Book Review: South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration by Marcia Chatelain

Marcia Chatelain, South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration (Duke University Press: Durham & London, 2015), pp. 264. $23.95/£16.99

978-0-8223-5854-1_prSouth Side Girls is an impressive book in which Marcia Chatelain brings the reader on a journey through the different experiences of black girls and women in Chicago in the first half of the twentieth century. In a society where social movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Campaign Zero’ are vital and powerful, this book reminds readers of the struggles that black migrants and citizens have found in supposedly progressive cities since the thirteenth amendment was ratified. Chatelain’s book is particularly important in recognising the different, and tiered, elements within feminism faced by women of colour. The subjects of this book, black girls who had migrated, or were the children of migrants, from the southern states of America, suffered from the triple binds of sex, race, and age.

Between 1910 and 1940, the number of African-Americans in Chicago grew from 44,000 to 234,000 [3]. This eighty-one percent increase in the city’s black population led to community tensions that have been the subject of many studies, including the urban sociology work of the Chicago School that emerged during the 1920s and 1930s. The role of Chicago as both an impediment and a solution to improving black girls’ lives after moving from the South is an issue that is explored throughout this book. Chicago and the chance, or requirement, that the city provided for girls and teenagers to earn a living of their own led to a new consumer culture aimed specifically at black girls, as well as more choice in their wider lives, such as where they prayed (or not) and amused themselves. These new opportunities to choose, rebel, and don new identities could lead to intergenerational, as well as community, problems. These intergenerational disputes are the focus of Chatelain’s second chapter, ‘”Modesty on Her Cheek”: Girls and the Great Migration Marketplaces’ – a great chapter which really brings to life the increased opportunities available to black girls in Chicago as opposed to the opportunities that their parents had been denied.


This book adds to an increasing literature dedicated to highlighting the underrepresented experiences in Chicago in the late nineteenth and twentieth century. Chatelain’s work combines historiography focusing on black females in Chicago, with wider Great Migration, racial uplift, and history of the childhood scholarship. This book presents the existing scholarship and where this work fits within that, in a clear manner allowing the reader to understand and appreciate its contribution as the first book-length work on black girlhood in Chicago. Chatelain’s approach to what ‘girlhood’ entailed is flexible. As a summary, she writes that ‘I use the context of the time period to ascertain who was considered a girl, and therefore eligible to access girls’ program and guidance on growing into womanhood’ [14]. This flexible approach means that Chatelain is free to consider the experiences of children in institutional care and Camp Fire Girls, as well as girls on the brink of adulthood who were guided by the black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha and those who were disregarded when faced with illegitimate children.[1]

Through the use of case studies, Chatelain guides the reader through the complex history, pressures, and representations of and on black girls in Chicago in the first half of the Great Migration (1910-1950). Using the themes of consumption, judgement, hope, and citizenship as the basis for her chapters, Chatelain explores the expectations of and on black girls for their future societal positions. One thing that emerges within these chapters is the different futures envisioned by people who are, on the surface, fighting for the same cause: helping black girls fulfil their potential. Even within the organisations that were trying to help the position of black girls, there were major conflicts in strategy and for power: between the established black elites and newer racial uplift migrants; between black and white organisers; between classes; and time and again, between men and women. ‘In looking at how girls lived Chicago’s Great Migration, we realize the importance of black girls in shaping black activism, as well as ideas about stagnation and hope. We are also warned about ensuring that girls – not images – shape our historical inquiries, public policy, and racial discourses.’ [172] This concern with understanding the experiences of actual girls, through their own voices and recollections as well as through newspaper and organisation reports, is important in questioning sexualised and racialised representations of black girlhood that still pervade certain elements of society.

Women like Diane Nash, who became influential in the civil rights movements of the 1960s, grew up in Chicago’s South Side during the time period covered by this book.

Women like Diane Nash, who became influential in the civil rights movements of the 1960s, grew up in Chicago’s South Side during the time period covered by this book. Image Source:

The election of Barack Obama to the White House in 2008, or more particularly the move of three generations of African-American women from Chicago’s South Side into the White House, begins and ends this book. Chatelain tells of an instance in 2009 when she was a Girl Scouts Pathways volunteer in Oklahoma: she asked a few current affairs questions related to Obama’s election and was greeted by an outpouring of knowledge and excitement. Chatelain concludes that ‘While the adults around them celebrated the election of a black president…the girls reveled in the presence of two black girls – just like them – living in the White House’ [x]. This book considers the challenges, disappointments, and search for security faced by girls in Chicago in the early twentieth century, and that this search for acceptance is something that girls nowadays still grapple with.

President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, sit for a family portrait in the Oval Office, Dec. 11, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, sit for a family portrait in the Oval Office, Dec. 11, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In her acknowledgements, Chatelain explains that this book began as her doctoral dissertation, inspired by the question: ‘What about girls?’ This book sets forward the challenge for others to follow in her stead. South Side Girls is a fascinating and important exploration of the ways that black girlhood was envisioned within Chicago society during the Great Migration. Chatelain guides the reader through some of the different organisations, cultures, and pressures that impacted on black female identity and representation over forty years. It is a work that should be read by academics and non-academics alike, and Chatelain’s writing and interaction with the historiography and theory allows for this. The worlds that these girls inhabited are contextualised and provide a particularly useful history to the current manifestations of the civil rights movement and questions of privilege.


[1] An integrated group of Girl Scout Brownies c1950


About Sophie Cooper

Sophie Cooper is a second year PhD student and William McFarlane Scholar at the University of Edinburgh. She is studying Irish communities in Melbourne and Chicago between 1850 and 1890, specifically in relation to situational influences on identity formation and nationalist thought. Sophie tweets using the handle @SophcoCooper and more information can be found on her academia page.
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