'The First White Man in Chicago Was a Negro'?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: How Jean Baptiste Point du Sable became legend, and much more.

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Bust of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable (A.D. Jameson)

Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

(The Root) -- Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 49: Who was the founder of Chicago? 

Chicago has been called the "Great American City," and in his latest book troping on that title, my colleague Robert J. Sampson draws on more than a decade of research in the "Windy City" to argue for the critical importance of place -- a community, a neighborhood, a block -- in shaping children's lives. It was a natural for Sampson, not only because of his love and concern for Chicago but because of all of our major urban centers it is arguably the most quintessentially American, as Thomas Dyja suggests in his absorbing new history, The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream. In recent years, Chicago also has ranked among our most challenged American cities, too often tragically for our young men and women of the South Side. That's not easily forgotten by anyone who has seen Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz's moving documentary film The Interrupters.

While many associate Chicago today with sensational headlines, a century ago it was a magnet for African-American dreamers migrating from the South to escape Jim Crow's grasp and reach for factory jobs during what we now call the Great Migration. Soon after, Chicago became a focal point for gospel, blues and jazz, the chosen setting for consequential writers like Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks, and eventually the home court of Michael and Scottie and the adopted home city of Oprah and Barack. So if place matters, as Sampson shows, so, too, does the history of that place.

Here's where our old friend Joel A. Rogers comes in. "The founder of the City of Chicago was Baptist Pointe de Saible, a Negro, in 1779," Rogers claimed in fact No. 24 of his book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro (1934). In Rogers' earlier comic book, Your History (1940), he sketched out a bit more of the Jean Baptiste Point du Sable (that's how most spell his name) legend, including that he was from "Santo Domingo"; that "He built the first Cabin on the site of that now great metropolis Chicago"; that he "made a fortune trading with the Indians and selling his holdings to a Frenchman, named de Mai"; "retired to Peoria, IL in 1796 where he died"; and "was also probably the first civilized man to use" the name "Chicago," which, according to Rogers, derived "from the Indian word, Eschicagou." It was a remarkable claim and one I remember doing a double-take on. There were black people in Chicago a century before the Great Migration? I thought, before the city was even officially incorporated as a city in 1837?

I soon learned that actually, there were two stories at play here. The first was of du Sable himself, whose life, we will see, was fascinating and contradictory on its own (at least what we know of it). The second is the one in which Rogers participated: of how du Sable, the legend, was lost and recovered as an icon of black history.

Finding the Real du Sable

The sparse historical record leaves many aspects of du Sable's life uncertain. Scholars believe he was born, as Rogers claimed, in San Domingue before the Haitian Revolution (1794-1804) as the son of a white Frenchman, a sailor, and an African-born black woman, possibly free. (A less common story suggests du Sable's parents were a white man and his black servant, both of whom emigrated from France to Canada.)

Du Sable's youth is similarly opaque. Was he educated in France upon his mother's death or did he work as a sailor? What we do know is that at some point, he settled in North America, either by traveling north from New Orleans or entering directly in Canada -- for him, a personal proto-Great Migration. (Great resources for du Sable's story include Evan Haefeli's "Du Sable, Jean Baptiste Point," in Encyclopedia of African American History; Shirley Graham Du Bois' Jean Baptiste Point de Sable: Founder of Chicago; and Sidney and Emma Kaplan's The Black Presence in the American Revolution.)

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