A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of The TRiiBE Guide: Heritage Edition. Subscribe to The TRiiBE. Click here >>

The notion that Black life in Chicago began during the first wave of the Great Migration in the 1910s isn’t accurate. Black Chicago’s origin story began when Chicago’s first non-Indigenous settler, a Black man named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, came and set down roots in the 1780s. 

While the bulk of Black folks arrived in the 20th century, there was a small, yet thriving Black community near what we now refer to as the South Loop. Some of those “Old Settlers” include abolitionists John and Mary Jane Richardson-Jones, Joseph and Anna Elizabeth Hudlin—the first Black people to own and build their own home in Chicago—and politician John W. E. Thomas.

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However, on a scorching hot summer day in July of 1874, Chicago experienced its second major fire in three years. On July 14, the fire started near the northeast corner of Clark and 12th Street (now Roosevelt), less than a mile east of where the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 started on Dekoven and Jefferson Streets. Over the span of 8 hours, the fire burned more than 47 acres, destroying more than 800 buildings and killing 20 people. Eighty-five percent of Black-owned property in the city burned, including John and Mary Jane Richardson-Jones’ home, according to Dempsey Travis’ book “An Autobiography of Black Chicago.”

In 1870, there were more than 3,600 Black people in Chicago, and the population grew to more than 14,000 by 1890, according to Dr. Christopher Robert Reed’s “Black Chicago’s First Century, Volume I: 1833-1900.”  The 1874 fire became known as the Second Chicago Fire. Coupled with the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, it shaped the trajectory of Black Chicago through the formation of the Black Belt and the population growth that followed. 

“You start seeing the dispersal of these African Americans further south, and to the west, and that’s one of the first ways that we see some of the racialized enclaves that we would come to know later begin to form,” said Julius Jones, an assistant curator at the Chicago History Museum. Jones is developing an exhibit, “City on Fire,” which will premiere on Oct. 8, which will be the 150th anniversary of the 1871 fire.

DISPLACEMENT AFTER THE FIRE

The area devastated by the 1874 fire was mostly inhabited by Jewish immigrants and middle-class Black people. According to Jones, both communities lived in relative peace and harmony before the fire. At the same time, white people viewed the area as impoverished and vice-ridden. The loss of Black property during the fire was a blessing to white real-estate speculators — after all, it was close to the lake. After the fire, Jewish immigrants moved further west and north into neighborhoods such as Near West Side, Lawndale and Albany Park. Black people moved farther south, forming what would later become Bronzeville. 

As Black Chicagoans moved south, they landed between 12th and 79th Streets and Cottage Grove and Wentworth Avenues. According to Lee Bey, a Chicago native and adjunct professor of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Black folks were confined to the Black Belt by design after the first and second waves of the Great Migration.

You can read a version of this story and more in the Summer 2021 issue of The TRiiBE Guide: Heritage EditionVisit reshapethenarrative.com to find a copy of The TRiiBE Guide near you. Cover photo features Kannon Purnell, the 5th great-grandson of 19th century Chicago abolitionists John Jones and Mary Richardson Jones. 

The architects of the Black Belt were state and local officials who created and practiced racist and discriminatory policies to limit the movement of Black people in the city, including restrictive covenants that barred Black people from buying or renting property in majority-white neighborhoods. 

Black Chicago’s most prized cultural institutions — such as the Regal Theater, the Sunset Café, the DuSable Museum of African American History, and others — were formed in the Black Belt during the first half of the 20th century. This area was also home to Black Chicago’s literary greats Lorraine Hansberry, Gwendolyn Brooks and many others. Powerful Black business corridors were also established in neighborhoods such as Chatham. 

“By creating a city within a city, because we couldn’t live anyplace else, we couldn’t shop for the most part anyplace else. If we work someplace else, when that shift was over, we better get back to where we ‘belonged.’ You know, [racism] triggers what it always triggers with Black people, which is how we’re going to use self-reliance to remove the sting of this,” Bey said. “So, as a result, we had our own stores, entertainment, everything that a city would have.”

DEMANDING RESPECT AT THE WORLD’S FAIR

All eyes turned to Chicago while it hosted the World’s Fair in 1893 in Jackson Park. During its six-month run, more than 27 million people visited the fairgrounds at Jackson Park. The fairgoers included many current and future Black Chicago leaders such as Robert S. Abbott, future founder of the Chicago Defender

Bey also credits Abbott as an architect of the Black Belt. Abbott performed at the fairgrounds with a quartet from Hampton University. He loved what he saw so much during that trip that he made Chicago his permanent home in 1897.

Haiti Building at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1893. Photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

Through the Defender, Abbott encouraged Black people to flee from the racial terror of the South to the North, where there was more economic opportunity available to them. 

“The calls to come from the South, to come to work in the factories, comes from Robert Abbott, who basically puts the call out in the newspaper, and the newspaper flows down south on trains through Pullman Porters, that basically is saying, ‘Come off that plow,’” Bey said. “Come out of that degradation that you’re going through, and come here.” 

Although the fire of 1874 and the 1893 World Columbian Exposition had their fair share of positive outcomes for the Black community at the time, both moments stand as precursors to what Black people in Chicago still experience today.

“When you talk about 85% of homes owned by African Americans being destroyed in the fire, we’re talking about the loss of having that asset that will appreciate and thus help you build wealth,” Jones said. “You see that time and time again [in the Black community]; the inability to build wealth due to hardship, disaster, race, racialized and racist policies.”

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.