Lily Cozzens

Some of author Richard Wright’s most famous works, such as Native Son, are set in Chicago. He moved here in 1927, at the age of nineteen, but it wasn’t until two years later that Wright was able to afford a home with space for his writing: a four-room apartment in a two-flat at 4831 South Vincennes Avenue.

Originally from Natchez, Mississippi, Wright spent his time in Chicago living with his extended family, sometimes squeezing his mother, two aunts, his younger brother, and himself into just a few rooms. Wright moved around the city at least five times during his ten years in Chicago; the Vincennes building, designated a Chicago Landmark in 2010, was the first of those places where the Wright family could escape the cramped spaces of poverty that awaited a class of Black people moving to Chicago in the early twentieth century.

Wright’s job situation shifted almost as often as his housing. He would work odd jobs, doing anything from ditch digging to mentoring young boys on the South Side. He took a temporary job with the U.S. Postal Service, but was deemed unfit for a permanent position after poor nutrition caused him to fail a fitness exam. In 1929, though, Wright took the fitness test again and passed, and his new steady income allowed the family to move into the relative comfort of the Vincennes apartment—until he was laid off and relegated to seasonal work again.

Working at the post office on and off would be a point of tension for Wright and his family. As the position that allowed Wright and his family to move into the home on Vincennes, the job represented a economic status that many Black folks migrating to Chicago could only dream of, but keeping that dream proved to be a difficult task.

But from 1929 to 1932, the two-flat in Bronzeville with a cream-colored exterior and charcoal roof was a place where Wright could practice his craft, the beginning of what would become a storied career. Those three years would be the longest amount of time he spent living in a single residence in Chicago.

It was at the Vincennes apartment where Wright wrote his first novel, Cesspool, full of characters that are much like himself at the time—Black folks working at a post office in Chicago during the Great Depression. Retitled Lawd Today! when it was finally published in 1963, Cesspool was written in between Wright’s part-time work and relentless criticism from his aunts over his difficulty in keeping the post office job, which he was laid off from and rehired to over the course of several years. The novel reflects some of his own criticism of life in Chicago: “The only difference between the North and the South is them guys down there’ll kill you, and these up here’ll let you starve to death,” one of his characters famously says.

But Wright found solace in a community of Chicago writers in a multitude of spaces. One space that he frequented was the South Side Writers Group, a collective of writers living on the South Side during the 1930s that met to share their work and critique each other’s writing. Writers like Margaret Walker and journalists like Frank Marshall Davis would convene in a wide red-brown brick building on Oakwood Boulevard once known as the Abraham Lincoln Centre. This building, which was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s first commissioned designs, used to hold street-level shops, an auditorium, living spaces, a kitchen, and meeting rooms.  (It is now home to Northeastern Illinois University’s Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies.) Wright regularly attended meetings during the period in which he published his first nationally acclaimed short story, “Big Boy Leaves Home.”

Throughout Wright’s transitions from home to home and job to job, the South Side Writers Group and other groups gave him a sense of stability in his otherwise ever-changing life, providing spaces that he could go to write stories that resonated with him and a larger community of Black people. Another one of those spaces was the John Reed Club, a collective of Marxist writers, artists, and intellectuals affiliated with the Communist Party. Here, as in the South Side Writers Group, Wright could practice his writing while temporarily escaping the prejudices of Great Depression–era society. Eventually Wright would become disillusioned with the John Reed Club, due in part to political directives that caused it to shift its focus from purely artistic pursuits to more politically charged subjects like inflation and industrialization. Yet, at the time, Wright did “appreciate their opposition to racism,” which allowed him write freely about Black life.

Wright also found support through government-sponsored writing programs. Wright worked on the Federal Writers’ Project, part of  President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. Wright once described this as the source that gave him “his first opportunity to put these thoughts to paper” in his writing career.

For Wright, his found home in Chicago was not limited to his place of residence, but more closely linked to a community of writers and intellectuals in the city. With those resources, his writing career began to blossom, and he began to publish more prolifically. In 1938, a year after he left Chicago, Wright received a national award for a collection of four novellas titled Uncle Tom’s Children, inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s legendary anti-slavery novel.

Two years later, Wright would publish his book Native Son, his most well-known work, which was turned into a Broadway drama, co-written by playwright Paul Green, just a year after that. Wright had left Chicago for New York three years prior, but the effects that Chicago had on Wright remained evident in his writing. In Native Son, Wright writes about the struggles of a young black man named Bigger, who is living in poverty on the South Side of Chicago.

“Every time I get to thinking about me being black and they being white, me being here and they being there, I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me,” Bigger famously says in the novel, which highlights the effects of Jim Crow segregation and the lack of opportunities for poor, uneducated Black people living in the city.

Wright continued to live in a myriad of places: he moved from New York to Mexico, and finally to Paris with his daughter and second wife, where he spent the final years of his life. He died in November 1960, fifteen years after publishing his autobiography, Black Boy.

But Chicago, and the writing spaces he had engaged in there, remained important to Wright. In his writing about his time in Chicago, Wright mentions how he was able to find hope through writing and the communities that fostered his growth, when a living in a racist society under a severely damaged economy had proven lackluster: “Whenever my environment had failed to support or nourish me, I had clutched at books…”

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Kristen Jere Simmons is a contributor to the Weekly. A Mississippi native, she enjoys writing poetry, finessing yoga studios, and making strangers uncomfortable by talking to their dogs in baby voices. She last reviewed a poetry anthology for the Weekly in May 2018.

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1 Comment

  1. This is a great article! Richard Wright is my great uncle and I am very interested in the stories I find about his life. Thank you.

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