Illinois Writers Project: "Negro in Illinois" Digital Collection

CPL's Digital Collections document life in Chicago through archival images, documents and artifacts.

WPA research project on juvenile delinquency staff in the basement of Good Shepherd Church, circa 1939. Source: Horace R. Cayton Papers, photo 016


The Illinois Writers Project: ”Negro in Illinois” Papers contain research notes, transcripts, oral histories and original manuscripts intended to present a history of African Americans in Illinois from roughly the late 18th century to the early 20th century.

As part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Illinois Writers Project, within the Works Progress Administration, created a special division with over a hundred researchers tasked with documenting the African American experience in Illinois from 1779 to 1942. Poet Arna Bontemps and writer Jack Conroy supervised the study. Among the notables who participated were Richard Wright, Fenton Johnson, Kitty Chapelle and Robert Lucas.

Topics included enslavement of African Americans, abolition, religion, politics, sports, social life, music, theater and art.

Destined to be published in book form with the title “The Negro in Illinois,” the research ended when the government canceled the project in 1942. Chicago Public Library’s first African American branch head, Vivian G. Harsh, agreed to house a large portion of the research in her “Special Negro Collection” at CPL’s George Cleveland Hall Branch.

The Illinois Writers Project collection is housed in the Vivian G. Harsh Collection of Afro-American History and Literature at Woodson Regional Library.

Questions or concerns about rights and access to this digital collection? See our Copyright and Takedown Policy.

This digital collection is made possible by a generous Illinois History-Digital Imaging Grant (awarded in 2018) from the Illinois State Library, Office of the Illinois Secretary of State.

Acknowledgment of Harmful Materials

Chicago Public Library collects images, documents and other archival materials from different communities and time periods to preserve and make available the cultural and historical record. As historical objects, some of these materials contain harmful or disturbing content. CPL presents these artifacts as an unfiltered social record and does not endorse the views expressed therein.

Related CPL Collections

Related External Resources

African American Chicago History Blog Posts

Back to Top