A House for the Struggle: The Black Press & the Built Environment in Chicago

by E. James West, University of Illinois Press, 2022, 296 pp.
Paperback, $24.95. ISBN: 978-0-2520-8639-2

In A House for the Struggle, E. James West details the birth and progress of Black press in the city of Chicago. He builds an immersive world through the use of archival records, personal accounts, and oral histories of the major personalities and institutions which became the nexus of Black journalism. This world is pitted against the backdrop of the American historical context of racial exclusion and the one-sided portrayal of diverse voices in a multicultural society. The result is a clean depiction of the birth and continuing development of Black journalistic culture despite the economic hardships and issues of white press ambivalence and Black literary legitimacy that colored the period of the work from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s.

West takes a storied approach to the retelling of the creation of Black media houses from their humble beginnings in apartment complexes (such as The Conservator) to the large architectural edifices (in the case of Ebony Magazine) that became the embodiment of the struggle for a more balanced type of journalism that would highlight the issues facing African Americans and their strides toward plausible solutions while also giving a true depiction of the diversity of Black culture in everyday life.

Although this work follows a chronological history of development, West insightfully uses The Chicago Defender as an underlying theme throughout the book to measure the ongoing development and changes over time in the writing styles and the targeted audiences of Black media houses. This ranged from the extremely radical pages of Muhammad Speaks to the writings highlighting race pride and Black business of The Half-Century and later the eventual settling into articles that not only highlighted the Black community in America but also become influential news sources throughout the African diaspora worldwide. In chapter 1, West examines the genesis and foundations of Black journalistic culture in Chicago. There were several seeds from which the Black media house was birthed in nineteenth-century Chicago. A most important factor was the underrepresentation of Black artistry and enterprise during the Columbian Exposition, better known as Chicago’s World Fair in 1893. The major exclusion of African Americans from the fair caused the creation of a privately sponsored section of the fair, called the Midway, which prominently featured Black culture.

This area became the center of racially charged reporting by the major news outlets in Chicago, such as The Tribune. It was under the conditions of unbalanced and negative press coverage and continuing public outcry by Black activists and journalists that the city’s first African American newspaper, The Conservator, was founded. The creation of this newspaper inspired other budding journalists to establish modest media houses of their own, such as the Broad Ax and the Illinois’ Idea. However, the most notable was Robert Sengstacke Abbott, who founded The Chicago Defender in his tiny Chicagoan Southside apartment with the ambition that the newspaper “would fight for Black rights and help to expose instances of racial injustice”(25). As the newspaper industry and its success grew, so did its need for space. Although this was not without its challenges, the foundation of the Black media house in Chicago was laid.

Chapter 2 focuses on the rising influence of Black media houses through the buildings they would eventually occupy in South Chicago. The Chicago Bee building, the new headquarters of the Defender, and the Overton Hygienic Building were main edifices discussed throughout the chapter. The buildings demonstrated the publishing and financial power of these enterprises during the period between the late 1910s and mid-1930s. The quest for more physical visibility was as difficult as maintaining ideological supremacy over Black readers, since “Black publications served a mainly supplemental role that helped to offset the racial myopia of white media coverage” (59).

This would soon change as efforts to center Black media houses within the cultural and geographical heart of Black Chicago helped to entrench the prominence of the press. Moreover, the choice of architectural finish for press headquarters sent a clear message to readers about the expectations of these publications. Although the Great Depression thwarted economic growth, it became a small bastion of opportunity for the press to reestablish itself as part of cultural and geographical nexus of the community.

Chapters 3 and C 4 detail the beginnings of the Johnson Publishing Company and the establishment of Ebony Magazine. The Defender played an influential role in attracting John H. Johnson to the city with the dream to start a media house of his own. However, the magazine’s slant would revolutionize the way African American culture was portrayed and received by readers across the country as well as worldwide. This perspective would put distance between Ebony and the Defender with the latter’s transition to a daily newspaper. The use of advertisements which showcased lighter skinned African Americans would prove problematic, but it highlighted the greater need for streamlining of Black press content to portray the diversity
and excellence within the African American community.

The final chapters depict the further development of the Defender and Ebony as mainstays in Black press culture with the creation of their flagship architectural edifices away from the heart of South Chicago. Although these buildings became the physical depiction of resistance and Black radicalism, they were also meeting places to unify the community. The post-World War II and early Civil Rights era was the fertile breeding ground for a new type of Black press radicalism, with the establishment of such outlets as Muhammad Speaks and the Black Panther. This contentious period forced the Defender and Ebony to broaden their journalistic scope both on the page and in their offices, diversifying staff and giving life to media houses that were truly representative of the people and their culture. The book ends by reiterating the development of the press from its humble beginnings: that this development became the most powerful symbol of Black progress in the creation of a modern-day American city—Chicago.

Janelle Duke, University of the West Indies