If bookshelves were streets, you would find An Autobiography of Black Chicago by Dempsey Travis at the busy intersection of Chicago Way and Memory Lane. Stopped at this corner, the book's pages would open for you to see billboards for black-owned real estate, banking, and insurance companies and in the shop windows posters asking you to march for civil rights. And you would hear a calm, steady voice explaining to you why you have to get up early and do your part to change the world. By all accounts, black businessman and civil rights leader Dempsey Travis (1920-2009) did his part.
An Autobiography of Black Chicago was first published in 1981. That this memoir was ever written is remarkable, because in 1946 when he enrolled in college, Travis's poor reading ability forced him into remedial classes. When challenged by the probable failure of many in his situation, he applied himself and succeeded in college and business thereafter. Near the end of his book, he wrote of the importance of daily study for business people, stating that he read from ten newspapers each day.
In his book, Travis recounted what he saw in Chicago from the early 1920s to 1981 when Ronald Reagan became president. The account may surprise readers who mistakenly think that Jim Crow attitudes were confined to the South. 20th century Chicago was a very racist city, where most of the discrimination radiated from industry, unions, banks, real estate, and professional organizations, most controlled by white people. Blacks could only take the lowest paid jobs in factories, could not secure business loans, could not rent or buy properties in many neighborhoods, and were denied opportunities to join professional organizations, even when they had gotten college degrees. Fighting discrimination and making opportunities for himself and his race was Travis's mission.
Chicago was not the only stage in Travis's book. He was active in national business, professional, and civil rights organizations and eventually became an advisor to several presidents. He also was greatly shaped by a childhood trip to a funeral in Kentucky and his experiences in a racially-segregated military during World War II.
Agate Publishing put out a new paperback edition of An Autobiography of Black Chicago in 2013, preserving the essential Travis book but eliminating a collection of short autobiographical pieces by other black leaders. Serious students of Black Chicago may want to seek the older edition, which also includes many illustrations, but many contemporary readers will be more attracted to the new slimmer edition with greatly improved font and the most compelling part of the older book. An Autobiography of Black Chicago belongs in many Chicago area libraries and is a worthy addition to any collection on the national civil rights movement.
Travis, Dempsey. An Autobiography of Black Chicago. Agate Publishing, 2013. 216p. ISBN 9781932841671.