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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 those things.

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 their community

[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 the neighborhood.

[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 over again.

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 very funny.

[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.

Anything else.

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Find out more about the present day activities of the Chicago Urban League at their Web site.

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