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Black Metropolis


In 1945 social scientist St. Clair Drake and his research associate, Horace R. Cayton, published the two-volume Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, which attempted to provide the empirical foundation for the notion of a "black metropolis." The term, as used by the public as well as by social scientists, referred to a large and diverse African-American social enclave composed principally of professionals, small business owners, and a large working class of both unskilled and semi-skilled laborers. These enclaves emerged during the interwar years in large urban industrial areas in midwestern cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee. The south side of Chicago, the site of Drake and Cayton's study, contained an elaborate institutional structure that replicated those of native-born whites, as well as those of recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who occupied distinct ethnic enclaves in the city.

Black metropolises were the direct product not only of residential segregation and other blatant forms of discrimination, but also of the hard work and ingenuity of their inhabitants. African Americans' overall prosperity during the 1920s was possible primarily because of the dire need for their labor as unskilled workers in midwestern factories.

With the onset of the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s, the notion of a black metropolis was transformed. In Chicago, for example, many working-class African Americans were discharged from unskilled jobs in factories in which many of them had been gainfully employed since World War I. Many African-American domestics also were fired, and banks in Chicago's south-side ghetto were closed.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's policies provided public relief programs, employment, and housing. Furthermore, presidential support for initiatives in collective bargaining between management and labor benefited unskilled African-American workers who had been able to retain employment. Additionally, many African Americans left both the rural and urban South during the 1930s—a direct result not only of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) crop reduction policies, but also because African Americans in southern cities received less than their proportionate share of allocations of relief and emergency employment. In short, the notion of a black metropolis was transformed from that of a community with a solid working class that had the potential to make advances in the mass-production industries and narrow the income gap between themselves and whites to one in which most of its members were on the dole or dependent on their working spouses for support.



Drake, St. Clair, and Horace R. Cayton. Black Metropolis:A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. 1945.

Gottlieb, Peter. Making Their Own Way: Southern Blacks'Migration to Pittsburgh, 1916–30. 1987.

Kusmer, Kenneth L. A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870–1930. 1976.

Trotter, Joe William, Jr. Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915–45. 1985.

Vernon J. Williams, Jr.

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