The Defender and Chicago’s Built Environment

Newsboy selling Chicago Defender newspaper, Chicago, April 1942 (Library of Congress)

In A House for the Struggle: The Black Press and the Built Environment in Chicago, author E. James West explores the dialectical relationship between Chicago’s famed Black press and the physical locations their writing, activism, and community development took place. As a lecturer in Interdisciplinary Societies and Cultures at University College London and the co-director of the Black Press Research Collective at Johns Hopkins University, West sits at a unique nexus of expertise that allows him to explore the traditionally distant traditions of architectural history and the history of print culture.

West’s narrative follows the extraordinary development of both the writers and physical locations of Black periodicals like the Chicago DefenderEbony, and Jet as they matured from the early to the mid-twentieth century. West’s work adroitly traverses several key epochs in African American history, including the Great Migration, the Chicago Renaissance, and the civil rights movement, to show the indelible impact Chicago’s Black press had on both the social and architectural landscape of the city it hailed from.

West anchors his wide array of periodicals and expansive time frame through a simple but dynamic argument “that the buildings of Chicago’s Black Press matter” as “they loomed large in the minds of their publishers and patrons” (4). The novelty in this argument lies in its ability to inspire historians to consider how Black intellectuals leveraged, contended with, transcended, and were conditioned by the spaces they inhabited during the 20th century in a hyper-urban landscape. West’s work shows clear influence from classics like Stephanie M.H. Camp’s Closer to Freedom or Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities as the Black press in Chicago fought tirelessly for their own autonomous spaces in a discriminatory city. These spaces became “both castle and refuge; a sanctuary from the storms of racial injustice and a house for the struggle toward Black equality” (4).

From this central premise, West articulates a multitude of compelling arguments about Chicago and the Black press it housed. West asserts that, due to its ability to insulate the Black community and propagate its ideas, the Black press building rivaled the Black church and the Black school as one of the most important institutions in Black Chicago (8). This space functioned both as a “space for regulation” and a “space for resistance” for Black intellectuals, as they defined Black identity and used it as a cudgel against the white supremacist society they openly resisted. It was in these buildings that Black journalists, artists, and activists cultivated their creativity and defined what it meant to be an urban Black in the twentieth century. These intellectuals offered a constant and conscious critique of the discrimination they faced in Chicago, and the United States at large, both through their publications and from their habitation of thriving Black buildings in Chicago. It is effortless to see how West’s arguments can be extrapolated to other urban areas and modes of struggle across the United States during the twentieth century. The “house for the struggle” is an excellent heuristic that will hopefully be implemented in more Black intellectual history studies going forward.

Watching the Black Press and the spaces they inhabited grow across the book’s six chronological chapters allows West to explore the nuances of his central claims. Chapters one and two tell the story of the Chicago Defender and how it expanded from the modest home of Henrietta Lee, the landlady of Defender founder Robert Abbott, during the early twentieth century, to the newspaper’s new home on Indiana Avenue on Chicago’s South Side after WWI. This move reflected the growth of the periodical’s readership across the country and allowed it to build up other literary enterprises like the Half-Century and the Bee by housing them in the same building. Simultaneously, this move helped the Defender define the urban landscape of Chicago and wrest vital architectural control from the white power structure of the city.

Chapters three and four show an overlap between the stories of the Defender and the Johnson Publishing Company, founded by John H. Johnson. Johnson Publishing Company was the publisher of Negro Digest, Ebony, and Jet. Both companies developed their buildings on Michigan Avenue into community centers and intellectual havens for creatives during the Chicago Renaissance.

Chapters five and six take a closer look at these institutions and their interactions with the long civil rights movement. It contrasts the Black radicalism that came out of the Black press during these years with the excesses of Johnson’s rigid patriarchy and capitalistic tendencies. These chapters showcase West’s exceptional eye for architectural history as he uses the buildings themselves as sources and historical actors. This approach should be admired and studied as historians of Black American history continue to uncover stories that are obscured by traditional methodologies. West intelligently embraces the virtues of “speculative history” to tell the stories of marginalized communities, a legacy found in the works of authors like Camp, Stephanie Smallwood, Marisa Fuentes, and Saidiya Hartman.

In addition to the tactful inclusion of “speculative history,” West largely frames his work as a narrative history of a cadre of Black intellectuals as they navigate tumultuous political, social, and urban landscapes. Everything, from buildings to the people that inhabit them, is in conversation with each other. West is at his best when he is showing people interacting with the world around them, which is a difficult balance he strikes. He is also careful to showcase the wide range of struggles that individuals endured in Chicago and within the walls of “houses for the struggle.” It would be wrong to confuse “a house for the struggle” with a place absent of contention. While these spaces gave refuge to those facing mistreatment, they also were attempting to rectify that mistreatment through political debate and strategy. Black women, queers, and radicals often found themselves at odds with a traditional Black bourgeois power structure. The spaces in this work are dynamic across space and time, which is a critical trait for any great history.

West has done a considerable amount of primary source research and secondary reading to craft this dynamic narrative. The chapters are all woven with an appropriate mix of archival research, primary sources published by the Black press, and secondary literature on the Black press and Chicago. West mentions that the Johnson Publishing Company has privatized its corporate records, so he should not be held accountable for omissions on this front. In fact, West works around this roadblock expertly by piecing the Johnson story together through the voices of the publications Johnson produced and the few archives he could access. Additionally, West does an excellent job at situating the historiographical conversations this work resides in within the introduction (notably the history of the Black press, Chicago as a Black metropolis, and the importance of geography to Black studies.)

Overall, West’s analysis and creative use of sources have resulted in a remarkable work deserving of wide readership and praise. West has taken methods and conversations often had in the history of slavery around “speculative history” and physical geography and successfully adapted them to a twentieth-century narrative of Black intellectuals continuing their long liberation struggle. The spaces that Black intellectuals, activists, creatives, and politicians worked within both protected them and shaped them. Additionally, the emphasis on non-human actors in narratives of resistance should be further explored as the limits of the archive continue to be tested.

Perhaps the greatest criticism one could have for this work is that it is too obsessed with its subject. While this is explicitly not the aim of West’s book, it would have been instructive to see how the impact of Chicago and its Black press affected other geographies, other presses, or the country at large. Was the self-determination achieved by Chicago’s Black press rivaled in any other city across the United States or was it an outlier? What could we glean from a more national context? Regardless, this is a desire only inspired by the brilliance of this single-city study. The blueprint West laid out in this book for conducting a successful history of the dialogue between place and person will doubtlessly be used in a national analysis.

West’s work reminds historians and everyday people in the present about the complexity of Black resistance in the past and present. Resistance to an oppressive force is never just found on the streets. It is found in the minds, pens, keyboards, desks, houses, and workplaces of every activist across time. These objects, spaces, and people are in a constant dialogue that must be acknowledged and leveraged both for a meaningful retelling of the past and substantive change in the future. West’s work modernizes this lesson and details it for the Black press of Chicago. Hopefully, this is the first of many examinations of urban Black intellectual spaces and their inhabitants in modern American history. It is a dynamic and exceedingly readable work that should get the wide readership it deserves.

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Ray Dinsmore

Ray Dinsmore is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History Department at the University of New Hampshire. His current research focuses on organic Black intellectuals and the civil rights movement in Boston, Massachusetts.