Brooks + Bronzeville

Essay by Christy Krumsieg Vosburg ’11

Assistant Director of Wheaton in Chicago


From 1915 to 1970, six million Black Americans migrated from the South to the North and the West. This epic political, economic, and cultural migration – told more fully in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns – reshaped Chicago, among many other major U.S. metropolises. Many who were Chicago-bound moved to what became known as Bronzeville on the South Side of Chicago, and Bronzeville became home to influential Black Americans, such as musicians Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Minnie Riperton, and “King of Soul” Sam Cooke; the first female Black pilot Bessie Coleman; astronaut Robert H. Lawrence, Jr.; journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells; founder of the Negro National Baseball League Andrew “Rube” Foster; and Poet Laureate of Illinois Gwendolyn Brooks.

Born on June 7,1917, Gwendolyn Brooks moved to Chicago from Topeka, Kansas, when she was only six weeks old, becoming part of the Great Migration. Chicago remained her home until her death on December 3, 2000. Bronzeville shaped Brooks and her writing, and Brooks shaped Bronzeville.

Currently, Bronzeville spans three of Chicago’s official seventy-seven neighborhoods: Douglas, Oakland, and Grand Boulevard. While its boundaries are debated, Bronzeville has approximately ranged from 22nd to 51st Streets – or at times, as far as 63rd Street – between State Street and Cottage Grove. Cultural hubs centered on State Street between 26th and 39th (known as “The Stroll”, a place to see and be seen) and 47th Street and South Parkway Boulevard (now renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive), the location of the highly popular Savoy Ballroom, opened in 1927.

In 1917, Chicago did not receive its new Black residents warmly. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation precipitated a second wave of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) membership, which soared into the millions by the 1920s, including notable presence in previously abolitionist territories in the North, including Chicago. Quoted in the Chicago Daily Tribune on October 24, 1924, the grand dragon of the Illinois KKK, attorney Charles G. Palmer, affirmed that some of what was wrong with society included "African-Americans, Catholics, immigrants, and Jews. We support Protestants, whites, Prohibition… and law and order.”[1] As World War I ended in 1918 and veterans returned to shifting economic realities, racial tensions grew high, particularly among lower-class European immigrants working in the stockyards on the southwest side of Chicago, next door to where thousands of Blacks were relocating into the segregated area of Bronzeville.

Such tensions spilled over across the country in massacres and looting of Black neighborhoods, most infamously in East St. Louis in 1917, Chicago in 1919, and Tulsa (in Greenwood, an area known as Black Wall Street) in 1921. Similar anti-Black terrorism took place in twenty-five other U.S. cities in one year alone in the Red Summer of 1919. The precipitating event in Chicago began with the murder of 17-year-old Eugene Williams who had inadvertently drifted over to the informal “whites only” swimming area at a beach near 29th Street and was subsequently killed by whites throwing stones at him in the water. The subsequent violence led to dozens killed, and over a thousand homes of Black families ransacked. Notably, Black Americans fought back in Chicago and throughout the country, which marked a new shift in Black empowerment.

When the Great Depression began after the stock market crashed in 1929, Black Americans were disproportionately affected. Yet from the 1920s through the 1950s, Bronzeville became a cultural hub of Black life. In the 1930s and 1940s, Bronzeville – also known as the “Black Belt” or “Black Metropolis” – fostered a massive flowering of Black art, music, literature, journalism, and scholarship. The Black Chicago Renaissance, as it has come to be known, made Chicago, like Harlem in the 1920s and early 1930s, a crossroads for culture.

In this burgeoning cultural scene, 28-year-old Gwendolyn Brooks published her first book of poetry A Street in Bronzeville in 1945, which featured honest depictions of beautiful and complex daily life in Bronzeville.

As indicated in Brooks’ writings, Bronzeville life included both rich cultural opportunities and severe restrictions for Black Chicagoans. Bronzeville offered an alternative from whites-only institutions downtown and was home to many Black businesses and institutions, including the South Side Community Art Center, Provident Hospital, the Regal Theater, Binga Bank, and newspapers The Chicago Defender and The Chicago Bee.  Brooks’ contemporaries in the Chicago Black Renaissance included Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Arna Bontemps, Thomas A. Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, William Edouard Scott, Elizabeth Catlett, and many others who shaped new eras of jazz, blues, and gospel; literature featuring Chicago culture and Black identity; painting and photography; and other art forms.

At the same time, Bronzeville included restrictions on Black freedom and quality of life. Housing was often overcrowded, particularly due to population growth from the Great Migration paired with severely limited housing options for Blacks, as many surrounding neighborhoods developed racially-restrictive covenants in the 1920s prohibiting the sale or renting of property to anyone of another race. While restrictive covenants became illegal in 1948, real estate practices simply morphed into other forms to perpetuate segregation, and according to the 2020 census, Chicago remains in the top ten most segregated cities for Black and Latinx populations in the United States. Beryl Satter’s Family Properties: Race, Real Estate and the Exploitation of Black Urban America dives deeper into the real estate practices – racially-restrictive covenants, contract-buying, blockbusting, redlining, and more – that perpetuated racial capitalism and the extraction of wealth from Black Americans.

The population growth and lack of alternative housing outside of the boundaries of Bronzeville led to the development of high-rise public housing projects, such as the Robert Taylor and Ida B. Wells homes, as well as kitchenettes. A poem titled “kitchenette building” in Brooks’ A Street in Bronzeville references life in kitchenette apartments, in which landlords split existing homes into multiple family units to maximize occupancy – and rent – within existing buildings. While people of all races rented kitchenette apartments throughout Chicago, particularly in the 1940s-1960s, Bronzeville hosted a particularly high density of kitchenette apartments – over 80,000 total – of significantly lower housing quality than its counterparts throughout the city. Often an entire family lived in a single room and shared a bathroom with several other families. Kitchenette design could have been implemented as idyllic small apartment living but instead lacked basic amenities and led to significant health hazards from poor construction and maintenance.

After racially-restrictive covenants were declared unconstitutional through a U.S. Supreme Court case involving Lorraine Hansberry’s father purchasing a home in West Woodlawn (a block away from Wheaton’s Urban Studies semester program Wheaton in Chicago), Bronzeville residency peaked in the 1950s and began to decline as Black families began to move to other areas. Bronzeville continued to shift throughout Gwendolyn Brooks’ lifetime until her death in 2000 and in the 22 years since then. WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore chronicles historic and current aspects of segregated life in her book The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation, debunking myths of Chicago crime, sharing stories of her own Black middle class upbringing, and exploring implications of institutional racism in everyday Black life.

Gwendolyn Brooks’ vivid poetry of Black life in Bronzeville and her influence lives on in subsequent generations of Black artists and creatives for whom the South Side continues to be a generative cultural hub. Her poetry and service to community and literature are also publicly remembered in the neighborhood to this day: Brooks Park was named in her honor, and in 2018, a statue of Gwendolyn Brooks was installed in the park, surrounded by quotations from Annie Allen.  At least five schools have been named after her, as well as the Illinois State library, honoring Brooks’ long service to literary art, neighbor


[1] NPR Illinois