[vc_row margin_bottom=”15″][vc_column][dt_banner image_id=”9209″ min_height=”300″][/dt_banner][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][dt_quote]My study of the street cultures of working-class and immigrant boys in Chicago in the early twentieth century has benefited immensely from the Institute of Juvenile Research’s Life Histories collection. This collection houses hundreds of life stories of delinquent children, normally from immigrant or working-class families, which has enabled me to examine issues such as sexuality, which I thought would be completely invisible in the historical record, says Oenone Kubie, recipient of the BAAS/Journal of American Studies Travel Award 2015.[/dt_quote][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]My project is a study of the street cultures of working-class and immigrant boys in Chicago in the early twentieth century. These boys evaded reforms aimed at controlling juveniles, and throughout the period I look at, continued to carve out spaces for themselves within the Progressive Era city. While boys’ street cultures may seem romantic and even a positive alternative to the highly prescribed lives of modern children, it is inadequate to think of these boys’ subcultures as unimportant or quaint. Boys in Chicago heavily disrupted commercial operations, particularly around the railways, costing railroad companies large amounts in damages and security. Youth gangs contributed to and may even have begun the Chicago Race Riot in 1919 and they greatly contributed to racial[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]antagonism on a day-to-day basis as boys policed the physical racial boundaries of the city, beating up black children (and adults) who dared to cross into white immigrant neighbourhoods. Boys as young as twelve and thirteen were involved in the Democrat political machine through gangs funded by politicians and their connections with corrupt police officers and judges. Their subcultures were written into the spaces which they inhabited and which they, to borrow Lefebvre’s phrase, produced. Even an act as simple as “loitering” on street corners challenged official plans for the city and altered the meaning of street space.
Thanks to the generous support of JAS/BAAS Travel Award I was able to extend my research trip this summer in Chicago for an extra month. I had spent the first month at the University of Chicago Regenstein Library, in the second month I was then able to visit the University of Illinois in Chicago Library and the Chicago History Museum.
The key collection I saw during this trip was the Institute of Juvenile Research’s Life Histories collection. In the early twentieth century, the Chicago School of Sociology was pioneering a new method of sociological research: the life history. They argued that by taking a detailed biography of a subject – either through interviews or asking individuals to write an autobiographical essay in response to prompt questions – one could draw broader conclusions about society and problems facing communities. Luckily for me, many of the sociologists were interested in delinquent children, normally from immigrant or working-class families. The Chicago History Museum houses over a hundred of these life histories.
There are real methodological problems with using the life histories as evidence. To name just a few of the issues: many of the stories have been edited by sociologists and first drafts lost; there are very few life histories of boys of colour; subjects may have exaggerated or down right lied about their experiences. On the other hand, the life histories are some of the only sources where I can access the (albeit mediated) voices of the boys I study. And within the histories they discuss topics that range from delinquency and crime to family life, ethnicity and sexual behaviour. These sources will enable my project to examine issues, such as sexuality, which I thought would be completely invisible in the historical record.
I’m excited to be back in the UK, and to start to get to grips with some of this material and what it means for my projects. Once again, I’d like to thanks BAAS for enabling this trip to take place.
Oenone Kubie is a DPhil History student at the University of Oxford.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]Archive