Double Take: A Research Journey to 1941 Chicago

Every research journey starts with a question! Just such a question sparked this entry of Double Take, the occasional series where we dig a little deeper into an image in our collections. This photo of a young African American boy in the Farm Security Administration (FSA) Collection sent me on a journey 79 years in the past and about 600 miles northwest of here, to 1941 Chicago.

The question was a simple one – the answer less so:  Did we know – or could we determine the street address where this photo was taken?

Child in front of apartment building in the better section of the Black Belt, Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Edwin Rosskam, 1941. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a15807

Child in front of apartment building in the better section of the Black Belt, Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Edwin Rosskam, 1941. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a15807

Detail of Child in front of apartment building in the better section of the Black Belt, Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Edwin Rosskam, 1941. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a15807.

Detail of Child in front of apartment building in the better section of the Black Belt, Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Edwin Rosskam, 1941. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a15807.

I looked very closely at the photograph, zoomed in on every detail. As far as physical street address the best info we have is the 5420-18 painted on the glass front door and the metal 54 attached to the stonework next to the door, as seen in the detail at right.

Now to review the caption provided by the photographer, Edwin Rosskam: Child in front of apartment building in the better section of the Black Belt, Chicago, Illinois.

So, what can I learn about the location from that written information? I can confirm a city: Chicago, Illinois. And a piece of information that will take a little more research: “the better section of the Black Belt.” I’ve heard of the Black Belt, an area of Chicago where many African Americans from the South moved during the decades of the Great Migration, both for better job opportunities and to escape the restrictions of Jim Crow laws. Housing covenants effectively segregated African Americans into this area, which grew over time and was also referred to by other names, including Bronzeville. So, I have now at least cut the possible location down to a smaller slice of the city.

What other help can I find? This photograph was made from a 35mm negative, a frame on a strip of film, as indicated in the Medium field of the catalog record. Under the photo in the catalog record, you can see this link: Browse neighboring items by call number. In this case, selecting the link gives me the other frames on the same strip of film with the image in question, indicating they are from right before or after this photo. In the results of this search, one image catches my attention, marked by the yellow arrow. It is on the same strip of film and a mere two frames away, suggesting the photographer might have taken it the same day and possibly nearby:

Search results including negative numbers: LC-USF33-005171-M2 through LC-USF33-005171-M4 (The 5171 in this case indicates a single strip of film, the M numbers are frames on that strip.)

Nightclub, beauty shop, public baths and entrance to apartment, Black Belt, Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Edwin Rosskam, 1941 Apr. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a15809

Nightclub, beauty shop, public baths and entrance to apartment, Black Belt, Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Edwin Rosskam, 1941 Apr. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a15809

The photo includes a nightclub, a beauty shop and public baths. Two things are key in the photo: a street number of 5450 (very close to 5420 of the photo in question) and the name of the club in the window: It Club. A search of a database of Chicago newspapers for the It Club provides a number of results, including one from 1937 stating the club was at Michigan and Garfield Boulevard. The ad is for an African American singer, and so this all aligns with the night club being in the Black Belt as well. A modern map indicates the intersection of Michigan and Garfield Boulevard is within the historic boundaries of the Black Belt and more importantly, the address of the corner of S. Michigan Avenue is 5450 S. Michigan Avenue, a match for the street number on the awning in the photo at right!

All of these clues taken together suggest the “5420” behind the boy is because he is reading in front of 5420 S. Michigan Avenue.

I took the opportunity to look at a modern street view of that area and while the buildings in these two photos are both gone, other buildings on that block of S. Michigan Avenue are architecturally consistent with the buildings in these and other adjacent photos, which further supports the conclusion. Further research would undoubtedly discover other photos of this street, providing further confirmation.

The answer to a research question is often a collection of puzzle pieces found in different ways and in different sources, that when taken together form a more complete picture, and quite literally in this case!

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2 Comments

  1. Cheryl Davis
    February 14, 2020 at 9:49 pm

    Thank you for providing this wonderful research path for one of my favorite photos in the Farm Security Administration collection. My husband grew up on the South Side and although the boy in this photo is a few years his senior I always wondered how close this compelling photo’s location was to the place my husband grew up.

  2. paul gottlieb
    February 23, 2020 at 12:24 pm

    Seems to me that the research might have yielded more important information if time was spent looking into the phrase “better section” of the Black Belt.
    Who were the people living on Michigan Ave as compared to those living on the South Side? Are there current reverberations of this division?
    Thanks for the photos.

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