Legacy of the Chicago Black Renaissance

Whenever I would hear the word “renaissance” only two things came to mind: Harlem and Europe, but a visit to the Schomburg changed that. As we mentioned in yesterday’s post if you are a NYC-based teacher then the Schomburg is the source for all things black. For me it has been absolutely vital to my own learning and development from my undergraduate days to now. So if you are about educating yourself and expanding your knowledge, then the Schomburg is a key resource for you.

So let’s go back to my knowledge of the term renaissance.  What I knew was basically what I was taught in school and that was certainly insufficient. The Schomburg hosts a series called, Conversations in Black Freedom Studies, which features various historians and scholars. In October, the panel came to speak on Northern Organizing and Cultural Renaissance. I was surprised to learn that Chicago had its own cultural movement, the Chicago Black Renaissance which lasted from roughly the 1930s to the 1960s. Professor Anne Meis Knupfer explains that like its Harlem counterpart this period in Chicago’s black history was a “…revitalization of the black expressive arts, especially music, art literature, theater and dance. It was also a period when Chicago black artists, scholars, teachers and activists drew from the cultural politics of pan-African identity, thereby expanding their social protests to include the worldwide exploitation of people of African descent.”


Knupfer documents this period in her book, The Chicago Black Renaissance and Women’s Activism, in which she examines how women activists organized and created solutions with and for their communities to address a broad range of social issues. I was most interested, of course, in understanding more about their work and impact on public education. Knupfer states of educators in Chicago during the time, “most black teachers were keenly aware of the discrimination and other problems faced by black students. One of their solutions was to create meaningful curricula in black history, literature and the arts.” So just as we recognize the challenges of this socio-political climate and what it means for our students, the teachers of the Chicago Black Renaissance did as well and took matters into their own hands.

These teacher activists weren’t waiting around for permission, they just got to work.  Elementary school teacher, Madeline Morgan is credited with designing black history units for her students, finding inspiration in the Chicago Negro Exposition of 1940.  She also was active in the DuSable History Club and eventually went on to expand her curriculum model throughout schools in Chicago. Morgan was not alone though, her colleagues like Roberta Bell also changed her instruction to center on black culture and achievement. Bell created black dolls of famous African Americans such as George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod-Bethune and Frederick Douglass to use with her students. Other teachers also incorporated cultural artifacts and created engaging activities and lessons. The black teachers ultimately took their curriculum a step further and opened a new school, the Howalton School which was based in a Chicago housing development. The teachers who taught there were committed to their students and they were progressive in their pedagogical approach.

howalton day school.jpg
Howalton Day School students on a field trip, circa 1966

The teachers and administrators had much to be proud of. In 1957, ten years after its opening, Howalton’s students had higher scores in math and reading compared to children attending Chicago’s other public schools.  Most importantly, teachers worked to engage the students intellectually with creative curriculum and meaningful community-based projects and experiences.

The legacy of the Chicago Black Renaissance and its teacher activists is our legacy.  The teachers of that era were culturally responsive educators before the term was even coined.  They were woke, conscious, unapologetically black and immersed in their racial and cultural pride. And best of all they saw possibilities in spite of problems, they saw solutions regardless of segregation and they remained determined to educate and nurture, even while the world around them said their students were not equal or even worthy.


And don’t forget that our CREAD Commandments help us to follow in the example of our forbearers so that we can meet the needs of our students. As we continue with you on this journey, be encouraged by our shared history, our legacy of activism and social justice and keep educating yourself in spirit of our ancestors and for the sake of our liberation.  Oh before I go, please find some links to resources that you can use to learn more about Chicago and our contributions to its history.


Black Chicago Renaissance, this site features great information and lesson ideas for teachers to learn more about the history, literature and activism of this period.

Jean Baptiste Du Sable, founder of Chicago

DuSable Museum of African American History

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Peace good people.


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