THE POLITICS OF BRONZEVILLE
By Michael Theobald
After the Civil War, newly enfranchised blacks naturally aligned with the Republican party, the party of Lincoln and the abolitionists, and against the Jim Crow Southern Democrats. As they moved north in the Great Migration, they brought this party affiliation with them to Chicago.
As they arrived in the city, blacks became seen as an important voting bloc. As early as 1890s, Democratic Mayor Carter Harrison was working to woo the 3000 black votes in the city, boasting that he’d been “nursed by a Negro ‘mammy’ and that (quickly twisting a bit of hair on his finger) he had a little kink in his hair.” Mushmouth Johnson helped deliver black votes to the Democrats in return for protection for his gambling operations.
Republican Ed Wright was the first really powerful black politician in Chicago. He mobilized the growing Black Belt vote, won patronage jobs for the community, and was eventually voted Cook County Commissioner, the first black elected official in Chicago history. African-American politicians became important figures in the Republican Party of Illinois.
The restrictions on where blacks could live in Chicago had the positive effect of concentrating their vote in a few districts, electing African-American politicians into all levels of government. New arrivals from the south in the Great Migration were registered as voters almost as soon as they reached the city, with a street level organization that often overlapped the policy racket. Gambling bosses provided political foot soldiers at election time in return for protection.
The most important figure to emerge from the Republican era of Bronzeville was Oscar Stanton DePriest. Arriving in Chicago at the age of 17, in 1888, DePriest got an early education in politics before setting about making a fortune in Bronzeville real estate, buying apartment buildings from white owners and renting them (at somewhat elevated prices) to black tenants. He was elected county commissioner and alderman, and the most powerful black politician in Chicago, with the power to mobilize thousands of votes. Selected by Republican mayor Big Bill Thompson to run for US Congress, DePriest won election in 1929, the first black man to serve in Washington since Reconstruction, and the first from the north. There he worked to ban discrimination in government hiring and unsuccessfully attempted to pass anti-lynching bills, which were blocked by southern Democrats.
In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, New Deal Democrats swept the elections nationally, including Chicago. Suddenly black allegiance to the Republican Party had backfired. They were shut out of patronage jobs. More importantly to the policy men, they had lost their protection. In 1933, the Jones Brothers, the top policy wheel operators in the city, publicly switched their allegiance and began paying off Democrats. On the street, their men helped voters register as Democrats and get to the polls on election day. The party used job offers to convince other African Americans to change sides. Oscar DePriest lost his seat to a black Democrat in 1934. By 1940, Bronzeville was solidly in the Democratic column, despite the sometimes uneasy coalition with southern Jim Crow Dixiecrats.
Over the next 30 years, most of those southern white conservatives would switch to the Republicans and the remaining southern black Republicans would switch to the Democrats, completing the party reversal. The black vote has remained solidly Democratic for the last 75 years,.