Book Chat: Q&A with Maggie Garb

Maggie Garb is associate professor in the Department of History and author of Freedom's Ballot: African American Political Struggles in Chicago from Abolition to the Great Migration, published by the University of Chicago Press in April 2014.


How do you finish this sentence: Freedom’s Ballot is the story of _________?

It’s the story of three generations of African-American activists fighting for representation and fighting to create a black constituency in Chicago.

There are a couple of arguments in the book. One is that politics matters; politics makes a difference in people’s lives; local political conditions matter. We need to understand the local to understand how politics works.

The other is that this is a moment, at the turn of the 20th century, when northern black activists were crucial in making race an essential dividing force in urban politics. That lasted into the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s not that race didn’t matter before, but that rather than thinking of themselves as supporters of the Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln, northern black activists were arguing that black people needed to think about race rather than party when they think about voting.

Are you from Chicago?

No, but my first job out of college was in Chicago, working for a wire service called the City News Bureau of Chicago. It’s now out of business, but at the time it was about a hundred years old and was jointly owned by the [Chicago] Tribune and the  [Chicago] Sun-Times. It was before minute-by-minute communication, so wire services were more important. It was the frontline reporting of all of the major events of the city. I was a police reporter. Every time there was a dead body, a fire, a drowning, a shooting, a car accident in my area of the city, I had to go check it out and call in a story. I learned Chicago really well — intensely and quickly.

Where does your interest in politics come from?

My first book [City of American Dreams: A History of Home Ownership and Housing Reform, Chicago 1871–1919] was about Chicago. For my second book, I wanted to use the same archives but to think about the city from a slightly different angle. I thought that my first book didn’t take politics seriously enough and didn’t take on urban politics in the way I should have. I wanted to go back and do it this time around.

I grew up in a family [in Bucks County, Penn.] that was very involved in politics. My parents were very politically active in our local community. Politics was talked about all the time. That was part of my interest, wanting to think more seriously about how politics works locally and what’s at stake in getting involved in local politics.

The other question I was really interested in is, How does a small, marginalized group of people become politically engaged, or gain a place at the table.

I’ve also become more interested in urban space as a force in society — to understand urban space not just as the backdrop of a story or the local color but as an actual force in shaping and being shaped by social conflict or political struggles.

In a word, how would you describe Chicago politics?

Messy. Complicated. Muddled. Notice I’m not saying “corrupt,” because I don’t think it’s always corrupt, though there has been tons of corruption.

What would people outside your field enjoy about your book?

I love the characters in this book. Ida Wells is this wonderful figure, an anti-lynching crusader, an amazing political organizer, but also incredibly difficult to be around, from what I’ve read. There’s a minister, Archibald Cary, who was a great organizer, a self-promoter, but probably not the best person. Oscar De Priest, the first black alderman elected to the Chicago City Council, is a really charming, charismatic figure, but he also was probably deeply corrupt. Ida Wells, I worship, but the rest of them were really ambitious — self-promoting as much as they were promoting “the race.” They weren’t clear good guys or bad guys. There were all these saloon keepers and gambling heads who did a lot to promote black politics but also were involved in vice and the underworld. I like that. They were very real and very human to me.

It’s a part of Chicago history that’s largely untold. There’s not a lot on black Chicago before the race riot of 1919. When I had finished the book and was looking for photos, I thought, “I’ll just go to Chicago for a couple of days and find a million pictures and it will be no big deal.” What I discovered is that there are very few newspaper photos of black people or street scenes taken on the south side of the “black belt” before the race riot. There were none of South State Street. It was shocking to me.

Did anything surprise you in your research?

The big insight I got as I was thinking about all of the characters’ flaws was that all they could do was build on what they knew, build on the past. They didn’t know that the civil rights movement was coming; they didn’t know that there were more militant and sharper critiques of race and racism in America. It really struck me how people construct their identities and politics based on their understanding of the past — because they don’t know the future. All they knew was that Reconstruction had failed and that Jim Crow and lynching was taking place across the South and the North. That seems kind of obvious, but it was powerful when I was looking at them, knowing this future that they couldn’t possibly have known.