This post is written by 2015 Platzman Research Fellow Oenone Kubie. Kubie is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford. She visited SCRC this past summer to consult the papers of Ernest Burgess, Grace and Edith Abbott, Julius Rosenwald, Robert Park, and others, for a study of “Boys’ Street Culture in Chicago, 1900-1929.” Below is her reflection on her time using some of these collections and their relation to her dissertation. To apply for this year’s Platzman Fellowship, apply by February 15.
On the face of it, one would probably expect the source base for my project, Boys’ Street Culture in Early Twentieth Century Chicago, to be extremely limited. Piecing together and examining the experiences and subcultures of Chicago’s working-class and immigrant boys of a century ago may be interesting, but surely this subclass of an already disadvantaged class must be all but invisible in the archives. After all, one must often read archival material against the grain to conduct a history of the childhood of even the wealthiest and most affluent families. It is lucky for me, then, that I am far from the first scholar to be interested in the lives of early twentieth century Chicago’s boys.
The archives at the Regenstein Library are full of the research and reports conducted by Chicago School sociologists, much of it regarding the lives of working class and immigrant children. The favoured method of research, at least by the 1920s, was the life history. Life histories were biographies of individual cases from which, scholars hoped, broad trends could be identified. They were collected either through interviews or by asking individuals to write their own autobiographies, usually with the aid of prompt questions. Of course, these sources come with a whole host of methodological problems – from the power relations of the interviewer and subject to the typicality of the boys’ lives – all of which are compounded by the fact that the subjects are either children or they are adults reminiscing about a childhood ten, twenty, or more years ago. Nonetheless, used critically and in conjunction with other sources, these life histories are undeniably among the most useful sources for projects like mine. The stories they tell are rich with detail and are moving, captivating, and even amusing.
Here let us look briefly at just one life history: the story of a nine year old Mexican-American boy, growing up in Chicago in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Manuel (almost certainly not his real name) was the child to Mexican immigrants. He was born in 1924 and moved to Chicago at the age of 2. In Chicago, Manuel and his family moved every couple of years between different neighbourhoods. Firstly they moved to Brighton Park, then when Manuel was four, to Little Village, two years later they returned to Brighton Park and, three years after that (1933), to the boundary between Pilsen and Little Italy. These areas now all have large Mexican-American communities, and are still known as common ports of entry to immigrants from Mexico.
Manuel’s story attests to what life was like as a young Mexican-American in Chicago in the early twentieth century. Manuel thought of himself as different to both the “white” and the “colored” boys: a distinction both groups seemed keen to enforce. When Manuel and his family moved to Little Village, Manuel remembered that he was one of very few Mexican boys in the neighbourhood at that time. He recalls that he was lonely, the white boys not allowing him to play with them. Later, he would go to the Foster School in Little Italy where, Manuel claimed, the Mexican boys had to group together or they risked being beaten by the African-American boys. Manuel wrote of his equal dislike of the black children saying that, although he occasionally played with some, they were mean and lied a lot. On the other hand, Manuel dreamt of becoming a white boy: “Sometimes I even don’t like myself. I would like to be a white boy and look like Ken Maynard”. Maynard came from champion rodeo riding to become one of the most popular actors in early the Westerns of the twenties and thirties. To Manuel, and others, he symbolised adventure, virile masculinity, but also desirable whiteness which Manuel consciously contrasted to his own, Mexican heritage.
Manuel wrote of his relationship with his Mexican heritage by talking of his Spanish-speaking parents. He could speak, read and write Spanish but, despite his mother and father often playing them, Manuel knew no Mexican songs. Instead, he preferred songs such as ‘Shuffle off to Buffalo’ (the soundtrack to 42nd Street, a popular musical from 1933). Manuel was particularly scathing of his mother who spoke no English: “My mother knows nothing about American things. She only knows about Mexico. I know more about things than she does”. Despite this, Manuel is keen to follow the career his parents want for him and to become an artist. His story ends with a couple of drawings, one of an ‘Indian’ and one of a sailor.
Manuel’s life history was probably taken in 1933 or 1934. What became of Manuel afterwards, I don’t know, however, he would have turned 18 in the summer of 1942 and, thus, would probably have been drafted into the US Armed Forces. This life history is just one of hundreds the Chicago School sociologists took in the twenties and thirties although one from just a handful of Mexican-American boys asked to participate. Nonetheless, Manuel’s story demonstrates the capacity these histories have to share the experiences of those whose voices are typically missing in the historical record. We can get a glimpse of Manuel’s life, his relationships, his struggles and his hopes.
I’m excited to look over the material I have gathered during my summer at the University of Chicago and am grateful to the Special Collections at the Regenstein Library for funding my trip through the Robert L. Platzman Memorial Fellowship and also to the staff for the help they offered me while I was visiting the archives.
 ‘Case no. A by Edward M. Haddon’, Burgess, Ernest, Papers, [Box 134, folder 4], Special Collections Research Centre, University of Chicago Library