Skip to main content

From Riots to Renaissance: The Black Renaissance

Chicago's Black Renaissance painter

Margaret Burroughs is a printermaker, painter, and sculptor who founded the South Side Community Arts Center, a community organization that serves as a gallery and workshop studio for artists and students, and the DuSable Museum of African American History. Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature.

From Riots to Renaissance: The Black Renaissance

The cultural flowering of Harlem between 1917 and 1935 has been internationally recognized for its impact on American arts and culture. In Chicago, a powerful but lesser-known creative force emerged on the South Side during the 1930s and continued through the 1950s. Chicago's Black Renaissance produced visual artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals who explored new definitions of the black aesthetic, experimented with style, and delivered compelling portrayals of black life brimming with complexity.

The Black Renaissance was formed by seismic social and cultural changes that engulfed Chicago's black community, beginning with the Great Migration when tens of thousands of Southern blacks flooded into the city. Life for migrants on the segregated South Side could be harsh. Overcrowding, joblessness, and poverty were a fact of life. Later, the Great Depression also battered black Chicago. However, out of these two events came new ideas and community institutions. Racial pride and a new black consciousness emerged and political thought shifted toward activism.

Social and cultural institutions provided strong support for the community's artistic efforts. Lectures, readings, and discussion groups were frequently offered. Theater troupes explored works by black playwrights. Art was put on public display. Jazz, blues, and new gospel music inspired artists' work. Collaborative undertakings, such as The South Side Writers Group, founded by Richard Wright and Margaret Walker, provided collegial support and critical feedback to a core group of Renaissance writers.

Newspapers and magazines, such as the Chicago Defender, Chicago Sunday Bee, Negro Story Magazine, and Negro Digest, also played an important role in the cultivation and spread of literature during the Renaissance. These publications showcased work by established authors, provided jobs for writers as journalists, and encouraged emerging writers by printing their work.

During the Depression, and early years of World War II, artists received critical financial support from such federal agencies as the Works Progress Association (WPA). Federal funding and projects were critical to the development of the Renaissance writers; they gave writers and other artists platforms from which they could express themselves and the opportunity to develop as professionals.

The dynamic creativity of the Black Renaissance placed Chicago at the center of urban African-American art, blues and jazz, dance, theater, literature, and sociological study during a changing time in American history.

South Side Community Arts Center

Community Arts Center

A poetry reading at the South Side Community Art Center, 1942. (Source: Library of Congress)

Out of more than 100 community arts centers established by the WPA during the Depression, the South Side Community Arts Center (SSCAC), located at 3831 South Michigan Avenue,is the only one still in existence. In the 1930s and 1940s, the SSCAC provided lectures, classes, and workshops for adults and children. Because few downtown art galleries presented the work of black artists, the SSCAC mounted exhibits and developed a national reputation for these showcases. The people and programs at the center were a tremendous influence on the artists, teachers, and students who passed through the building. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks, photographer Gordon Parks, and artists Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles Seebree, and Jonathan Green are just a few of the artists who worked, lived, or studied at the center and went on to achieve national and international acclaim. The South Side Community Arts Center's legacy in arts and social activism continues to ripple through the city of Chicago and the nation.

Cavalcade of the American Negro

Book cover for Cavalcade of the American Negro

Cavalcade of the American Negro is a book celebrating the rich and extensive history of black contributions to American life from 1865 to 1940. Produced by participants in the Illinois Writers' Project and edited by Arna Bontemps, the book was published for distribution at the 1940 Diamond Jubilee Exposition held in Chicago in honor of the 75 anniversary of the abolition of slavery. (Source: Illinois Digital Library)

Marion Perkins, sculptor

Artist Marion Perkins's son, Useni Perkins, and Useni's daughter, Julia Perkins, describe the sculptor's life, explore his beliefs, and celebrate his art.

Vivian Harsh

Vivian Gordon Harsh

Vivian Gordon Harsh, librarian Chicago Public Library, George Cleveland Hall Branch. (Source: Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature)

Vivian G. Harsh, the first African American to head a branch of the Chicago Public Library, was instrumental in the civic and social cultivation the Black Renaissance. After being influenced by her participation in The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, founded by Carter G. Woodson, Hall dedicated herself to collecting literary works by African Americans. She also created ongoing programs and forums at the George Cleveland Hall Branch Library to promote cultural and intellectual pursuits for residents on the South Side. Hall's strong commitment to black history led to the development of a "Special Negro Collection," which was nationally known by the 1930s. Today, the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature continues to grow and expand under the stewardship of the Chicago Public Library Woodson Regional Branch staff.

Artists of the Black Renaissance

A partial list of artists involved in Chicago's Black Renaissance.

Henry Avery - painter

Arna Bontemps - author

Gwendolyn Brooks - poet

Oscar Brown, Jr. - entertainer

William Carter - artist

Elizabeth Catlett - artist

Nat King Cole - singer

John Wesley "Jack" Conroy - writer

Eldzier Cortor - artist and printmaker

Charles Davis - artist

Frank Marshall Davis - poet

Charles Dawson - artist

Katherine Dunham - dancer

Walter Ellison - painter

Ramon Gabriel - artist

Margaret Goss Burroughs - artist

Bernard Goss - painter

Fred Hollingsworth - artist

Langston Hughes - writer

Hughie Lee-Smith - artist

Archibald Motley, Jr. - painter

Gordon Parks - photographer

Charles Sebree - painter

Marion Perkins - sculptor

Margaret Walker - writer

Charles White - painter

Vernon Winslow - painter

Richard Wright - writer

Langston Hughes on the Influence of Blues Music

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

Acclaimed poet Langston Hughes talks with noted author and radio host Studs Terkel about the dramatic influence blues music has had on his poetry.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

Source: Chicago History Museum

Gwendolyn Brooks was a poet and writer from Chicago who was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize (1950), served as Illinois Poet Laureate (1968 – 2000) and was The Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1985-1986).