This semester in the VCL, I’ve had the opportunity to take a deep dive into the city of Chicago with Professor Paul Jaskot, Ph. D candidate Jasmine Magana, and fellow undergraduates Chase Pellegrini and Felicia Wang. We used St. Clair Drake’s seminal text, Black Metropolis, to analyze different aspects of the Chicago in the years surrounding the 1933 World’s Fair. While original plan was to make an Omeka site and Neatline, as we embarked on the research process we realized that between all of us, we had found so many resources that it was difficult to compile them into a cohesive project. For my portion of the research, I did a close reading of the Black Metropolis chapter “Negro Business: Myth and Fact.” In this chapter, Drake conducts interviews with Black business owners and and customers about Black-owned businesses in the city, specifically in the neighborhood of Bronzeville. 

Through these interviews, and bringing in business statistics as well, Drake attempts to tackle the question of why so many Black businesses at the time failed. Besides financial barriers — like being unable to secure credit, which prevented them from buying at wholesale prices and led to higher prices for consumers — social stigma also led Black residents to avoid shopping at Black businesses, believing them to be untrustworthy. One incident that particularly stuck in my mind was Drake telling the story of one cobbler he interviewed: “The Negro has no faith in colored business. He thinks I can’t fix his good pair of shoes. He don’t know that the Jew down the street brings his work for me to do. I do all his sewing.” Also as part of our research, our team looked through the archives of the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper first published in 1905. The paper chronicled the Black experience in Chicago throughout the 20th century and proved to be a fruitful trove of primary sources to augment our research on the Black Metropolis. In a 1933 article, Walter Lowe the Defender tried to answer the same question Drake posed: “Why Do Our Businesses Fail?” He, however, blames the heavy hand of the local church, which connected well to Chase’s and Felicia’s research, which focused primarily on the role of the clergy in the city. The church seemed to be a throughline, not only as a religious space, but also as centers of social, political, and economic activity.

This semester at the VCL has been an enriching experience for me, especially since several of my classes had also touched on Chicago. Previously, I had never known much about the city, but studying its development in the context of race and the Black lived experience, as well as working with a team of like-minded and dedicated people, has been unique.