement included Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Arna Bontemps, and Lorraine Hansberry. The South Side Writers Group was a writing circle of several authors and poets from the time of the Chicago Black Renaissance. Its members worked collaboratively to inspire one another and explore new themes.
Newspapers and periodicals including the Chicago Defender, Chicago Sunday Bee, Negro Story Magazine, and Negro Digest also took part in supporting the literature of the Chicago Black Renaissance. These periodicals offered forums for writers of the movement to publish their work and also provided employment to many of these writers.
Some of the well known literary works that emerged from the Chicago Black Renaissance include Wright's Native Son, Brooks' A Street in Bronzeville, St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton's Black Metropolis, and Frank Marshall Davis' Black Man’s Verse and 47th Street: Poems.
In addition to musicians and writers, several visual artists emerged during the Chicago Black Renaissance. Painters used different styles from portraiture to abstraction to reveal the thrills and grit of black life. Photographers also displayed daily life of south side Chicago through a variety of iconic American images.
Four black artists, all of whom attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, are famous for sharing the vibrant spirit of black Chicago through their art: William Edouard Scott, Charles Wilbert White, Archibald John Motley, Jr., and Eldzier Cortor. Scott painted impressionist landscapes, portraits, and murals depicting black achievement, while White was a prominent graphic artist and worked with the mural division of the Illinois Federal Art Project. He was an active member of the South Side Community Art Center and his work, “There Were No Crops This Year,” won a first prize at the Negro Exposition in 1940. Motley’s paintings, on the other hand, created controversy with his depictions of jazz culture and black sensuality, providing vivid images of urban black life in the 1920s and 1930s. Lastly, Cortor became famous for his delineation of the beauty of black women. In 1946, Life Magazine published one of his seminude female figures.
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