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Christopher Reed

Historian wins NEH grant to study culture and art in early Black Chicago

Posted: 12/19/2013
Contributions made by African American artists and intellectuals in Chicago prior to the Great Depression will be chronicled for the first time in a new National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant project being led by noted Roosevelt University historian Christopher R. Reed.

The project entitled “Root, Branch and Blossom: Social Origins of Chicago’s New Negro Artists and Intellectuals” will investigate African American arts and culture in Chicago between 1890 and 1930, a period in history that for blacks in Chicago has tended to focus on race riots and establishment of ghettoes.

“We will be tracing lives and achievements of forgotten African Americans who were part of the flowering of an important intellectual and cultural network that we can show existed long before the Harlem Renaissance or the Black Chicago Renaissance  (1932-50) ever began,” said Reed,  professor emeritus of history at Roosevelt and the nation’s leading expert and author of six books on the early history of African Americans in Chicago.

Reed will collaborate during  the two-and-a-half year, $200,000 NEH living-history project that begins at Roosevelt in January 2014 with noted Black Chicago Renaissance scholar and author Richard Courage, who is an historian and faculty member at Westchester Community College at the State University of New York (SUNY); and Bonnie Claudia Harrison, an assistant professor of social sciences at the City Colleges of Chicago and director of the Englewood Mapping Project, an online data base documenting the lives and stories of early African Americans from Englewood at a time when the neighborhood was predominantly white.

Archival research will be done at repositories in Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York, Boston and other cities across the nation. Oral histories involving memories handed down from generation to generation also will be conducted in order to establish an extensive data base of African American intellectuals and creative artists who were active in Chicago during the period that might broadly be defined as possessing a “New Negro Spirit” that came before the Black Chicago Renaissance and such noted figures as Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, Katharine Dunham, Arna Bontemps and Horace Cayton, Jr.

“This project, when completed, is expected to make an immense contribution to Chicago’s cultural history and to be an important resource for African American historians and scholars across the nation,” said Reed.  “It will for the first time ever document and tell the many stories of individuals, families and neighborhoods that actually started the ball rolling on what would later become a Black Chicago Renaissance,” he said.

Significant contributors to be studied may include: Archibald Motley, Jr. (1891-1981), an artist from Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood who exhibited portraits of professional African Americans of the day as well as genre paintings of South Side cabarets and street scenes at art shows on Madison Avenue in Chicago during the 1920s; Fenton Johnson (1888-1958), a poet and African American writer whose little-known free-verse experiments have marked him as a precursor to Langston Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance writers, and whose plays and productions also made him one of Black Chicago’s first literary entrepreneurs; Robert S. Abbott (1868-1940), founding editor and publisher of the Defender who built the newspaper into a national publication that included contributions of the day from leading black intellectuals and African American writers across the nation.

The new NEH project also will include: public forums on African American art and culture of the early 20th Century that will be presented in conjunction with Roosevelt University’s St. Clair Drake Center for African and African American Studies and the Black Chicago History Forum; a public web site on the period’s African American intellectual and artistic figures and their work; a book of essays to be published by University of Illinois Press about the roots of African American culture in Chicago during the early 20th Century; and teacher-training workshops sharing new knowledge about the period’s flowering of African American art and culture in Chicago with the region’s K-12 teachers.