Reviews of Tim Black's Bridges of Memory

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Bridges of Memory, [Vol. I,] Chicago's First Wave of Black Migration. Northwestern University Press, 2003

To History and Preservation home. To Historic Preservation in Depth

This first article was shared by the list serve of the Hyde Park Historical Society. By way of introduction, the manager shares the following: [Visit the website of the Historical Society at]

In the following story, the Sun-Times gives recognition to an important new book by HPHS Board member, Timuel Black. Being a member of our Board is probably Tim's least important achievement, but certainly, as a member he has made extraordinary contributions toward expanding our vision and our membership.

Chicago Sun-Times, October 27, 2003
Saving memories of black Chicago

Timuel Black is history walking.

In a casual conversation with Black, listeners not only get the benefit of his own 84 years, but also an insight into the lives of almost everyone he has encountered.

Many of those lives have found their way into Bridges of Memory: Chicago's First Wave of Great Migration, Black's chronicle of conversations with descendants of the great migration of African Americans from the Deep South to Chicago.

In a span of 599 pages, readers are taken from the 1920s -- when it was hard for a black person to get a cup of coffee in Hyde Park -- to the present day, when a prominent black sociologist tells Black about AIDS and other challenges that disproportionately affect the African American community.

Black, professor emeritus of social sciences at the City Colleges of Chicago and Bronzeville's unofficial historian, takes his readers into living rooms and kitchens throughout Chicago in 15 years of conversations. In a style he calls the "participant observer," Black chimes in with his own recollections and stories, giving the book a laid-back tone.

He points out that "much of the physical history of black Chicago -- 'Black Metropolis' or 'Bronzeville' if you prefer -- has been destroyed by the wrecker's ball. Places such as the Regal, the Savoy, the Vendome, Poro College, the YWCA, and many other monuments . . . have been erased."

The author, who lives on the 4900 block of South Drexel in the general neighborhood where he grew up, wanted to save memories even if he couldn't preserve buildings.

The interviews are not in chronological order. And the subjects -- from judges to musicians to railroad workers and doctors --might jump from decade to decade in the wink of a paragraph.

In one of the book's 36 interviews, Wayman Hancock, father of jazz musician Herbie Hancock, talks about his family's migration from Georgia to Chicago where they immediately went to work as strike breakers in the stockyards around 1920.

The late Hancock also talks of buying his son Herbie his first piano. It was one he came across while selling meat from the stockyards to neighborhood stores in the 1940s.

Fred Smith, who came from Texas, tells Black of his early days in Chicago in the late 1920s when the city was under control of Mayor William "Big Bill" Thompson. A City Hall connection eventually got him a job on the Illinois Central railroad, he told Black in their 1994 interview.

"Well, when I was new here, I do know there were a lot of black folks working in City Hall,'' the late Smith tells Black. "As a matter of fact, there were so many black folks there that they called it 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' I don't know what type of work most black people were doing, but there were certain parts of Chicago that we just didn't go in. I don't think we went east of Cottage Grove. When I first came here in 1929, I got me a job at a hotel in Hyde Park in the place where that high school is now. One day I got to work a little early, and so I stopped at a sandwich shop that was nearby, but they wouldn't wait on me. They just looked at me and laughed."

Other conversations are lighter, such as the one with musician, teacher and former bookstore owner Jimmy Ellis who recalled seeing Ella Fitzgerald walking out of the Regal on 47th and King Drive. "She had just become famous with 'A-Tisket, A-Tasket,' he told Black in 1995. He also recounted spotting Billie Holiday. "I used to go by the Palm Tavern just to see all the stars, to see everybody looking good."

Black's conversations also take his readers into the lives of some of the city's most prominent African-American families, such as the Bowmans. They talk about raising their daughter Valerie Jarrett, the former CTA board chairman, in Iran while Jim Bowman was practicing medicine there in the late 1950s.

They moved back to Chicago in the early 1960s after becoming frustrated about explaining the complexities of race to Valerie. "In those days we were called 'negroes,' but when we would say to our daughter, "You are negro," she would say, "Well, what does that mean?" Barbara Bowman said. "She would also ask us questions such as, 'Who is the shah of the United States?' We would say that we don't have a shah, but finally, after trying to explain all those sorts of things to her, we said, "Well, it is time for us to go back home so she can find out who she really is."

In the book's closing interview taped in 1994, Black and Barbara Bowman, one of the founders of the Erickson Institute -- a graduate school for child development -- get into a conversation about the reluctance of some church leaders to confront AIDS and sexually transmitted disease.

At first the conversation, including Black's disclosure that he lost his son to AIDS, seems out of place for a historical treatment. But then the reader realizes that Black has taken his readers from the deep past to the doorstep of the future.


Hyde Park Herald, November 19, 2003
HP historian's book earns high praise
BY KENNETH W. WARREN, William J. Friedman and Alicia Townsend Friedman Professor in the Department of English and Chair of the Committee on African and African-American Studies at the University of Chicago. Part of series of articles in collaboration between the Hyde Park Herald and the Hyde Park Historical Society. Mr. Warren's most recent book is So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism. This review can also be read as an essay in what history and memory (intangible or built) are and do for people, individually and as groups- and why their erosion, inevitable or artificially hastened, is such an important part of the human story.

Living history is perhaps the best way to describe both Timuel Black, Jr., and his monumental new book, Bridges of Memory: Chicago's First Wave of Black Migration (Northwestern University Press, 2003), the first of three promised volumes of oral history. In putting together this book, Black, a lifetime Chicagoan, political activist and professor emeritus of social sciences at the City Colleges of Chicago, sat down with some 40 men and women, who either themselves migrated to Chicago over the course of the 20th-century or were the children of those who did migrate. Taken together, these stories form part of the tapestry of what historians refer to as the Great Migration. This migration took place in two waves, the first beginning in 1916 and the second commencing in the 1940s, when unprecedented numbers of black Americans left the southern states for northern cities, seeking better jobs, better lives, and sometimes, simply, adventure. The decisions of these individuals to make new lives for themselves in the North's urban centers dramatically reshaped the politics and social realities of the nation in ways that historians are still striving to understand. Bridges of Memory not only provides a crucial tool in aiding this process of understanding, but it also provides compelling reading for anyone interested in history of Chicago's Black Metropolis.

Many, but not all, of the subjects of Bridges of Memory can trace their earliest Chicago memories to that first wave of migration, and for this reason the phrase "living memory" is particularly apt. In the reminiscences that Black has elicited here, individual after individual is able to recall life in a Chicago that in many ways no longer exists. Repeatedly we hear references to landmarks, birthplaces, and social landmarks that once provided points of orientation for hosts of black Chicagoans, but which now live only in the memories of those who knew them. And thanks to Black and his subjects, many of whom are marvelous storytellers in their own right, these places and times are recalled vividly here.

The book is structured according to standard interview style with Black's questions and the respondent's answers indicated by their initials. In his introduction, Black explains his decision to act as a participant observer, employing the "emic" approach to anthropology, which allows the interviewee, "to carve out the rules of the interview as he or she desires." This tactic, Black tells us, is best suited to creating an air of "an informed and informal conversation between friends." Indeed, most of the participants are Black's friends, a fact that could be a drawback in another kind of project, but here works well for telling a much larger story because Black himself is so important a figure in the history of Chicago's Southside. He seems to have known or have met almost all of the larger-than-life musicians, athletes, politicians, activists and professionals that passed through or lived in Chicago during these dynamic decades. A significant part of the pleasure of these pages derives from the interplay between Black and his interviewees, as they engage in their fruitful gossip. Black frequently gets his subjects going by asking simply, "Do you remember." And the result is mutual recreation of the places and people that once made up the Black Metropolis.

The story of Chicago that emerges here make patently evident how variegated were the social institutions and structures in which black Chicagoans created, shaped, or participated. This is not merely a story of churches, but of schools, unions, ward politics, work places, theaters, clubs, and the Chicago Defender. The reality of racial discrimination and segregation often meant that an individual's itinerary meandered wildly, from house to house, one school to another, bad job to good job, and frequently from what we might describe as the working class into the professional class. The hardships were real and telling. The late Robert Colin, a p0liceman and civil servant arrived in Chicago just in time to witness the 1919 Chicago Race Riot, touched off when Eugene Williams, a young African-American boy, drowned after being hit on the head by a rock thrown by a white man. Colin's account drives home the devastation of the riot, which left 23 blacks and 15 whites dead. Only fourteen years old himself at the time, Colin recalls, "That riot took all the religion out of me and all the patriotism as well because of what they did to blacks."

And yet the larger story here is one of success against the odds, but not a success solely of redoubtable individuals. Rather, these interviews "by way of Black's skill at helping his subjects make connections in their reminiscences" highlights how success was most often a matter of networks that included families and institutions. In fact, because many of the people in Bridges of Memory were born in the early part of the 20th century, their stories also open backwards into the lives of their parents and grandparents, providing us with a view of black life after emancipation in the 19th century, well before the Great Migration became the significant event in black social history. Often we see how these longer family histories might explain why some individuals made the decision to take the chance of going North.

One criticism of this volume might be that in telling the stories of Timuel Black's extraordinarily rich and varied social network, the book does not give us a full account of black Chicago in the twentieth century. To be sure, we get here only a portion of the entire picture, but Bridges of Memory does not seek to tell the whole story. These reminiscences tell a part of the tale of Chicago that has not figured sufficiently in our histories up to this point. The interviewees here should be read along with Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration by James Grossman (another Hyde Parker) and the letters of migrants themselves that have been collected in the Journal of Negro History.

For those of us who live on Chicago's South Side, there is a particularly local pleasure in reading these pages. Not only do we hear mentioned places that we pass on a daily basis, but on occasion we will bump into someone we know, a neighbor or colleague, who has not only played a role in the history of our neighborhood but is still playing a role in our own lives. For this same reason these pages have a special poignancy. All too often in the headnotes to these interviews Black will tell us that the person we are about to hear from has passed from the scene. These dates of departure (all of which are in the late 1980s and 1990s) underscore the timeliness of this undertaking here--this is a history that must be recorded now. And among these dates is the year 1993 when Black's son, Timuel Kerrigan Black, died of AIDS. The compiling of Bridges of Memory is due in large part to the urging of the younger man, and in completing this volume, Timuel Black has crafted a monument that I'm sure would make his son proud.