Brian Dolinar is a scholar of African American literature and culture from the Depression era. He is the editor of The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers. We asked him some questions about this unique project of scholarly recovery.
Q: How did you learn about the existence of these WPA papers?
Brian Dolinar: When I moved to Urbana-Champaign, Illinois in 2004, it didn’t take long to hear about the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection in Chicago, the major archive of African American literature and history in the Midwest. Upon first visiting the library, I found out that they had a large cache of papers by Arna Bontemps, an African American writer who is today little known, but was praised for his poetry during the Harlem Renaissance, wrote two novels during the Depression, and was a close friend of Langston Hughes. When librarians brought out the first of some 50 boxes of materials from a WPA project headed by Bontemps and co-editor Jack Conroy, I quickly realized I had come across a treasure trove of African American history. I soon became determined to publish The Negro in Illinois, one of the long lost manuscripts of the Black Chicago Renaissance.
Q: Why were these documents abandoned for such a long time?
Dolinar: In 1942, the WPA was shut down as funding was diverted to World War II. There was an attempt to publish what was referred to in letters as a “finished” manuscript, but at that time there was no interest in the publishing industry for a portrait of African Americans in the “Land of Lincoln.” When Bontemps and Conroy rewrote much of the material to produce They Seek A City (1945), a compelling book about the Great Migration more generally, the WPA papers became scattered apart. When I found them, one third of the original 29 chapters were missing. Numerous scholars have utilized the papers, but the task of reconstructing the text had up to this point been too daunting.
Q: Was there a particular piece of the “puzzle” of these papers that was hard to track down?
Dolinar: I had read accounts of a study into what were then called black “cults” and storefront churches supervised by Katherine Dunham, the dancer and anthropologist. WPA writers had conducted some of the earliest studies of black nationalist groups like the Nation of Islam, and Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple. In an outline by Bontemps there was a chapter titled “What Is Africa to Me?” but it was missing. I visited the papers of Jack Conroy, who took over the study when Dunham left, and found several missing chapters, draft chapters, and source material for the chapter on black nationalism, but not the final version. I looked through WPA collections in Springfield, Illinois, and Washington D.C., but still had no luck. Next, I journeyed to Syracuse University which holds the papers of Arna Bontemps, and there I found the last of the missing chapters including “What Is Africa to Me?”
Q: This was the first-ever attempt to present a comprehensive social history of African Americans in Illinois. What historical elements of the African American experience were overlooked at the time?
Dolinar: Authors of The Negro in Illinois aimed to show that since its earliest beginnings, African Americans have been present in Illinois. To prove this point, they began with the story of Jean Baptiste DuSable, the first permanent settler of what would become Chicago—and a black man?a notion that had been met with much resistance by city leaders. Slavery was officially banned in Illinois, although few know about the Black Laws that denied basic rights to African Americans. Many passengers on the Underground Railroad travelled through Illinois, most entering along the Mississippi River, with the goal of reaching Chicago, said to be a “sink hole of abolitionism.” Among these abolitionists was John Jones, a successful black tailor and a personal friend of John Brown. The authors offer a new interpretation of Abraham Lincoln by looking at the life of his black friend William de Fleurville, or “Billy the Barber,” who was from Haiti. They cover the career of Ida B. Wells who led an international campaign against lynching, but also fought injustice locally, condemning racial prejudice during the 1919 race riot in Chicago, working with social reformer Jane Addams, and running for Illinois state senate. Chapters also document the crippling effects of the Depression on African Americans, particularly in work, health, and housing. The final chapters on literature, music, and theater will be some of the most interesting for readers, as they reveal the cultural roots of the Black Chicago Renaissance and tell of the many influential figures who first made a name for themselves in Chicago like Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, Big Bill Broonzy, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Oscar Micheaux, and Richard Wright, who had by then attained “major stature.”
Q: This WPA project was not only important as a historical documentation, but also provided some African American writers a boost in their own careers. Who are some notable figures that worked on the project and how did it bolster their futures?
Dolinar: Scholars are starting to recognize that the center for African American literature shifted in the 1930s from New York to Chicago, where several young writers first got their start on the WPA. The best example is Richard Wright, who had been involved in left-wing writing circles in Chicago and only published a few poems when he was hired on the WPA in 1935. Not long after, he achieved literary stardom with his novels Native Son and Black Boy. Margaret Walker lied about her age to get on the WPA where she worked for three years before going on to write her celebrated poem “For My People” and publish her bestselling novel Jubilee. Katherine Dunham was on the WPA before moving to New York to pursue her dancing career. Frank Yerby worked under Dunham on the study of “black cults” and later became successful writing several popular novels. Richard Durham, before creating his popular radio series “Destination Freedom,” contributed to a WPA study of the black press. Older writers like the little known black poet Fenton Johnson, who published his books of poetry in the 1910s and started two literary journals in the 1920s, were also able sustain their writing careers during the Depression by working on the WPA. The WPA provided much-needed experience and encouragement for these black writers who were otherwise shunned by the American “free” press.