25. The Role
of The Chicago Defender and the Urban League
The polite tones of the letters is absolutely fascinating, I
think you're right, and I think it tells you something about how
people regard northern institutions. These aren't just written
to The Defender, many of these were written to the Chicago Urban
League, and one of the things that happens is the Urban League
in Chicago, like in other places, regards the migrants in two
ways. One is it says, this is a great thing for black people,
that all these people are coming up here. And The Defender sees
it the same way. And that's because first of all it's bringing
money into the community. All of these people have jobs, having
houses, steel mills, so that's good for business. For The
Defender it's especially good because people will buy newspapers, people
will also patronize the businesses that buy advertisements. But
for the community in general it's votes. This is going to increase
the political power of Chicago's black community. And then also
there's in a sense the race consciousness. It's better for black
Americans in the North than in the South therefore people should
come up North.
But there's also a real ambivalence by the Urban League and The
Defender, and so you get these middle class, you get Chicago's
middle class black leadership especially in the Urban league and
The Defender going around and telling people how to act. Saying
don't do this, don't do that. The Defender publishes a whole list
of do's and don'ts, that says basically don't act country. [Laughter]
There's a whole-actually I think I have, there's a whole variety
of these do's and don'ts that are pretty fascinating, it gives
you a sense of, don't use vile language in public places, don't
act discourteously to other people in public places, don't allow
yourself to be drawn into public brawls, don't use liberty as
a license to do as you please.
[Female voice] Don't wear house-shoes outside.
Don't make yourself a public nuisance. So they have a whole-The
Defender doesn't do that one. The Urban League has pictures, and
the Urban League has pictures which yes, don't use house-shoes
outside. But it's especially don't wear head-rags, don't leave
watermelon on your front porch, don't barbeque in the front of
your house, don't allow children to play in streets, and it's
interesting, you have a combination of different things. One is
the sense of what they think acting country is. But a second one
is you get a sense that this is not just about southern-northern,
middleclass-working-class, it's about young and old too.
Most migrants were younger than people who already lived here
and a lot of it is don't dress loud, don't talk loud, don't hang
out on the corner drinking beer, a lot of these things really
you've heard before and a lot of it has simply to do with the
older people in the community saying to younger people in the
community, "This is disorderly, this is bad, embarrasses
us." I mean why do people drink in a paper bag and all of
So it's interesting because one of the things that you think
about is-you know, we look back and say, "oh, this is awful,
these people, they treated them with disdain, this
is terrible and there's all this conflict in the community."
But we also realize that people coming from the South were writing
these very quaint letters to The Defender, to the Urban League;
when they get here, these are very important institutions, they
had great respect for these institutions. So it's not as if, there's
this sense that these people are awful and they're treating us
badly. People are coming from the South with this tremendous respect
for the Chicago Urban League, the NAACP and The Chicago Defender.
So this interaction, in terms of telling these people how to act
and how not to act becomes very interesting. And that's where
they go to find a job and to find housing is the Urban League.
[Female voice] I have a question. Aren't all those rules, do
they establish those in order for their communities to be more
stable or is it a concern about how they appear to whites in Chicago...
[Female voice] Is it an issue of property and property value
[Female voice] The people, who are doing that, do they own property
[Group voice] It's all of the above. [Laughter]
It's all of those things, that's just it. To separate these things,
it's all of those things. These are people who are concerned about
[Female voice] Are they really that country?
Some are and some aren't. And so, part of it is a sense of prejudice,
a sense that all you have to do is to see three people sitting
on their front porch eating watermelon and you start to worry
that the whole neighborhood's going to start-you know, there goes
[2nd female voice] But it's the perception too.
It's a perception.
[2nd female voice] It's a perception on those who established
what is good, what is right. So you know for us it's the same
thing, for the immigrants that came, it was the old who were here
before and their perception is that you have to, don't talk _____
is what they said in ______, in 1916, don't, don't. But we in
our perception we thought they were, but in their, if they think
that the newcomers should do it
Put your best foot forward.
[2nd female voice] Right, right.
And you do see this with all immigrant groups. With Jews for
example, early on it's German-Jews and Russian-Jews.This is again
something that goes on across different ethnic groups.
[Female voice] I was just going to say that it's exactly that
but it's an issue of assimilation. That the first group that assimilates,
sees their own best interest as being aligned with the dominant
culture, so they feel embarrassed by it. And it's the same thing
that you can see in first-generation-people who are educated are
embarrassed by their parents and vice-versa. But there's always
that. And it's one of the things that I've been teaching by tons
of short stories and literature where you can look on that issue
in your classes and thinks about it; it plays itself over and
There's actually a fabulous article in The New Yorker, I think
it's this month, just about that, he's talking about the Jewish
New York culture. Where he actually talks about ____; it's also
[Male voice] I was just thinking, I grew up in Boston, but I
mean my mother was Irish-is Irish, and there's a difference between
the Shanty Irish and the Irish _____ and when I came out here,
OK, the West-Side Irish and the South-Side Irish. And the same
type of mentality. It blew my mind.
Well it goes on in different ways. One of the interesting things
is that there's also a different dynamic which people haven't
understood nearly as much which is-someone's called in "local
culture." There's an argument that in some cases, especially
small towns and cities, immigrant groups, migrant groups, have
been sufficiently numerous and prosperous to be able to become
the local culture. So that in this particular case was rural,
small towns in Minnesota. So that in small towns in Minnesota
there were enough Germans that the local, the local American culture
became something called German-American culture so it works itself
out in different ways.