Relationships between whites and blacks have often been sources of tension in Chicago, continuing along with the population changes brought by the “Great Migration.” Between 1916 and 1970 the population of African Americans increased by 500,000. Before 1916, African Americans constituted approximately 2% of the city’s population (approximately 15,000 in 1893), rising to 33% by 1970 (approx. 1,111,887 in 1970). War industries required more workers by 1916 and 1942, and advertised enticing employment opportunities. But upon arrival in Chicago, African Americans were to discover an increasingly bleak housing situation, due to restrictive covenants defining the areas where they were allowed to live. Rents were high and the landlords did not bother to maintain buildings. Living conditions were so bad that St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s study, The Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945) gave a detailed account of the segregation the Black Belt in Chicago perpetuated, that included descriptions of housing conditions.
The book was based on research conducted by the Works Progress Administration field workers in the late 1930s. As could be expected, in anticipation of what would become a full-blown Civil Rights movement in the 1950s that forced people to take sides based on their acceptance—or denial—of the presence of a race, reviewers were already divided about the book’s impact and value. Rosalind Lepawsky, reacting to Richard Wright’s introduction, which called the book a “landmark of research and scientific achievement,” wrote in her 1946 review:
"…Black Metropolis is more of a compilation of, than an addition to, existing knowledge about the American Negro. It is not so much an explanation of Negro class and caste as it is an effective indictment of Negro suppression and white supremacy."
Remarkable however is the way Black Metropolis impacted the locals: shortly after it was published, the Parkway Community House held a series of public forums to discuss the issues the book had raised. But more important, the work behind Black Metropolis was a contributing factor for African American artists, as Richard Wright had suggested in his introduction to the work:
"Chicago is the city from which the most incisive and radical Negro thought has come; there is an open and raw beauty about that city that seems either to kill or endow one with the spirit of life. I felt those extremes of possibility, death and hope, while I lived half hungry and afraid in a city to which I had fled with the dumb yearning to write, to tell my story. But I did not know what my story was, and it was not until I stumbled upon science that I discovered some the meanings of the environment that battered and taunted me. I encountered the work of men who were studying the Negro community, amassing facts about urban Negro life, and I found that sincere art and honest science were not far apart, that each could enrich the other. The huge mountains of fact piled up by the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago gave me my first concrete vision of the forces that molded the urban Negro’s body and soul. (I was never a student at the university; it is doubtful if I could have passed the entrance examination).
Chicago is the known city; perhaps more is known about it, how it is run, how it kills, how it loves, steals, helps, gives, cheats, and crushes than any other city in the world. Chicago is a new city; it grew to be bigger in one hundred years than did Paris in two thousand."
Some Links about Black Metropolis
Chicago's Black Metropolis: Understanding History Through a Historic Place (Lesson Plans)
Black Metropolis, The Last Half Century by Depaul University