Pride and Prejudice | Our Town | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Our Town

Pride and Prejudice

Wayne F. Miller's postwar portraits captured the joys and sorrows of the Black Belt. Now Chicago can finally see them.


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


In 1946 Wayne F. Miller was a little lost. He'd recently completed a tour with a navy combat photo unit led by Edward Steichen in which he'd been one of the first westerners to photograph the destruction of Hiroshima. Then he'd won a $3,000 Guggenheim award to document "The Way of Life of the Northern Negro." He'd moved his family to 95th and Jeffery. But Miller, who is white and grew up near Broadway and Montrose, had never actually set foot in the city's Black Belt, whose center was 47th Street and South Parkway (now King Drive).

The Black Belt was straining to the bursting point with arrivals from the south. Chicago's black population grew from 30,150 in 1900 to 492,265 in 1950. But the Black Belt's boundaries did not expand west of Wentworth or east of Cottage Grove.

"I didn't know the neighborhood and I didn't know anybody in it," Miller recalls of his initial attempts to take pictures of everyday life in Bronzeville. "I was just walking the streets and didn't know what I was doing." That changed when he hooked up with Horace Cayton, director of the Parkway Community House and coauthor of 1945's The Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. Cayton gave him the lay of the land and introduced him around. He met Ebony magazine editor Ben Burns, who was working from an office in the back of the building and gave him a press card and some work. "We had some good conversations," says Miller about Cayton. "He suggested things, and I began to develop the shape of what I wanted to do."

Miller spent the next three years walking the streets and taking photos. He shot spectators at the Bud Billiken parade, striking packinghouse workers, a woman at home with a newborn, Eartha Kitt leading a dance rehearsal, multigenerational families crowded into tiny kitchenette apartments. He shot a couple paying bills, a squatter at her shack, a father and son at the beach, and anthropologist St. Clair Drake, who was Cayton's collaborator on The Black Metropolis, entertaining at home. He shot people at church, at funerals, at work, and at pool halls, and in doorways, windows, and alleys. And at Silvester "Two Gun Pete" Washington's notorious kangaroo juvenile court.

For the most part, Miller had easy access. "I believe that the subjects I was photographing realized I wasn't trying to criticize things or snoop into their lives, but that I was just another person around," he says. "Just about anywhere I went I was left alone or welcomed, and it was just marvelous."

If there was any doubt, "I'd cheat a little and answer, 'Oh, I'm with Ebony magazine," he wrote, in the introduction to his recent book of photographs, Chicago's South Side 1946-1948. A related photo exhibit is on display through March 2 at the Woodson Regional Library. This Saturday afternoon, Miller will appear there at a conference on Bronzeville with historians Kymberly Pinder and Adam Green and journalist Vernon Jarrett.

Miller says he was hassled only once, while standing on a table trying to get an overhead shot of a busy packinghouse workers' bar. "All of a sudden I felt someone tugging my trouser leg," he says. "I looked down at an angry-looking face. The man said, 'Boy, you better get down from there,' and he walked me over to the wall, where he had a couple of friends with him. He said, 'You better get out of here. This is no place for you.' Suddenly the bouncers came up and said, 'Leave this man alone.' That was a pretty good feeling."

One of Miller's most intimate photographs shows a couple lying on a bed, locked in a tight embrace. "I was on the street on a hot July afternoon," says Miller. "I heard this voice saying out of nowhere, 'What time is it?' I looked up and saw a woman leaning out of a windowsill. It was a deserted block, with the storefronts all boarded up. I said, 'I don't know,' and she says, 'Why not get us a couple quarts of cold beer?'

"I found she'd built a little apartment for herself in this deserted building. So I went in and sat on the bed with her and drank a quart of beer. The door opened and there was a fellow standing there, so I invited him in. He came in and shared the other beer with us. Then he said, 'Do you mind if I go ahead? I have to go home soon.' And I said, 'Do you mind if I take some pictures?' and he said no."

Miller also did magazine work at that time and taught at the Institute of Design. For Ebony he documented female impersonators at Joe's DeLuxe Club and took pictures of a "reefer party."

"It was a major breakthrough to do a story on marijuana," he says. "It was something that nobody ever talked about publicly. So I bought the food and the whiskey and, I guess, the marijuana--I don't remember that. We threw the party in a whorehouse across the street from a big church."

Through Ben Burns he met Vernon Jarrett, who'd recently moved to the city from Paris, Tennessee, and was a rookie reporter at the Chicago Defender. In 1947 they went out together to cover the seige at the Airport Homes project at 60th and Kedzie, where thousands of white protesters had gathered around the home of the family of a black veteran. "It was almost in the same Marquette Park area that rose up against Martin Luther King's march," says Jarrett. "They took a lot of pride in keeping black folks out of that community."

Jarrett had gone there earlier in the day and had been chased by a mob. "I must have been hungry for punishment," he says. "We went out together because he wanted to do some shooting on his own." They went in Miller's two-seater. "There were already 10,000 people there," says Jarrett. "After work people would gather there and burn crosses. They could tell which white people were probably reporters or didn't belong in the neighborhood. When we drove up they had their backs to us. They were chanting and screaming at a black family that had moved in a day earlier. They didn't see us or they wouldn't have let him through with the camera."

"It was a vicious group," says Miller, who had his camera in view but didn't take many pictures. "I remember seeing nice, kindly grandmothers and mothers pushing baby carriages around on the sidewalks. I looked into one of those baby carriages and it was filled with bricks.

"I didn't want to get beat up," he says. "And I didn't want to start photographing that sort of thing unless I knew there was a story there." He says he "was pushed a little bit" but not harmed. "They were throwing rocks at this place. I think one of them shot a rifle or something at the window. There was a baby inside, and the glass went all over the top of the baby's bed. There were rocks and threats. You don't know what would have happened if it wasn't quieted down."

Meanwhile, Jarrett was on the floor of the backseat of the car, covered with newspaper. "There was no way I could get out of that car without somebody seeing me," he says. Miller returned and they cleared out. The siege lasted a couple of weeks, and it drove out the veteran and his family.

Jarrett and Miller soon found themselves in a similar situation after they met up with a white man from Milwaukee who'd decided he was going to live as a black person. A Life reporter decided to take him to Chicago's south side and see what happened. Miller was assigned to take photos, and the entourage also included the Defender's Rose Vaughn, local NAACP president Henry McGee, and Unitarian minister Homer Jack.

They decided to take him to the Trianon Ballroom, which was on the east, white side of Cottage Grove. "Reverend Jack and this gentleman and Wayne Miller and the reporter went in the late afternoon and bought tickets," says Jarrett. "They said they were meeting their relatives later and would buy some tickets for them too. They bought some for me and McGee and Rose Vaughn. Later we all came in together. They were ahead of us, and they let them in. When McGee and Rose and I gave them our tickets, they said, 'We can't let you in here. We don't permit Negroes here.'

"The man from Milwaukee said, 'These are our brothers, why won't you let them in?' Meanwhile, Wayne had taken out his camera and was shooting away. There were huge bouncers at the door, tough-looking guys. One blew a whistle, and five or six other bouncers came down there. They went for Wayne's camera." Jarrett ran halfway across Cottage Grove, to the island where the streetcar ran.

"They came at me," says Miller. "So I took the camera from around my neck and threw it 20 feet or so to Vernon, and he ran and I ran too."

The group reconvened at the Del Prado Hotel, which only served whites. "We went there because they had just integrated baseball," says Jarrett. "This particular incident must have taken place in 1947, because Jackie Robinson had already started playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. We knew that the White Sox were strictly jim crow, to the extent that the visiting teams that played against them stayed at the Del Prado. The hotel had been publicized for not letting Larry Doby, the first black to be hired by the Cleveland Indians, stay there with his teammates. We thought we'd go into the dining room to eat. We sat down, and that's when everybody started looking."

Miller doesn't remember much of what happened, but Jarrett says he started taking pictures as soon as the waiters refused to serve them and asked them to leave. "Wayne took pictures of all of us sitting down and people leaving. We finally left. The man from Milwaukee had finally gotten a sample of what it was like being black." Jarrett doesn't know if the story ever ran, and Miller can't remember what became of the photos.

In 1949 Miller got a contract with Life magazine, packed up his photos, left Chicago, and moved to Walnut Creek, where he still lives, across the bay from San Francisco. He collaborated with Benjamin Spock on Baby's First Year, assisted Edward Steichen in creating the photo exhibit "The Family of Man," published a photo study of childhood, The World Is Young, and did commercial work until the late 1970s, when he stopped taking photos altogether. "I wasn't doing good work and I didn't want to become a hack," he says. "When the passion and enthusiasm goes out of your pictures, it all goes kind of flat." Today he owns a 1850-acre commercial forestry along the Pacific coast.

The Bronzeville photos were stashed away in his files until a few years ago, when a friend of Miller's from the University of California saw them and nabbed 40 for an exhibit. A short time later, Ben Burns, who was donating his personal papers and manuscripts to the Woodson Library, introduced archivist Michael Flug to Miller and they talked about setting up an exhibit in Chicago. Not long after, the University of California Press approached Miller about doing the book.

"Everyone is always looking for photos of what life was like in Bronzeville," says Flug. "Most of the time, when people take photos they take them of individuals or celebrities or weddings or graduations or of their families. There aren't often collections of neighborhood life and people at work, people in bars and street scenes, people in church or going to entertainment events."

Miller only wishes he'd taken more pictures. He admitted in his introduction to Chicago's South Side, "When I think of what I missed, it makes me want to cry."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Slomanson.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →