As a young writer during the late 1920s and 1930s, author Richard Wright was a denizen of Chicago’s “Black Belt,” a narrow strip of South Side neighborhoods that became the setting for his classic book Native Son.
Back then, the densely populated area along State Street between 22nd and 51st streets was a highly segregated part of the city.
Wright depicted that world as bleak, overcrowded and desperate—conditions that produced main character Bigger Thomas, a young African American man who commits two brutal murders.
On a recent spring morning, students in the College reading Native Son for their humanities Core class ventured into that historic neighborhood, now known as Bronzeville, to retrace Wright’s steps—and gain a different perspective.
They gathered in the main gallery of the South Side Community Art Center, an epicenter of black artistic, cultural and intellectual life located at 3831 S. Michigan Ave., to hear 96-year-old Timuel Black, AM’54, a lifelong civil rights leader and South Side resident, provide a rare oral history of a time and a place deeply marked by the struggles Wright described, but not limited by them.
“Though we lived in the ghetto and though we were poor, we did not feel poverty-stricken,” said Black, who knew Wright personally. “We believed in the creativity and intellectual life that existed in this ghetto.”
Housed in a former mansion, the art center was a Works Projects Administration initiative dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1940 as a place where African American creativity could flourish. Adorned with African masks, linocuts and paintings by some of the nation’s finest Black artists, the main gallery was the setting for countless gatherings of musicians, writers, political thinkers and activists, including Wright, during the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement.
The oldest African American art center in the country, it is but one stop in a hub of creative neighborhood spaces, however. Across the street was the home of the now-deceased artist Margaret Burroughs, who hosted figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey and was instrumental in founding both the art center and later the DuSable Museum of African American History.
Students traveled south to the George Cleveland Hall branch of the Chicago Public Library at Michigan Avenue and 48th Street, a literary landmark that supported African American writers, including Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
They then headed to Washington Park, where Wright—and Black—listened to rousing political speeches by orators such as communist Claude Lightfoot, who spurred their sense of social justice.
The park’s open-air forum served for decades as a crucible for political action, Black said. “These speakers, men and women, talked about the conditions of the nation and the nation’s responsibility to its citizens. It made sense to us young people who had been taught about the Constitution in our classrooms. It gave us a sense of responsibility to create change for the future of our children and our grandchildren.”
Washington Park could soon be home to the Obama Presidential Center, which is fitting, Black said, because it’s a place where Barack Obama began his political career.
The idea to take students on the tour began out of a concern that Native Son, particularly the violent character Bigger Thomas, might be read as a comprehensive depiction of African American life in Chicago, rather than one writer’s interpretation, says Valerie Levan, a lecturer in the College’s Collegiate Humanities Division who teaches the novel each spring in her “Reading Cultures” class.
“I feared the novel would end up reinforcing the stereotypes it actually aims to challenge,” Levan said. “I wanted to show students that under oppressive conditions of racism, there was still a vibrant cultural life.”
Two years ago, Levan organized the tour in partnership with the Civic Knowledge Project, engaging Black as host. “This is an effort to give students another way of analyzing the situation,” Levan said. “If they have two perspectives on the same thing, then they have to think about why Wright’s depiction was chosen.”
For many students, it was their first time in Bronzeville and first exposure to its rich heritage. “Much of the emotional impact of this tour was the realization that the South Side was so much more than Hyde Park and the UChicago community,” said first-year Marguerite Mullen. “It was inspiring to listen to Timuel Black describe the culture that thrived in Bronzeville during a difficult time.”
Black said African Americans’ creativity in the face of struggle is not unique to his community, though. “Go ask your older relatives, wherever they be from, what was it like when they were young, what kept them moving,” he implored students. “I bet they would talk about art of all forms—painted art, sculpture, music, dancing, all of those things that help us know that things are gonna be all right.”