Midway through The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers, something significant emerges. As its team of 1930s-era writers relayed the contributions of African Americans in Illinois, particularly in Chicago, from before the Civil War through the Great Depression, later chapters were intermittently penned in a present voice.
Many former slaves came to Illinois after the Civil War. But the Black Chicago Renaissance, which began when African Americans streamed into the city around World War I, brought epic social and cultural change, particularly on the South Side. When The Negro in Illinois was being written, this was still unfurling history.
Those employed by the Illinois Writers’ Project, a subset of the Depression-era, government-sponsored Federal Writers’ Project, were tasked with telling about recent events and people, communities, and neighborhoods that were familiar to them. Through that intimate lens, The Negro in Illinois—finally published more than seventy years after its completion—offers a rare, inside glimpse of the time.
There is great significance in who worked for the Illinois Writers’ Project—talented African Americans in an era when job opportunities for them were limited—and in the history they were hired to compile. But an additional, key aspect of The Negro in Illinois is its timing.
Even those assigned to write about the 1800s, beyond the scope of their own memories, still had access to important living sources like former slaves, African-American Civil War veterans, and influential black residents who had come to the state after the Civil War. They still had ready access, as well, to newspaper clippings and other primary documents that would be difficult or perhaps impossible to find today.
The manuscript also, significantly, predates and is thus untainted by the lens of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the later decline of once-vibrant African-American urban neighborhoods.
Now, through the efforts of Dolinar, a professor of history at the University of Illinois and author of The Black Cultural Front: Black Writers and Artists of the Depression Generation, all twenty-nine chapters of The Negro in Illinois have been brought together for the first time. The result is a data-rich trove of names, dates, and accomplishments of African Americans who participated in seminal efforts like the Underground Railroad, as well as those who were the first business owners, church leaders, politicians, doctors, athletes, and musicians in Illinois, particularly in Chicago. It chronicles the dividing line between those communities across the state that were welcoming to African Americans, and those that remained doggedly segregated. And it relays the efforts of abolitions and activists like Ida B. Wells, an African-American journalist who devoted her life to speaking out against lynching.
Some of the manuscript became the basis for other works. Editors Arna Botemps and Jack Conroy recast a portion into 1945’s They Seek a City, which took a national look at the migration of African Americans into major Northern cities.
But for nearly three quarters of a century, the manuscript for this important work mostly sat in scattered libraries across Chicago. Three of the chapters were believed lost until Dolinar unearthed them at Syracuse University.
The chapters were in various states of completion when the project was abruptly cancelled in 1942. Dolinar undertook the formidable task of determining, in cases where there were multiple drafts of a chapter, which was the most recent. He resisted the urge to edit the chapters except for a limited number of corrections he found on the drafts, which were in the handwriting of the original supervising editors. The resulting published book is marked sometimes by choppy writing; the amount of editing originally done to each chapter varies widely. Some chapters feel ready for publication. Others read much more like early sketches that needed, but never got, more explanatory context and finessing.
Dolinar’s excellent, lengthy introduction provides helpful biographical information about the writers themselves, from the likes of Richard Wright, who went on to storied careers, to those who toiled for the project but whose names were lost to history.
For years, scholars have tapped the scattered, archived pieces of The Negro in Illinois as source material. The manuscript’s re-emergence now, seventy years after its completion, is of importance to more than scholars: It is also book for general audiences. General readers finally have access to these stories and accompanying data, and Dolinar’s contribution of how they were, uniquely for the era, compiled by African Americans. Dolinar also gives due to those who pushed for more black writers to be hired.
Perhaps its publication now is also a sign that we, as a broader society, are ready to appreciate the significance of its content and the contributions of its writers. Too bad that it took seventy years to get here.
July 2013, University of Illinois Press
$45, hardcover, 336 pages
—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann