A national research project led by noted Black Chicago historian Christopher R. Reed at Roosevelt University is turning back the hands of time on the rise of arts, culture and intellectualism in Chicago’s African American community.
While historians have long assumed Chicago’s Black Renaissance began with novelist Richard Wright and poet Gwendolyn Brooks around the time of the Great Depression, Reed and a team of National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) researchers have traced the rise in Black Chicago’s arts and cultural scene to the late 19th century.
“There’s been an assumption that intellectualism among African Americans in Chicago was rare prior to the Depression, but we have found ample evidence of a black arts community being active nearly 50 years earlier,” said Reed.
Findings from the NEH project “Root, Branch and Blossom: Social Origins of Chicago’s New Negro Artists and Intellectualism,” which began in January 2014, will be presented at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 26 in Roosevelt’s 10th floor library, 430 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago.
Among groundbreaking discoveries, research shows African Americans in Chicago were patrons of the arts prior to Chicago’s Black Renaissance, which historians have dated from 1932-1950.
“Not only did we find evidence of affluent African American patrons of the arts, for instance, having their portraits painted 100 years ago; we also have been able to document that members of Chicago’s black working class supported the arts back then,” said Reed.
Featuring the stories of African Americans engaged in art, music and literature in Chicago from 1890 to 1930, the project presentation at Roosevelt is the culmination of many hours of interviews as well as research in archives all over the nation.
Free and open to the public, the event is sponsored by Roosevelt’s College of Arts and Sciences and the region’s Black Chicago History Forum. The final public forum being held in conjunction with the NEH project, the event includes presentations by Reed and team researchers Richard A. Courage and Claudia Jacques.
Wrapping up in 2017, the NEH project also will include a written report, a book to be published by University of Illinois Press on the roots of African American culture in Chicago during the early 20th century and a public web site about the period’s African American intellectual and artistic figures and their work.