Migrations to Chicago: Housing Conditions for New Arrivals in Chicago

Jessica Marshall, Chicago Public Schools

This lesson explores the experience of immigrants in Chicago from 1890–1950.  Students will use artworks, primary sources, literary texts, and maps to address the following question: “What was the reality of life in Chicago for newly arrived immigrants and migrants during the early 1900s?” The lesson asks students to consider how those conditions may have impacted Chicago’s newest residents, with a research project that focuses on housing. As a concluding activity, students write a letter to Chicago Mayor Edward J. Kelly with recommendations for improving the living and working conditions of Chicago’s immigrants and migrants.

Please note: Some of the primary source materials examined in this lesson present viewpoints or stereotypes that are offensive. You may wish to prepare students for these materials by mentioning their historical and social context, and by explaining that the goal of this lesson is to examine the hardships faced by migrants and immigrants in Chicago, which included experiences of racism and other forms of prejudice.

Lesson Overview

Grade Levels: 9–11

Time Needed: 4–5 class periods, 40–50 minutes each

Background Needed

Students should have a general awareness of the reasons why the thousands of people moved to Chicago and other industrial cities in the U.S. through the Great Migration and European immigration. These resources can be used to provide helpful background information:

Essential Questions

  • What was the reality of life in Chicago for newly arrived immigrants and migrants during the early 1900s?
  • How does where you live and work reflect and/or affect your perceived status in society?

Enduring Understandings

  • Housing conditions in Chicago were often overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe for newly arrived immigrants and migrants, especially for the African American community.
  • The “Black Belt” area of Chicago was not an accidental occurrence, but rather a result of policy of restrictive covenants, designed to limit where African Americans could live.


  • Students will integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • Students will analyze how multiple texts and images address similar themes and topics in order to build knowledge.
  • Students will write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics and texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Students will prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Key Vocabulary

  • the “Black Belt”
  • the Great Depression
  • immigrant
  • “kitchenette” apartment
  • migrant
  • residential
  • restrictive covenant
  • segregation

Standards Connections

Common Core State Standards

Anchor Standards in Reading: http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/CCRA/R/

  • CCSS-ELA Reading Anchor Standard 7: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7
  • CCSS-ELA Reading Anchor Standard 9: ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.9

Anchor Standards in Writing: http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/CCRA/W/

  • CCSS-ELA Writing Anchor Standard 1: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1

Anchor Standards in Speaking and Listening: http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/CCRA/SL/

  • CCSS-ELA Speaking and Listening Anchor Standard 1: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1


In the Classroom

  • writing journals or loose-leaf paper
  • several computers with Internet access
  • an interactive whiteboard or another classroom projector

Works of Art

  • Bernece Berkman, One-Third of the Nation is Ill-Housed 
  • Eldzier Cortor, The Room No. VI

Other Resources

For Introductory Activities

For Research on Housing

Lesson Steps

  1. Discuss Eldzier Cortor’s The Room No. VI: Display the image and have students list all the items and people they can identify in the room. Guide discussion with questions such as the following:
  • What do you notice about the setting?
  • What kind of room or space might be shown here? Cite evidence for your ideas.
  • How many items can you identify?
  • What reasons might the artist have for including all of these items?
  • Notice that there is a stove in the room. What does this tell you about the room?
  • Notice the people—what they are doing and how they are positioned in relation to one another. What does this suggest about the room and about the people?

Point out that this painting was made in 1948, at a time when housing conditions were very challenging, especially in cities. Many families were often forced to share close living quarters with others. The artist was aware of these conditions. Ask students to look again at the painting and consider some ways in which the painting could reflect those conditions. Then have students choose one object in the painting and explain why is the object unexpected or interesting.

  1. Have students compare and contrast two works of art: Display Bernece Berkman’s One-Third of the Nation is Ill-Housed. Ask students to share their reactions to this lithograph, guiding the discussion with questions like these:
  • What do your eyes go to first as you look at the lithograph?
  • What details do you notice?
  • Notice the faces of the people. What words would you use to describe their expressions?
  • How would you describe the space the people are in? What kind of place is it? Cite evidence for your answers.
  • What might the title of this artwork reveal about the image?

Then have students compare the two works of art. Display them side by side and invite students to discuss the similarities and differences that they observe. Record students’ observations on the board.

  1. Guide a deeper exploration of both artworks: Divide students into an even number of small groups. Give half the groups copies of the Art Study: The Room No. VI, Read to Build Knowledge and give the other half copies of the Art Study: One-Third of the Nation is Ill-Housed, Read to Build Knowledge. Have the members of each group work together to read the assigned text and take notes on what they learn about the artwork. Then pair up groups that have read different texts and have them share what they have learned with each other. Ask students to cite specific passages in the texts that were most helpful in understanding the ideas or messages in each work of art.
  1. Lead a whole-class discussion about the artworks: Discuss each artwork on its own and then make comparisons with questions like the following:
  • In The Room No. VI, what can you infer about the people based on the objects in their room? What evidence do you have to support your inference?
  • Why would artist Eldzier Cortor find it important to include these items? What did he want people to know or think about the occupants of this room? How do you know?
  • What message do you think Cortor conveys in this painting?
  • According to the text, what artistic choices did he make in order to convey that message?
  • What elements add beauty to this painting? Why do you think Cortor chose to include some beautiful elements?
  • In One-Third of the Nation is Ill-Housed, what elements convey a sense of harsh poverty?
  • One-Third of the Nation is Ill-Housed is in black and white. What is the effect of this color choice?
  • What choices did Bernece Berkman make that added elements of beauty to this print? How do her choices differ from the choices made by Eldzier Cortor in his painting?
  • Now that you have learned more about both works of art, what new similarities are you aware of? What new differences do you perceive?
  • Why do you think artists are willing to tackle difficult subjects such as bad housing conditions?
  1. Have students synthesize their understanding with a Venn diagram: Distribute copies of the Venn Diagram: Comparing Two Works of Art. Have students work alone or with partners to record their ideas about how the two artworks are similar and different in terms of the subject, the artist’s choices, and the artist’s message.
  1. Have students do a quick-write about arriving in Chicago: Point out that The Room No. VI and One-Third of the Nation is Ill-Housed portray the unsafe, overcrowded housing conditions for people arriving in Chicago in the 1930s and 40s. Then have students take a few minutes to write a response to this prompt: It is 1938, and you are a young person who is moving to Chicago to look for work. What are you most excited about? What is your biggest fear? Where do you hope to live? Invite a few students to share their responses with the class.

Remind students about what they wrote in the quick-write exercise. Ask what they might now add to the list of concerns they would have as recently arrived immigrant workers.

  1. Introduce the research activity: Point out that the first concern many people would have upon arriving in Chicago would be to find a place to stay. Explain that students will now examine a series of primary and secondary sources that describe the housing conditions in Chicago for African Americans and newly arrived immigrants during this time period. Let them know that they should gather evidence from these sources that will support an argument about how housing conditions should be improved.

Distribute two copies of the Research Sources Graphic Organizer to each student. Students should take time at each station to analyze the source and record notes on the graphic organizer. Note: You may wish to time student visits to each station and have them rotate to the next station at regular intervals.

Station Rotation of Images and Documents:

A. “Racial Restrictive Covenants on Chicago’s South Side in 1947,” map and text, Encyclopedia of Chicago: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1761.html

B. Russell Lee, Crowded apartment of railroad worker, Chicago, Illinois, Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa2000020107/PP/

C. Langston Hughes’ poem “Restrictive Covenants,” The Newberry: http://dcc.newberry.org/collections/chicago-and-the-great-migration#the-great-migration-in-chicago-literature

D. Chicago Housing Authority Bulletin, Encyclopedia of Chicago: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/10874.html

E. Elmer Thomas, South Side packinghouse worker, interviewed by Betty Burke, Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/resource/wpalh0.07051707/#seq-1

F. Elizabeth Hughes, “Living Conditions for Small Wage Earners,” 1925, in Lessons from Community Beginnings: Chicago’s Mexican Community, Part 2: We Came to Live, page 44, Chicago Metro History Education Center: http://chicagohistoryfair.org/images/stories/pdfs/mexican-community-we-came-here-to-live-part-2.pdf

G. Anita Edgar Jones, “Mexican Colonies in Chicago,” UIC (just the last section on housing): http://tigger.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/urbanexp/main.cgi?file=new/show_doc.ptt&doc=73&chap=56

  1. Debrief students’ findings: After students have rotated through all the stations, invite them to share their observations about the housing conditions for African Americans and newly arrived immigrants in Chicago. Point out that while immigrants had many of the same challenges as African American migrants in terms of adapting to a new place, African Americans also faced racism and discriminatory laws that limited their access to quality housing. Ask students to consider who might have benefitted from the restrictive covenants. What would a real estate agent have to gain from the “Black Belt”? Why would politicians have supported it? Challenge students to hypothesize why the “Black Belt” and restrictive covenants were established.
  1. Have students write a letter to the mayor of Chicago: Have students briefly discuss what the city of Chicago could have done over the time period of 1890-1950 to improve living conditions for the migrants and immigrants who arrived in Chicago. Distribute the Graphic Organizer: Arguing for Change  and tell students to imagine they live in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s. They will write letters to Edward J. Kelly, the mayor of Chicago from 1933- In their letters, they should describe the living conditions of newly arrived immigrants and make an argument about what Kelly should do to improve the conditions of Chicago’s newest residents. Students should support their arguments with evidence from the images, documents, and other sources they have analyzed in this lesson.

Extension Activities

Create a Found Poem: Tell students to study the various images in this lesson again and write down powerful words and descriptive details that occur to them as they examine the images. Then have students use these words to create a found poem.

Additional Resources

Barter, Judith A., et al, American Modernism at the Art Institute of Chicago: From World War I to 1955. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago and Yale University Press, 2009.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. “kitchenette building.” From Selected Poems. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. Accessed Occtober 31, 2014. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/guide/240198#poem
Oehler, Sarah Kelly. They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910-1950. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago and Yale University Press, 2013.
Weininger, Susan. “Bernece Berkman.” Modernism in the New City: Chicago Artists, 1920-1950. Accessed October 31, 2014. http://www.chicagomodern.org/artists/bernece_berkman/