Bronzeville: Black Chicago in Pictures, 1941-1943
The International Center of Photography, New York, NY. Curator: Maren Stange
February 28-June 8, 2003
In 1940, sociologist St. Claire Drake described Chicago's Black Belt as an "eddy of faces—black, brown, olive, yellow, and white." A neighborhood defined by its inhabitants, it became affectionately known as Bronzeville. Those who lived in Bronzeville, a South Side Chicago neighborhood, geographically bounded from 22nd to 63rd Streets between Wentworth and Cottage Grove, resembled a socio-economic dichotomy of African-American people: the elite and the destitute. Its character was documented from 1941 to 1943 by photographers Edwin Rosskam, Russell Lee, John Vachon, and Jack Delano as part of the Depression-era Farm Security Administration project to depict urban conditions of the recent rural migrants from the South. Bronzeville: Black Chicago in Pictures, 1941-1943, an exhibit at the International Center of Photography (ICP), presents over 120 photographs that capture the essence of Chicago's Black Belt.
Guest curator and associate professor at The Cooper Union, Maren Stange, and ICP Assistant Curator Cynthia Fredette organized the exhibit using anthropological and social historical themes: The Face of the "Black Belt," 12 Million Black Voices, Family and Home, Work and Business, Church, and Going Out. Photographs in these categories voice the emotional triumphs and disappointments of urban life and a story of perseverance.
The introduction to Bronzeville asks, "Who were the people of Bronzeville?" and "How did they live?" The photograph, "People Sitting on the Front Porch in the Negro Section," by Russell Lee begins to answer using unbalanced subjects to symbolize the social and economic unbalance in this community. On the right, a man sits isolated in front of a sundry shop while to his left three men and a woman look suspiciously at the camera. They are subjugated individuals, exemplifying the complex dynamics of Bronzeville, a place of symbolic promise with destitute realities.
Photographer Edwin Rosskam's observation that the "housefronts in the 'best' area of the Black Belt are merely shells enclosing slum living" underscores the purpose of the Farm Security Administration photographic project. The Roosevelt Administration used the project to legitimize New Deal efforts to alleviate poverty. A second photograph in this section, "Candy Stand Run by a Negro on the South Side," by Lee bears witness to the urban decay that persisted in Bronzeville. The store, standing on a deteriorated street, resembles a shanty on the edge of a village.
The title of Richard Wright's second book, 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, serves as the title of the next section. Combining the language of Wright with the Farm Security Administration imagery generates a fresh perspective of Bronzeville. The photographers' images are supported by Wright's words, in addition to commentary throughout from St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton's groundbreaking sociological and economic study, Black Metropolis.(1)
"Family and Home" uses the images of its subjects to bridge Bronzeville's multiple socio-economic categories. The photographers in this series contrasted the inhabitants of Bronzeville, the well-to-dos and the undesirables. Following the evidence provided by Wright, Lee, Rosskam, Drake, and Cayton, Jack Delano focused his photographic account on the exemplary families living in the Black Belt. Delano's photographs coincide with a shift in philosophy for the Farm Security Administration project, which was absorbed into the Office of War Information in 1942. The purpose of the project changed from documenting poverty to publicizing patriotic behavior.
Wright described life on the other side of the Black Belt as "kitchenettes—our death sentence without trial." The kitchenette was the divided interior of a large house that once belonged to wealthy white families. These apartments offered less than comfortable living conditions: a room furnished with a bed or two, sometimes a living area, and a small kitchen area. The photographs give Wright's critique credibility. For example, the photograph "Negro Family Living in Crowded Quarters" depicts a mother and her three children, surrounded by draped laundry and unsecured lights.
Delano's images contrast starkly with photographs taken by Lee and Rosskam: he shows families reading and playing instruments and fraternity brothers at the University of Chicago. The photograph "On a Sunday Afternoon at Home, [musician] 'Red' [Saunders] and his Wife Read the Comics to Their Children and Puppy Whose Name is 'Blitz'," capture a family attending to "American" values. In addition, Delano emphasizes the elegance of Bronzeville. "Oliver Coleman has Apparatus for Recording in his Home on Indiana Avenue. He uses it to Record the Work of his Students and his own Drumming," pictures a man in solitude refining his skills for the benefit of others. Delano's photographs convey a different tone that enabled the curator to interpret the Bronzeville reality—a continuum of wealth and poverty.
In the realm of "Work and Business," enterprise abounds and the photographs unveil the multi-faceted entrepreneurial spirit of the people of Bronzeville. Rosskam's photograph, "Lunch Wagon for Negroes," shows the perseverance of one man carving out a business for himself. Stange juxtaposed this photograph with other similarly industrious subjects, including shoeshine boys, barbers, and dime-store attendants. Although these occupations employed citizens in respectable jobs, the exhibit team accurately depicted the dominance of the service industry.
Stange's themes of "Church" and "Going Out" transcend the previous mood by embracing the strength of the human spirit. The church in the black community provided guidance and spiritual uplift. Regardless of the facilities, the passion for worship was not curtailed. Delano, Rosskam, and Lee illustrate the piety, sophistication, and revelry found in Bronzeville churches. This same vitality infiltrated the community in social and recreational life. Stange includes photographs from taverns, nights at the Savoy Ballroom, and community centers. Through personalities such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and blues singer Lonnie Johnson, Stange reinforces the cultural legacy of Bronzeville.
Bronzeville captures the neighborhood's rich character, meticulously presents a complex social history, and affirms the premise behind the Farm Security Administration project: to document the overwhelming effects of the mass migration of rural people to urban areas such as Chicago.
Danette T. Sokacich
New York, New York
1. St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis; A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1945).
Exhibit Catalogue: Maren Stange, Bronzeville: Black Chicago in Pictures, 1941-1943 (New York: New Press, 2003).