A Theory of African-American Citizenship: Richard Westbrooks, The Great Migration, and the Chicago Defender's "Legal Helps" Column

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Publication Date

Summer 1-1-2013


This article explores citizenship from the ground up, to focus on migration, settlement, local law, and struggles for racial equality in Progressive Era Chicago. In his weekly “Legal Helps” column, which appeared in the Chicago Defender, attorney Richard Westbrooks answered questions about commercial practices, domestic life, civil rights and residential conditions. Westbrooks' answers advocated a theory of African American citizenship that was rooted in the implied equality of local law, rather than in the decreed equality of constitutional law. In expanding his theory from the individual to the collective—to assert that all Black Chicagoans were equal as citizens—Westbrooks would encounter stiff opposition from law clerks, judges, and jailers, as well as pervasive social discrimination that allowed African Americans to be classified and treated differently in their social and legal relationships. In response, Westbrooks broadened his theory of citizenship, articulating individual and collective equality and partial and comprehensive statuses, to reveal a bottom-up legal consciousness that grew out of everyday encounters and social practices.

Publication Title

Journal of Social History

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