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Block is Beautiful: The Second Great Migration, The Chicago Urban League and Community Development in Chicago: 1940-1960

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Abstract:

Within the academy, modern African American history is nearly synonymous with Civil Rights Era history. Both the Movement’s transforming impact on American society and historian’s material connections with progressive activism has focused scholarly interest on African American political involvement in the fifties and sixties. Even as some historians call for geographical expansion of Civil Rights Era narratives to include activism in the north and the unique racial politics of urban areas like Chicago, work remains focused on struggles surrounding housing desegregation and electoral politics. The unfortunate by product of this political focus is that moments of community organization and cultural development unrelated to the integrationist battles of the Civil Rights Era remain obscured. This paper is about the struggle of the Chicago Urban League to inspire community organization around the cause of home grown urban renewal as a reaction to the city’s attempts to stigmatize and geographically isolate the black belt within “urban redevelopment.” By creating a contest called “Block Beautiful” in the mid-forties, the Urban League was able to inspire every day Black Chicagoans to organize themselves into mini-political groups focused on beautifying their homes, porches and apartments as well as lobbying city government for street and neighborhood maintenance. In an era when white Chicago’s anxieties over the deleterious effect of urban blight on the individual were directly linked to the perceived threat of an increasing African American population, the League’s Block Beautiful contest should be interpreted as a brilliantly discrete political project that directly involved more African Americans than the work of the NAACP and other more radical northern groups. In addition, the popularity of the contest indicates that these kinds of seemingly apolitical community activities within Black urban neighborhoods should move to the center of African American historiography rather than existing on the periphery because they produce rich source material that deals with unique class and gender issues within the community. The majority of primary sources are from the Chicago Urban League’s archives which contain pages of minute meetings on the contest, contest entry forms from nearly every year, Urban League and Chicago Planning Commission correspondence as well as contest material including flyers and pamphlets. Along with urban league material I work with Planning Commisison documents including neighborhood evaluations and maps from the late forties and fifties.
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Association:
Name: Association for the Study of African American Life and History
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http://www.asalh.org


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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p143322_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Holmes, Kwame. "Block is Beautiful: The Second Great Migration, The Chicago Urban League and Community Development in Chicago: 1940-1960" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, <Not Available>. 2013-12-16 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p143322_index.html>

APA Citation:

Holmes, K. "Block is Beautiful: The Second Great Migration, The Chicago Urban League and Community Development in Chicago: 1940-1960" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History <Not Available>. 2013-12-16 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p143322_index.html

Publication Type: Invited Paper
Abstract: Within the academy, modern African American history is nearly synonymous with Civil Rights Era history. Both the Movement’s transforming impact on American society and historian’s material connections with progressive activism has focused scholarly interest on African American political involvement in the fifties and sixties. Even as some historians call for geographical expansion of Civil Rights Era narratives to include activism in the north and the unique racial politics of urban areas like Chicago, work remains focused on struggles surrounding housing desegregation and electoral politics. The unfortunate by product of this political focus is that moments of community organization and cultural development unrelated to the integrationist battles of the Civil Rights Era remain obscured. This paper is about the struggle of the Chicago Urban League to inspire community organization around the cause of home grown urban renewal as a reaction to the city’s attempts to stigmatize and geographically isolate the black belt within “urban redevelopment.” By creating a contest called “Block Beautiful” in the mid-forties, the Urban League was able to inspire every day Black Chicagoans to organize themselves into mini-political groups focused on beautifying their homes, porches and apartments as well as lobbying city government for street and neighborhood maintenance. In an era when white Chicago’s anxieties over the deleterious effect of urban blight on the individual were directly linked to the perceived threat of an increasing African American population, the League’s Block Beautiful contest should be interpreted as a brilliantly discrete political project that directly involved more African Americans than the work of the NAACP and other more radical northern groups. In addition, the popularity of the contest indicates that these kinds of seemingly apolitical community activities within Black urban neighborhoods should move to the center of African American historiography rather than existing on the periphery because they produce rich source material that deals with unique class and gender issues within the community. The majority of primary sources are from the Chicago Urban League’s archives which contain pages of minute meetings on the contest, contest entry forms from nearly every year, Urban League and Chicago Planning Commission correspondence as well as contest material including flyers and pamphlets. Along with urban league material I work with Planning Commisison documents including neighborhood evaluations and maps from the late forties and fifties.

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