Freedom’s Ballot: African American Political Struggles in Chicago from Abolition to the Great Migration
Jesse Binga came to Chicago in the summer of 1893 with ten dollars to his name. He had a trade, thanks to his barber father. But he was too ambitious to spend his days cutting hair. So he took the sort of odd jobs that were open to young African-American men, out of which he accumulated enough capital to edge his way into the city’s rapidly segregating real-estate market. He targeted houses on the borders of the South Side black neighborhood, buying out whites who feared African Americans would cross Chicago’s hardening color line, slicing the homes into apartments, and renting them to black families at a considerable mark-up. It was a tough-minded business model. And it made him rich.
Then Binga crossed the color line himself. In 1917 he bought a handsome red-brick two-story in the all-white neighborhood of Kenwood, between the black South Side and tony, segregate Hyde Park. It was quiet enough until a few months after the frenzied summer of 1919, when someone set off a bomb on his front porch. Over the next two years there were six more attacks, invariably followed by offers from local whites to buy Binga out. But he would not be moved. “I am an American citizen,” he told The Chicago Defender after the seventh bombing, in September 1921. “No man can make of me a traitor or a coward.”
To a considerable extent, Freedom’s Ballot is an origin story. Garb begins with a tiny cadre of black abolitionists—most of them successful businessmen—who from the late 1840s hammered away at Illinois’s systemic discrimination against and disenfranchisement of African Americans, their claims to equal rights staked both in principle and in generations of personal sacrifice.
That is a sentiment that runs through Margaret Garb’s valuable new book. For many years African American political history was told overwhelmingly as a Southern story. In the last decade or so, some of the field’s most exciting work has been on the Northern experience, through books such as Kimberly Phillips’ Alabama North: African-American Migrants, Community, and Working Class Activism in Cleveland, 1915-1945 (1999), Matthew Countryman’s Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia (2006), Martha Biondi’s To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (2003), Robert Self’s American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (2003), Thomas Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle of Civil Rights in the North (2009), Manning Marable’s brilliant biography of Malcolm X, and Jason Sokol’s recent All Eyes are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn (2014). Garb adds to the trend by plunging into Chicago’s rich history of African-American political activism. But she also departs from it in one key respect. Almost all the Northern scholarship begins with the Great Migration or World War II, the two great demographic shifts in 20th century African-American life. Garb focuses on the seven decades from the Civil War to the 1910s, a period she sees as foundational to black Chicago’s political experience across the 20th century.
To a considerable extent, then, Freedom’s Ballot is an origin story. Garb begins with a tiny cadre of black abolitionists—most of them successful businessmen—who from the late 1840s hammered away at Illinois’s systemic discrimination against and disenfranchisement of African Americans, their claims to equal rights staked both in principle and in generations of personal sacrifice. “By the facts of history and the admission of American statesmen,” wrote the group’s leading figure, John Jones, in the mid-1850s, “ … by the hardships and trials endured, by the courage and fidelity displayed by our ancestors in defending the liberties and in achieving the independence of our land, we are American citizens.” It took another ten years and the Civil War’s relentless bloodletting to convince the state legislature, which finally repealed Illinois’s black codes in February 1865, two months before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. Only in 1870, with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, did the state extend the franchise as well.
Having secured their civil rights, Chicago’s African Americans spent the balance of the century trying to defend their position as the city’s breakneck growth intersected with a national racial regime that was tumbling to its nadir. For the most part political leadership remained under the control of the city’s black elite, who continued to cast citizenship in the inclusionary terms Jones’ generation had set. But the affronts piled up: from the Republican Party that Jones and his colleagues had loyally supported, which gradually abandoned its commitment to racial justice; from the organizers of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, who imposed a depressing series of discriminatory humiliations on its African-American patrons; and from Chicago’s powerful craft unions, which pushed black workers out of a number of niches they had created for themselves in the city’s booming labor market—a process Garb traces in a fascinating chapter on the rise and fall of a bi-racial union of restaurant workers in the 1880s and 1890s.
The most consequential affront came with the segregation of neighborhoods. Like many cities, Chicago had long had black enclaves, the most substantial running along a narrow strip south of downtown. But in the 19th century their boundaries were permeable, their populations racially mixed. As the Great Migration’s first wave reached Chicago in the early 1900s, whites began to draw the color line more starkly. By 1910, 78 percent of Chicago’s 44,000 black residents were living in the South Side Black Belt, whose borders whites patrolled with mounting ferocity.
Racial separation had complex political consequences, Garb says. For decades the African American elite had hoped to elect a black man to Chicago’s powerful Board of Aldermen, but they did not have the concentration of votes sufficient to carry a ward. Neighborhood segregation changed that. But it also created a new class of businessmen inside the Black Belt—hard-nosed entrepreneurs like Jesse Binga and their pragmatic, more self-interested counterparts, like Binga’s brother-in-law, policy king “Mushmouth” Johnson—who saw politics in practical rather than principled terms: it was all well and good to have a race man in office, but he had better know how to get a liquor license out of City Hall, a pay-off into the pocket of a building inspector, or a couple of bucks into a policeman’s palm. The old elite and the new class began jockeying for position in 1910, when the old elite ran its first African-American candidate the Black Belt’s seat. Four years of annual electoral defeat followed. On the fifth try, in April 1915, a devout member of Chicago’s dominant Republican machine, Oscar DePriest, took the election by 4,000 votes. Chicago had its first African-American alderman. And the South Side’s emerging business class had its man.
Racial separation had complex political consequences, Garb says. For decades the African American elite had hoped to elect a black man to Chicago’s powerful Board of Aldermen, but they did not have the concentration of votes sufficient to carry a ward. Neighborhood segregation changed that. But it also created a new class of businessmen inside the Black Belt—hard-nosed entrepreneurs like Jesse Binga and their pragmatic, more self-interested counterparts …
Garb readily acknowledges the limits of DePriest’s victory: two years after his election he was indicted on corruption charges arising from the Black Belt’s vice trade and driven from office. Yet she also portrays it as a culminating point in a long process of political development, the symbol, she says, of “a movement that demanded not just representation but also African American control over politics in African American neighborhoods.” That is too neat a reading. DePriest’s rise was facilitated by an emerging political class whose power rested in part on its members’ willingness to exploit the injustices segregation created. And he was beholden to a political machine that thought of racial equality in token terms—a handful of appointments for African-American professionals, a few more jobs for the black working-class—while refusing to do anything to stop the brutal solidification of the city’s color line: During the 1919 racial pogrom DePriest’s mentor, Mayor Big Bill Thompson, let white mobs rampage through black neighborhoods for four days before asking the governor to send in the National Guard.
A few months later the first bomb went off on Jesse Binga’s front porch. He responded in the same stirring language the abolitionists had used. But he put it to a far narrower use. The abolitionists had been determined to batter down the barriers that blocked African Americans from participating in Chicago’s public life. Binga wanted to defend his right to live in a house he had been able to buy because of his manipulation of the barriers whites had imposed. Garb’s fine book does not quite come to terms with that critical shift in political perspective. Together, segregation and self-interest had given African Americans what would turn out to be a permanent position in Chicago’s political system: from DePriest onward African-American politicians represented the Black Belt, no matter who controlled City Hall. But that victory proved to be more a constriction than the culmination Garb portrays it to be, the dispiriting end of an era that had opened with the fierce idealism of the disenfranchised, demanding the rights they deserved.