Unexpected Chicago: Blue Books

February 14th, 2011by Joy BivinsFiled under: Collections

Black’s Blue Book: A Directory of Chicago’s Active Colored People and Guide to their Activities, 1917

Scott’s Blue Book: A Classified Business and Service Directory of Greater Chicago’s Colored Citizen’s Commercial, Industrial, Professional, Religious and Other Activities, 1947

Don’t judge a book by its cover. These seemingly plain books help to document the spectacular growth of Chicago’s African American community in the early decades of the 20th century. When Ford Black published his directory in 1917, the city’s black population was relatively small but, along with other northern cities, in the early years of a population boom so significant it became known as the Great Migration. Between 1916 and 1919, tens of thousands of southern blacks headed north to Chicago seeking jobs and refuge from the brutality of Jim Crow racism. Directories such as Black’s Blue Book helped newcomers and established Chicagoans locate practically any service they needed, providing not only the names and locations of businesses but churches and social organizations.

In the decades that followed, Chicago’s African American population continued to grow despite residential restrictions that kept the community segregated. By the publication of the 1947 edition of Scott’s Blue Book, Chicago was a bona fide “black metropolis”—home to some of the nation’s most successful black businesses and professionals. Scott’s Blue Book featured those businesses, both big and small, and also documented the growth and decline of staple businesses, such as grocery stores and barber shops, within the African American community. Like Black’s before it, Scott’s Blue Book also included features on prominent business people and highlighted the accomplishments of black Chicagoans.

At the time of publication, these directories, and others like them, were resources that helped black Chicagoans locate a salon, a church, or even neighborhood policemen. Today, the unassuming books offer a glimpse of a community’s growth and evidence of what they created.

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