‘Black Metropolis’: How It Helps Us Understand Urban America Today

What Is ‘Black Metropolis’?

In 1945 two American sociologists—St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton Jr.—published Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. The book, based on extensive research conducted on and within Chicago’s Black community, is considered a foundational work on the subject of African American sociology and cultural studies.

Black Metropolis has influenced generations of scholars and activists and is a key resource for investigating the impact of redlining, racial bias in medical-care decision-making tools, and the history of lending discrimination in the United States.


  • In 1945 two American sociologists—St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton Jr.—published the book Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, an examination of Chicago’s Black community based on extensive research.
  • Black Metropolis is divided into two parts: first, a history of Chicago’s Black communities and, second, a description of many aspects of the urban society created in this segregated area.
  • The book has influenced generations of scholars and activists and is a key resource for investigating the ongoing impact of racial bias in urban society.

‘Black Metropolis’ Explained

Research for Black Metropolis was initially funded through a program in the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a key New Deal agency that was charged with studying race relations and the structure of the African American family.1 Drake and Cayton supplemented their WPA research with additional findings from the 1940s to publish the book in 1945, but they continued to collect material and published expanded and updated versions until the 1960s.2

Throughout these various editions, the structure of Black Metropolis remained largely unchanged. The first part of the book sketches a history of Chicago’s Black communities. It opens in 1900, when Black residents of the city—numbering nearly 30,000—were already segregated in the Near South Side of the city.3 After the end of World War I in 1918, and the consequent Great Migration, the Black population of the city rapidly increased.

Within two years, more than four-fifths of Chicago’s Black population resided in a segregated area. It was in this area that the fieldwork for Black Metropolis was conducted.

In the second half of the book, Drake and Cayton describe many aspects of the urban society created in this segregated area. Over the course of a dozen chapters, each concerned with a different aspect of the social, cultural, and business community of Black Chicago, the authors put forward a hypothesis that (at the time) was quite radical: The Black metropolis of the city had an institutional structure resembling that of European immigrants and native-born Whites.

A Coherent, Dynamic Community

The radicalism of Black Metropolis lay in its depiction of a Black community that was internally coherent, in which many people shared the same values, and which—at least by some measures—was successful. The area the authors investigated was commonly called Bronzeville and was viewed by many as an alternative Black cultural capital to Harlem in New York City.

This Black metropolis was a product not only of discrimination, redlining, and segregation but also of the hard work and ingenuity of its inhabitants. African American workers’ prosperity during the 1920s was primarily the result of the dire need for their labor.4 This changed, however, when the Great Depression hit, and many African American workers were released from the factory jobs that they’d had since the end of World War I. Unemployment became common, and individuals sought work wherever they could find it. Many banks in the South Side ghetto of Chicago were also closed.

Drake and Cayton also discovered significant tensions within the Black metropolis—most notably between Black residents whose families had lived in Chicago for decades and those whose families had moved to the city during the Great Migration. The community, despite appearing relatively homogeneous from the outside, was in fact separated by class, color, and education, mixing the «Old Settlers» elite with migrants from the rural Deep South. Ongoing tensions also existed between the community and its neighbors—both Whites and other ethnicities—stemming from what Drake and Cayton called «the struggle for living space.»5

Impact of ‘Black Metropolis’

The impact of Black Metropolis has been vast and wide-ranging. Many of the dynamics that Drake and Cayton first identified in Chicago are key elements to understanding the Black experience in urban America today.6

One dynamic is the speed at which the demands made on Black communities can change. Just as the factory jobs available to the community evaporated very quickly in the 1920s, the demand for tech skills is increasing at a similar pace in our modern age. Another is that, though the concept of a Black metropolis stresses that urban Blacks often form a shared culture, tensions remain within these communities because the arrival of newcomers often gives rise to new systems of class and cultural formation.

These differences became pronounced for Bronzeville’s Black inhabitants in the 1920s, especially regarding activities that were «intimately connected with economic status, education, and social standing.»7 As such, «the socialization of the migrants represented a ‘trial’ for the race.»8 The Depression made the entire city conscious of the Black metropolis, Drake and Cayton observed, and it became «good copy for the white press.»9

These observations have become particularly relevant recently, as many Black business owners and students have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Research suggests, for example, that 73% of Black students have found the remote learning environments imposed during COVID-19 less valuable to them than in-person teaching environments.10

Black-owned businesses have also been hit hard financially while receiving comparatively less help from the government than White-owned businesses. Black businesses in New York City, for example, were among the hardest hit by the government-imposed lockdowns. Despite this, fewer than 15% of Black-owned businesses in the city received PPP loans, though 63% applied for them.11 These findings make it clear that discrimination and the racial wealth gap continue to affect the formation and sustainability of contemporary Black metropolises.

Drake and Cayton identified five overwhelming concerns of the entirety of Chicago’s Black community: staying alive, having a good time, praising God, getting ahead, and advancing the race.12

Criticism of ‘Black Metropolis’

Although widely praised and appreciated, Black Metropolis has also incurred some criticism in the decades since its publication. James R. Grossman, for example, argued in 1991 that “Chicago’s Black establishment encouraged and assisted migrants partly out of sheer self-interest. Politicians, businessmen, and newspaper publishers recognized that the newcomers represented voters, customers, readers, and a potential population boom which could swell the prestige of Black Chicago both in the city and in Black America…The relationship between individual accomplishments, community prosperity and power, and racial progress placed the migrants at center stage.”13

Grossman goes on to describe the many ways in which Chicago’s existing Black community facilitated the rising demand for housing, welfare, and social structures required by the newcomers because existing White charitable organizations failed to accept Black clients. This suggests, to some degree, a more cohesive community throughout Chicago’s Black population than was depicted in Black Metropolis.

By delineating a uniquely Black cultural milieu for the first time, Black Metropolis gave sociologists and anthropologists a way of differentiating the Black experience from that of other races and ethnicities and began a process of investigation that continues to the present. It remains a key text in understanding the contemporary Black urban experience and the challenges that Black-owned companies face today.

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