In the last installment of my series about race and DOCUMERICA, we were introduced to the work of Black photojournalist John H. White. A recent transplant to Chicago, White used his DOCUMERICA assignment to center the city’s African American communities. More than a decade before the concept of “environmental racism” became entrenched in activist, academic, and policy circles, White’s assignment powerfully highlights systemic economic and social disparities that disproportionately affected Chicago’s poor and working-class Black urban communities. During the decades following World War II, the city’s racial fault-lines had been widened further by the fraught impact of massive urban renewal and public infrastructure projects which decimated historically Black neighborhoods and led to many Black residents being siloed in a series of massive public housing projects on the South Side. By visually cataloging these developments, White’s assignment places Black Chicagoans at the heart of ongoing debates around the ‘urban crisis.’
White’s bleak images of disinvestment, urban isolation, and neighborhood decline were, by the 1970s, a familiar sight to many Americans. However, they were only one part of the story of Black Chicago told through his DOCUMERICA assignment. In other ways, White’s photographs curate a history of Black environmental defiance and reappropriation, demonstrating the ways in which Black Chicagoans strove to reshape the environment around them and to carve out spaces for community, play, and joy within the racialized geography of the postindustrial city. Through doing so, White catalogs and celebrates how Black Chicagoans laid claim to their neighborhoods and to the city itself.
One way in which Black Chicagoans sought to reclaim their neighborhoods was through the development of the city’s community mural movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Perhaps the most significant individual project was the Wall of Respect, a large mural montage of portraits of Black heroes and heroines on the side of an abandoned tavern at East 43rd and South Langley that was unveiled to the public in 1967. The Wall of Respect was one of the first major projects by the Organization of Black American Culture, a collective of Black artists, activists, and intellectuals connected to Chicago’s Black Arts Movement, and many of the artists involved would go on to form AfriCOBRA, one of the nation’s most influential Black arts collectives. Although the Wall of Respect was torn down in the early 1970s, it helped catalyze the development of a Black mural movement that spread across and beyond the United States.
White’s attentiveness to the work of Black muralists in Chicago is indicative of his efforts to capture Black creativity and cultural expression in the face of environmental decline. The photographer’s DOCUMERICA assignment includes multiple images of an ongoing mural project on the corner of 33rd and Giles, close to local Black landmarks such as the former headquarters of the Chicago Defender at 3435 Indiana Avenue, Unity Hall at 3140 Indiana Avenue, and the Pilgrim Baptist Church at 3301 Indiana Avenue. White notes in his caption that Ron Blackburn, the muralist featured in several of his photographs is just “one of many Black artists doing such work,” pointing to the broader impact of Chicago’s Black mural movement. Concurrently, White contends that such public murals provided a way of “sharing art with the people of the ghetto who don’t go to the city’s museums.” In doing so, he highlights the political and educational function of many of the murals which were created in predominantly Black neighborhoods during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Looking beyond such eye-catching and longer-term efforts to reshape the geography of Black urban neighborhoods, White used his assignment to document the more quotidian or impromptu ways in which Black Chicagoans, and in particular Black children and teenagers, sought to make the best of the environment around them. During the years following World War II, the flight of white and middle-class residents to the suburbs didn’t just leave empty storefronts and residential lots – it also hollowed out neighborhood tax bases in predominantly Black enclaves such as Bronzeville, Grand Boulevard, and Lawndale on the South and West Side. As municipal dollars dried up, so too did funding for civic infrastructures such as playgrounds and other recreational facilities. Coupled with ongoing white efforts to restrict access to nominally shared public spaces such as Chicago’s parks and beaches, many Black youths were deprived of recreational spaces and opportunities.
By the 1960s, these recreational inequities had become a source of widespread concern. When the Chicago Defender launched a “Keep a Cool Summer” campaign in 1967, readers noted that greater access to public swimming pools could help quell the threat of racial tensions or uprisings among the city’s Black youth.1 However, when reporters from the Chicago Tribune conducted a lengthy investigation of the Chicago Park District one decade later, they found that white neighborhoods continued to benefit from more and better facilities such as fieldhouses, tennis courts, and sports fields. Predominantly white neighborhoods were also provided with more money and personnel to run arts, crafts, and drama classes, day camps and sports courses, and other public-facing initiatives.2
In the face of this municipal neglect, a raft of Black Block Clubs and community groups emerged to provide their own public programming for Black youths in underserved neighborhoods on the South and West Side. Such initiatives can be connected to a longer history of Black Block Clubs in Chicago stretching back to the first wave of mass migration during the early 1900s, when organizations such as the Chicago Urban League organized Block Clubs to help Southern migrants “acclimatize” to life in the urban North. For Black organizers such as Frank Mingo Sr., the revival of Black Block Clubs during the 1960s and 1970s were part of broader and ongoing efforts to secure racial, social, and environmental justice in the Windy City. From this perspective, providing poor and working-class Black Chicagoans with better access to recreational facilities complemented efforts to address overlapping symptoms of systemic racism such as police brutality, residential segregation, and urban blight.
Seeking to both draw attention to and strategically utilize the growing number of vacant lots in Black neighborhoods, community Block Clubs staged open air fashion and talent shows, dance competitions, and other events designed to help Black youngsters “do their thing.” White’s assignment captures the joy of one such group of Black girls performing as part of a community program staged on a vacant lot at 5440 South Princeton Avenue. Such images demonstrate how young Black Chicagoans were able to strategically utilize the environment around them, finding joy, friendship, and pleasure in often inhospitable places. Perhaps the most spectacular articulation of Black efforts to reclaim urban space and stake their claim to the city will be the subject of my next article and was also documented by White as part of his DOCUMERICA assignment – the Bud Billiken Parade, one of the nation’s longest-running and most popular Black parades.