The Great Migration: African-American Presence in Chicago

by Jas Thurmond

Students, you are to take on the role of a detective/investigator, and use several of the following pieces of evidence to solve the mystery written below.

Solve This Mystery:

Between 1890 and 1970, African-Americans made went from making up about 2% of Chicago’s population to about 1/3 of the city’s demographics. What were at least three key events that led to this rapid change, and how did the swift change in the city’s demographics impact race relations in the city of Chicago? Finally, after examining poetry, information, and images from the Chicago Renaissance and the Great Migration period(s), what were the lives of African-Americans living in Chicago like? How were their living conditions, and how did those conditions compare to the way the migrants lived in the South?

Terms to define before your investigation

  1. Demographics

  2. Migrant/Migration

  3. Chicago Renaissance

Evidence Producing Questions

Choose to read one of Gwendolyn Brooks' poems, “kitchenette” or “De Witt Williams, 1945.” Then answer one of the following questions that applies to the poem you chose. Your answer will help you solve the mystery.

  1. Describe the kitchenette building that Brooks evokes in her poem of that title. What is it like to live in this building? What do you think “dream” means to the speaker of the poem? (3-5 sentences)

  2. How does Brooks portray the life of a black migrant to Chicago in “of De Witt Williams”? What contrasts does she develop between his origins and the life he led in the city? (3-5 sentences)

After you read ALL of Langston Hughes' poems, “One-Way Ticket,” “Restrictive Covenants,” and “Visitors to the Black Belt.” Then answer both of the following questions. Your answers will help you solve the mystery.

  1. Why are African Americans leaving the South, according to Hughes’ poem “One-Way Ticket”? What is the experience of migration like as portrayed in the poem and the woodcut by Jacob Lawrence?

  2. How does Hughes portray conditions in Bronzeville in his two other poems? Consider Hughes’ use of the pronouns I and you. What is he trying to do by writing in the first-person voice or addressing the reader this directly?

Once you have viewed Hughes' and Brooks' works, click the following links to view images of the conditions they wrote about. (Feel free to press Ctrl and + to zoom in on the images for a better view.)

  1. Kitchenette Image 1

  2. Kitchenette Image 2

  3. Kitchenette Image 3

  4. Kitchenette Image 4

Now that you have completed your investigation, write an essay that includes your investigation summary, where you answer the questions of your mystery. Then conclude your essay by explaining whether you believe the Great Migration was a benefit or a hindrance for African-American migrants. We will review this format in class.

“kitchenette building” and “of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery ”

Gwendolyn Brooks. From A Street in Bronzeville, 1945.

Image of kitchenette building” and “of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery

Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks named her first book after the Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville, where many members of the Great Migration settled.

Image of kitchenette building” and “of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery
Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title kitchenette building” and “of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery
Short Title kitchenette and De Witt Williams, 1945
Book Title A Street in Bronzeville
Place of Publication New York
Publisher Harper
Creator Gwendolyn Brooks
Publication Date 1945
Edition [1st ed.]
Pages pp. 2 and 21
Call Number Martin Y 285 .B793
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“One-Way Ticket,” “Restrictive Covenants,” and “Visitors to the Black Belt”

Langston Hughes. From One-Way Ticket, 1949.

Image of One-Way Ticket,” “Restrictive Covenants,” and “Visitors to the Black Belt

The poet Langston Hughes is most often associated with the Harlem Renaissance. But Hughes spent time in Chicago as well and portrayed the lives of migrants to the city in this collection.

Image of One-Way Ticket,” “Restrictive Covenants,” and “Visitors to the Black Belt

Woodcuts by Jacob Lawrence illustrate Hughes’ book.

Image of One-Way Ticket,” “Restrictive Covenants,” and “Visitors to the Black Belt
Image of One-Way Ticket,” “Restrictive Covenants,” and “Visitors to the Black Belt
Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title One-Way Ticket,” “Restrictive Covenants,” and “Visitors to the Black Belt
Short Title One-Way Ticket, 1949
Book Title One-Way Ticket
Place of Publication New York
Publisher Knopf
Creator Langston Hughes
Publication Date 1949
Edition 1st ed.
Pages pp. 60-61
Call Number Martin Y 285 .H864
Location General Collections 2nd floor