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You can read a version of this story and more in the Summer 2021 issue of The TRiiBE Guide: Heritage Edition. Visit to find a copy of The TRiiBE Guide near you. Cover photo features Kannon Purnell, the 5th great-grandson of 19th century Chicago abolitionists John Jones and Mary Richardson Jones.

In the wake of the Harlem Renaissance — a culturally renowned period of Black excellence in the 1920s — a lesser-known, but equally powerful movement emerged in Chicago.

As Harlem’s movement lost steam in the 1930s, a number of Black Chicagoans — many of them young and working-class and residing on the South Side — wrote poems, authored novels and created paintings and sculptures that reflected sharply leftist socio-economic views, as well as the scrappy, urban industrial culture of the city in a manner that historians say distinguished it from Harlem.

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“Beginning in the 1930s and lasting into the 1950s, [Black] Chicago experienced a cultural renaissance that rivaled, and some argue, exceeded the cultural outpouring in Harlem,” writes Darlene Clark Hine, the John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University’s Department of History and a prominent scholar of African-American history and co-author of The Black Chicago Renaissance.

“The Black Chicago Renaissance, however,” Hine wrote, “has yet to receive its full due.” 

The awakening in Chicago was borne out of Bronzeville, a historically Black neighborhood known as the Black Metropolis, where many artists, musicians and writers resided. Similarly, Harlem was home to Black residents with limited housing options who had come from the South during the Great Migration. And there was of course some overlap between both movements, with Harlem-era artists such as Arna Bontemps relocating to Chicago, and acclaimed poet Langston Hughes becoming a columnist at the Chicago Defender after the Harlem Renaissance.

But despite introducing the world to acclaimed artists such as author Richard Wright (best known for his novel Native Son and memoir Black Boy) and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks (the first Black writer to win the Pulitzer), the Chicago Black Renaissance still seems to lag behind the Harlem movement in terms of clout and recognition — even as scholars say the Chicago revival’s impact is undeniable.

“It was impactful in terms of art production,” Erik Gellman, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told The Triibe. “But it was also impactful in terms of creating art for political purposes that connected strongly with social protest movements of the 1930s and 1940s. So it sort of helped create a kind of working-class militant Black counterculture that mattered beyond the art world itself.”

South Side Community Art Center Black Expressions Art winners announced, 3831 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois. Photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

The Harlem movement stemmed in part from the belief that exhibiting intellectual and artistic excellence would lead to the advancement of Black people in America, although both movements centered the Black experience, according to the late Samuel Floyd Jr., a Chicago scholar who founded the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College. Floyd wrote in the “Black Chicago Renaissance” that the art in New York City was often supported by “wealthy [Black] and white philanthropists, publishers, entrepreneurs, and socialists who wanted to promote the aesthetic advancement of the race.”

In a 2012 column for the Chicago Tribune, then-columnist Dawn Turner Trice wrote that “unlike the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago movement didn’t have as its face such well-known intellectuals as W.E.B. Du Bois.” She adds that “Chicago artists didn’t have relatively large numbers of wealthy white patrons who helped support their art.”

“The Harlem Renaissance is often taught as a group of artists who removed themselves from the larger urban scene to collectively produce all of this work, and their work [was] often the product of collaboration with white entrepreneurs or benefactors,” Gellman said. As a result, they “weren’t that invested in the politics and the currents of what was happening in the larger community.”

The Harlem Renaissance happened in an era “wrapped up in the politics of respectability, sort of striving for the ‘Talented Tenth’ kind of idea,” Gellman said. Chicago was different.

“It was public. It was working class. Anyone could participate,” he said of Chicago’s renaissance. “And it was a very public-facing endeavor that was oriented towards working class people, ordinary people. Rather than saying, ‘we are artists, we need to detach ourselves from the society we’re in,’ [Chicago’s artists] actually engaged with the society they were in and engaged in the kind of radical politics of their day. And that informed their artwork.”

This included artists such as Charles Wright, a Chicago painter whose work featured Black men doing manual labor during a time when Black Chicagoans worked strenuous jobs for low wages in factories and railyards, experiencing economic disparities steeped in racism. 

Dr. Margaret Burroughs, vice president of the Chicago Park District’s board of commissioners and co-founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History. Photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

“These artists were greatly influenced by Marxism,” said Dr. Kelli Morgan, an art scholar and curator, “and the role of the Black worker in American society was very important to their work.” She added that through the image of the Black worker, artists like Wright aimed to “critique the power structures behind these conditions.” (It wasn’t uncommon for Black artists and intellectuals to engage in radical leftist politics tied to Marxism and the Communist Party, according to Hine).

Artists such as poet and painter Margaret Burroughs were exceptional creators and intellectuals, “but they were also very working class people,” Gellman said. “They made art, not to be hung in a gallery or bought by a white patron, but to be shown or [displayed] in the South Side Community Art Center, or to be exhibited at the YMCA. It was art for a different purpose and a different audience.”

The working-class ethos of Chicago’s movement may play a role in how it’s perceived decades later and whether it has a place in today’s classrooms. Back in July 2012, dozens of high school teachers from across the country came to Chicago to participate in a program on the Black Chicago Renaissance, with the intention of learning about the renaissance and incorporating that knowledge into their curriculum, according to Gellman and NPR station WBEZ.

Gellman believes that a high school teacher is likely to find the Harlem Renaissance a “less controversial” topic than the uncompromising, complicated art from Chicago’s era.

“You can teach a Langston Hughes poem about Africa or some of the other great works of the Harlem Renaissance,” he said. “But it won’t raise the same kind of troubling questions that would have come out of the Black Chicago Renaissance, where you’ve got Arna Bontemps writing about slave revolts.”

He added, “Look at the work of Charles White: what’s being depicted there is a revisionist, resistant activist form of African-American history that doesn’t make African Americans passive or victims. It makes them a people in struggle and essential to American history. It’s a very radical idea, even today.”

The post The Chicago Black Renaissance is Harlem’s radical counterpart appeared first on The TRiiBE.

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