Closed School Biographies: Samuel Gompers


photo 4

Close up of Samuel Gompers statue

In a previous post I examined Anthony Overton Elementary school at 221 E. 49th street.  This “Closed School Biographies” post, written just before the Chicago Teachers Union “Day of Action” on April 1st, embraces the spirit of solidarity to focus upon Samuel Gompers of the renamed Gompers Elementary at 12302 S. State Street. The school was appropriately renamed after Jesse Owens which I examined in a previous post.

With that renaming, Gompers has by no means become forgotten figure, but with labor and unions in the news I wanted to tip my red cap to Mr. Gompers’s legacy.  Gompers still has a park dedicated to him on the north side of the city at Foster Avenue and Pulaski Avenue.  In fact, a statue of Gompers, dedicated in 2007, stands in the southwest corner of that intersection.  At the base of said statue sits a box of cigars which honors his election as president of the Cigarmaker’s Union in 1875.  Gompers rose through the union ranks and eventually founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and was president of that organization for decades.

photo 2 (1)

Gompers’s cigars


Interestingly, Gompers had a great many struggles organizing here in Chicago and had many conflicts with the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) during and after World War I.  “Reconfiguring many of the arguments of local Irish and radical groups, the CFL became a center of antiwar agitation after the outbreak of war in Europe.  Its opposition to the AFL’s preparedness and mobilization polices stimulated a critical controversy between local officials and Samuel Gompers.”1   This reminds me of how intensely labor was embraced not just in Chicago, but throughout the United States.  Unions had so many sub-factions split along isolationism, globalism, socialism, communism, immigration issues and ethnicities.  The fact that “AFL membership grew from 150,000 to 2,900,000,”2 alone shows his skill at uniting those factions, but also the country’s previous commitment to labor.
With the Chicago Teachers Union marching and rallying at places like the Juvenile Detention Center and the Cook County Courthouse and jail I am reminded of an oft repeated quote from Gompers’s 1893 What Does Labor Want? speech delivered here in Chicago, “We want more school houses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more constant work and less crime; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful and childhood more happy and bright.”3

Such things aren’t just wanted, but needed in Chicago today and the rest of our nation.

photo (1)

Chicago Teachers Union outside Cook County Courthouse on April 1st



1        McKillen, Elizabeth.   Chicago Labor and the Quest for a Democratic Diplomacy 1914-1924, Cornell University Press, 1995. Page 15.

2   Chicago Park District website:

3         Gompers, Samuel. What Does Labor Want? A Paper Read before the International Labor Congress, Chicago, IL. September, 1893.

Closed School Biographies: Anthony Overton


Black Metropolis Sign

In 2013 Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Barbara Byrd-Bennett (the recently resigned CEO due to a federal investigation) closed about 50 Chicago Public Schools.  One of those schools was Jesse Owens Community Elementary School named after the African-American Olympian who famously won four track and field gold medals during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.  A campaign began in the community to keep the Olympian’s name on a surviving school.  Gompers Elementary was then renamed Jesse Owens Elementary.  On hand at the board meeting for the renaming was Owens’ oldest daughter, Gloria Owens Hemphill.  In a Chicago Tribune article she was quoted as saying, “We were interested in the children knowing about the people in their culture and their accomplishments and to let them know they, too, can accomplish all of these things.” 1

This got me thinking about all of the other closed schools and the individuals they were named after.  After a quick scan of the CPS closing list I realized there were not many names I recognized.  Why was a school named after this person or that person?  It was time to do some research and maybe a series of posts on these individuals.

One of the first names to jump out at me was Anthony Overton Elementary School at 221 E. 49th Street.  When driving down State Street I often pass a large building near 36th with the name, “OVERTON” etched above its doors.  This building is part of the Black Metropolis Historic District which I’ve mentioned previously in this blog.  When researching this historic district I found a long document with a long name: the Black Metropolis historic district: preliminary Summary of Information submitted to the Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks from March 7th of 1984.

Overton Hygenic front door

Overton Hygenic front door

This summary speaks of Black owned businesses and buildings such as the Overton that I’ve wondered about.  It states, “The most important of these included the Overton Hygienic Building, a combination store, office, and manufacturing building commissioned by the diverse entrepreneur Anthony Overton in 1922…”2  Like Jesse Owens, Overton is name that should not be forgotten especially when considering what he meant to the Bronzeville community

Photograph of Anthony Overton from the Encyclopedia of Colored People

Photograph of Anthony Overton from the Encyclopedia of Colored People.

The Commission report provides a brief account of the obstacles he overcame and his many successes along the way to becoming a successful Chicago businessman:

Overton was born into slavery on March 21, 1865, at Monroe, Louisiana.  He was educated at Washburn College and at the University of Kansas where he received a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1888 and later served as Judge of the Municipal Court in Shawnee County, Kansas.  After a brief venture as proprietor of a general store in Oklahoma, Overton moved to Kansas City where in 1898 he established one of the pioneering firms to specialize in the black cosmetics market, the Overton Hygienic Company. 3

His list of accomplishments and enterprises in Chicago is stunning.  Not only did he create the Overton Hygienic Company, but he also branched out to begin the Victory Life Insurance Company, the Douglass National Bank, “the first black bank to be granted a national charter,”4 and he began the Chicago Bee, an African-American newspaper “to take on Robert S. Abbott’s popular Chicago Defender.”5  The unsaid fact behind Overton’s remarkable enterprises is that each one was a necessity for the community because African-Americans were unable to spend money freely in Chicago due to racist tactics such as redlining and restrictive covenants.

Overton Hygienic Building on State Street

Overton Hygienic Building on State Street

His two business buildings still stand today on State Street.  The original Overton Hygienic building was constructed in 1922 and sits at 3619-3627 State Street.  From those offices Overton ran his cosmetics empire as well as his bank and insurance firm.  The Chicago Bee building was completed in 1931 and sits a little further south along State Street at 3647-3655.  Eventually Overton moved his cosmetics company into the Bee building where “they continued to share the building until the early 1940s when the newspaper ceased publication.”6  The Chicago Bee building serves now as a Chicago Public Library.  Both buildings are now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Chicago Bee building

Chicago Bee building

In my research I found a booklet published by the Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Company in 1921 titled Encyclopedia of Colored People and Other Useful Information.  It is an odd publication comprised of many unusual headings.  As the title suggests one of the first sections is labeled “Our Race in History” on page 4.  There’s also a “Beauty Hints” section on page 38 along with numerous advertisements for Overton products, of course.  What makes it unusual in my opinion is the unique assortment of sections near the end with headings such as “Birthday Readings” and “Superstitions” and “Dream Dictionary”.  The most important thing, however, is that Overton, himself, sums up in that booklet the value his enterprises brought to the African-American community which could not get such services elsewhere in the city:

At the beginning Hygienic Pet Baking Powder was the only product. New articles have been added from time to time as resources would permit, until we now make 153 different articles – over one million dollars invested – employ 125 different people in our office and factory, and have many thousands of local agents who make a good living by the sale of our products.

All of our products are manufactured in our own factory.  Our firm is composed exclusively of Negroes, not a white person being employed in any capacity and not a dollar of white capital being used either directly or indirectly.7

If you have the opportunity, please take a chance to visit these two buildings in Bronzeville.  When I last visited the Chicago Bee library there was a fantastic painting by Gregg Spears called A Bronzeville Saturday depicting the energy, life, and culture around those buildings.  My photograph of it does not do it any justice, so please see it in person.  My next post will focus on another name from that list of closed CPS buildings.  Thank you for reading!

A Bronzeville Afternoon by Gregg Spears

A Bronzeville Afternoon by Gregg Spears

Overton Ency

Resources and Citations

1 Ahmed-Ullah, Noreen S.  Chicago Tribune.  CPS to restore Jesse Owens’ name to school.  October 24, 2013

2-6  Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks.  Black Metropolis historic district: preliminary Summary of Information submitted to the Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks  March 7, 1984

7  Overton-Hygienic Manufacturing Company.   Encyclopedia of Colored People and Other Useful Information  1921

Rube Foster and Schorling’s Park

South Side Park (later, Schorling Park) stood at 39th and Wentworth Ave.

South Side Park (later, Schorling Park) stood at 39th and Wentworth Ave.

Warm weather has arrived to stay (at least for a few months) and baseball season is heating up.  Much has been made in Chicago news recently about Wrigley Field and the commemorations for its 100th anniversary.  The ballpark began as home to the Chicago Whales, a Federal League team, in 1914 and it was originally called Weeghman Field for its owner, Charles Weeghman.  All of this has been covered, however, in honor of Wrigley Field’s centennial celebrations.

What I want to look into with today’s post is a relatively forgotten ballpark that housed many championship games on Chicago’s other side of town: South Side Park (and later Schorling Park).  This park stood at 39th and Wentworth Avenue from 1893 until it burned down on Christmas Day in 1940.  It was called South Side Park (and sometimes 39th Street Grounds) from 1900 to 1910 while the Chicago White Sox (then known as the White Stockings) played there.  According to Paula Lupkin of the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “The relocation of the White Stockings to Comiskey Park enabled Chicago’s Negro League team, the American Giants, to purchase their old facility, South Side Park, located at 39th and Wentworth. Rechristened Schorling Park, it stood until 1940 when it was destroyed by fire.”  Shortly after baseball began integration, the Negro League started to fade and was gone by the 1950s.

Today, near the spot you can find a Chicago Tribute marker (as seen in the photograph above) which commemorates Andrew “Rube” Foster.  We’ll look at him more in a moment.

No other ballpark went up on the 39th and Wentworth Avenue site after the fire in 1940.  What intrigues me, however, isn’t the park’s end, so much as its beginning in 1893.  As every Chicago history fan knows, 1893 was the year of the World’s Columbian Exposition.  In the excellent book When Chicago Ruled Baseball: The Cubs-White Sox World Series of 1906 author, Bernard A. Weisberger explains, “The park had opened in 1893 in time for the world’s fair for a professional cricket team known as the Chicago Wanderers, who played and drew their audience from recent immigrants from the British Isles.  There were not enough of these to make the Wanderers a success, however, and by 1900 the grounds were no more than a bumpy abandoned lot strewn with junk.  Yet Comiskey spotted the place as a choice location,” (62).  The thing I love about Weisberger’s book is that he takes plain facts like the dimensions of a ballpark and puts them fluidly into context.  Look at his description of South Side Park:

In 1900, Comiskey’s first task after cleaning up, leveling and seeding the deserted cricket field (a job in which he sometimes joined with his own hands) was to create seating.  The First National Bank of Chicago lent him the money for an enclosed wooden grandstand extending from first to third base, the roof supported by whitewashed posts.  The dimensions made it a tough place for right-handed hitters: the left-field foul line was 355 feet long, left center was 400 feet from home plate, and center field was a deep 450 feet (but only when not accommodating standees).  The distance to the right-field fence seems to have disappeared from available records, but given the fact that the White Sox’ regular-season lineup featured four left-handed hitters (and one who batted from either side of the plate), it seems likely that it was at least as short as and possibly shorter than the left-field line. 63-64.

The White Sox played in South Side Park until 1910 when Comiskey’s new park opened its gates on July 1st of 1910.  Before leaving however the White Sox would make a lot of memories there such as winning Chicago’s only crosstown World Series in 1906.  A fact that I need to research more involves whether or not Comiskey had owned or was leasing the land for South Side Park.  One of the most recent biographies on his life, Turning the Black Sox White: The Misunderstood Legacy of Charles A. Comiskey states, “…Comiskey was a man who treasured tradition and familiarity.  That being said, he initially discussed terms with the owner of the current South Side Park at 39th and Wentworth Avenue to buy or lease the land for twenty years.  A mutually satisfactory agreement could not be reached, so Comiskey moved on,” (171).  Another text, however, titled Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, The Great Migration, and Black Urban Life examines the uneasy transition from South Side Park to Schorling Park.  That author, Davarian L. Baldwin, states, “The major point of reported contention among race leaders was Foster’s partnership with John Schorling, a white saloon keeper and son-in-law of Charles Comiskey, who leased the old White Sox stadium on 39th and Wentworth to the American Giants,” (212).  Regardless of who owned it, after the White Sox moved out, Rube Foster and his Chicago American Giants moved in.

The city’s tribute marker remembers Foster and explains, “Andrew ‘Rube’ Foster dominated the Negro Leagues as a pitcher, manager, owner, and league organizer.”  Foster came to Chicago in 1906 to play for and manage the Leland Giants but, “In 1911, in partnership with white saloonkeeper John Schorling he founded the Chicago American Giants, which became one of the greatest teams in black baseball history…He led his team to Negro League championships in 1914, 1915, and 1917.”  In many ways Foster was the heart of the league and an excellent promoter of the sport.  In his book Chicago’s New Negroes Baldwin argues, “For the next decade, Foster’s Giants were among the most dominant black nine, and some would say baseball team more generally.  Foster’s disciplining and ‘scientific’ style of speedy play focused on pitching, targeted hitting, base stealing, and signaling,” (213).  Foster entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981, but I feel his legacy sadly needs greater prominence and emphasis in Chicago.

You can find his tribute marker on the northwest corner of 39th/Pershing and Wentworth Avenue just a few block south of where the White Sox currently play.  After games many baseball fans drive past it and the very spot where South Side/Schorling Park once stood when they attempt to get back onto the Dan Ryan expressway.


Rube Foster Tribute Marker

Rube Foster Tribute Marker


Resources and Citations

Baldwin, Davarian L.  Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, The Great Migration, and Black Urban Life.  2007.

Hornbaker, Tim.  Turning the Black Sox White: The Misunderstood Legacy of Charles A. Comiskey. 2014

Weisberger, Bernard A.  When Chicago Ruled Baseball: The Cubs-White Sox  World Series of 1906. 2006.


White Sox timeline

Paul Healey’s Project Ballpark

Lincoln and Saint-Gaudens in Chicago


Welcome!  Today’s post focuses on two sculptures of Abraham Lincoln, and the creator of these statues, Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Standing Lincoln

Standing Lincoln in Lincoln Park

A reader and friend from the Irish American Heritage Center asked me to research Mr. Saint-Gaudens, a Dublin born artist.  Augustus Saint-Gaudens is of interest to Chicagoans because four of his sculptures, one of which is the Standing Lincoln, can be seen in Lincoln Park and Grant Park.  What I discovered as I researched him was a very interesting character with an unusual memoir titled Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens: Edited and Amplified by Homer Saint-Gaudens.  This memoir published in 1913 is the first I’ve ever come across to have been “amplified.”  One of Saint-Gaudens’s sons, who has done the “amplifying” explains, “I have done my best to supply what is missing concerning his [Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s] attitude toward art and artists past and present, as well as to illuminate portions of his life by what his friends have told me, by various personal recollections and letters,” (vol.i.preface.xiv).  The text uses different font sizes to show when the father, Augustus the artist, is speaking and when his son, Homer, is explaining his father’s words.

Mr. Saint-Gaudens has a very matter-of-fact way of writing.  When speaking of his own birth in Ireland he says,  “I was born March 1, 1848 in Dublin, Ireland, near 35 Charlemount Street.  If that is not the house, no doubt the nearest Catholic church would give you the number,” (vol.i.9).  His mother, Mary McGuiness, supplied the Irish heritage, and his father, Bernard Paul Ernest Saint-Gaudens was from France.  Augustus writes of his father that, “He was born in the little village of Aspet, about fifty miles from Toulouse, at the foot of the Pyrenees, five miles south of the town of Saint-Gaudens…”  (vol.i.9).  Augustus confesses to knowing little about his father’s past and does not supply an explanation between the French town’s name and his own.


Orb with the Gettysburg Address

The family did not live in Dublin long and left Ireland when Augustus was only six months old.  Saint-Gaudens knows few details about the journey but says, “I do know, however, they landed at Boston town, probably in September, 1848,” (vol.i.9). Mary and Bernard then packed up again and moved to New York  where little Augustus would grow up and develop into “One of America’s greatest artists.” 1   As a young man Saint-Gaudens spent several years studying art and architecture in Europe and then returned to New York.  He slowly made a name for himself by designing Civil War memorials and monuments.  Saint-Gaudens had received a commission to do a memorial for Robert Gould Shaw and his 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (upon whom the film, Glory, was based) when he received a unique offer for another Civil War related commission in Chicago.  In his memoir Saint-Gaudens explains, “Then in the ensuing year, to add fat to the fire, a committee in Chicago wrote me asking if I would compete for a monument to Lincoln for that city, to be erected from a fund provided under the will of Mr. Eli Bates.  I refused.  Some time later they inquired if I would not undertake the commission directly, as well as a fountain.  Of course I accepted, naming a day for finishing it, which still further decreased the chance of completing the ‘Shaw’ in the time I hoped,” (vol.i.350).  The famous Lincoln statue was unveiled on October 22, 1887.  It can be found just behind the Chicago History Museum at Clark and North Avenue.

Storks at PlayThe fountain that Saint-Gaudens mentions can be found less than a mile north of the Standing Lincoln.  The fountain, Storks at Play, is the centerpiece of the Formal Gardens at the north-western entrance of Lincoln Park Zoo.  It sits just a few meters south of the Lincoln Park Conservatory and a few meters north of the large Schiller statue.  The fountain, just as Standing Lincoln had been, was installed there in 1887.  Saint-Gaudens gives a large deal of credit for the fountain to another artist who apprenticed under him.  Augustus explains,  “Of all my pupils, however, none has approached in importance a lad sent me by some stone-cutter as a studio boy whom he thought would answer my purpose…

Fountain close-up …This was Frederick William MacMonnies…I found a pronounced artistic atmosphere in some little terra-cotta sketches of animals which he brought to me…He remained with me for five years when subsequently I asked him to come back and help me for a year or less on the fountain I was commissioned to do at the same time as ‘Lincoln.’

He modeled the boys that are in the fountain, and, though he created them under my direction, whatever charm there may be in them is entirely due to his remarkable artistic ability, and whatever there is without charm can be laid at my door,” (vol.ii.6).  To the right is a detail of one of the boys that MacMonnies designed for the fountain.

Logan statueThe third sculpture that Saint-Gaudens created for Chicago is a bronze figure to remember another Civil War icon, Major General John A. Logan.  The Logan Museum in Murphysboro, Illinois, as well as other sources, credit Logan as “the Founder of Memorial Day as a national holiday.” 2  Logan also had been a U.S. Senator for Illinois.  Saint-Gaudens’s statue of him stands just east of Michigan Avenue and 9th street in the southern end of Grant Park.  At the statue’s unveiling in 1897 Saint-Gaudens apparently was feeling a bit churlish during the parade and reception.  He says of the event, “After this unveiling, a reception was given to Mrs. Logan and to me in one of the public buildings of Chicago.  This in another way I felt to be almost as touching and pathetic as the parade, though it possessed a sparkle of humor…” (vol.ii.85).  Mr. Saint-Gaudens seems to be a gentleman that rarely spoke polite, white lies.

Many individuals of a certain generation may also remember this statue from the 1968 Democratic National Convention when protestors swarmed the hill that the bronze figure sits upon and climbed atop the statue.  You can see footage of that event from the film Chicago 10 in this Youtube link.

The last sculpture Saint-Gaudens created for Chicago was one that he never got to see unveiled.  This statue, Seated Lincoln, however relieved for Saint-Gaudens a creative itch.

Seated LincolnIn Saint-Gaudens’s “amplified” memoir his son, Homer, explains,”Regarding the conception as a whole, he was from the beginning of two minds as to whether or not to make Lincoln seated, and this latter desire he satisfied in one of his final commissions, when he completed his second Lincoln that is to be erected in another part of Chicago; a Lincoln, the Head of the State, in contrast with the Lincoln, the Man, which now stands on the northern edge of the
city,” (vol.i.356).  This Seated Lincoln or as Homer calls it, Lincoln, the Head of State gave Saint-Gaudens the chance to have his standing Lincoln and seat him too.

This bronze sculpture was one of his final pieces.  He received the commission in a similar manner to the first: he was told to enter a competition, he refused, and then was offered the commission outright, but according to his son, “It is interesting to record that he nearly lost this opportunity, however, through that very absorption in his work which had placed him where he stood,” (vol.ii.307).  Saint-Gaudens was so focused on his work that he completely missed the appointment with the Chicago Century Club who planned to grant him this commission.  Eventually the Century Club decided that a man so dedicated to his craft must be the right person for the job.  Seated Lincoln was commissioned in 1889, but was cast in 1908, a year after Augustus Saint-Gaudens had passed.  It was shown in multiple cities in the United States for almost two decades and then was finally installed in Grant Park in 1926.  Lincoln sits in the aptly named President’s Court only a few blocks north of Saint-Gaudens’s Logan statue and just east of Buckingham Fountain.

If you have the opportunity in Chicago, head out to Grant Park and Lincoln Park to appreciate his work.  If you’re ever in Dublin, Ireland, the large Charles Parnell memorial on O’Connell street is one of his too.

Thank you for reading!

Resources & Citations

Saint-Gaudens, Augustus. Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens: Edited and Amplified by Homer Saint-Gaudens,
Century Company, NY. 1913.

Tharp, Louise Hall.  Saint-Gaudens and the Gilded Era.  Little, Brown. 1969.

1.  National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site
2.  John A. Logan Museum
3.  Chicago 10 Youtube clip

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in Chicago

Timuel LBC

Timuel Black

Hello and welcome!

This past Saturday, January 18th, I had the unique opportunity to take a tour called “The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” through the University of Chicago Graham School and the Civic Knowledge Project.  The fact that historian, Timuel Black, was leading this tour  made it truly special.  Mr. Black, born in December of 1918, has carried many titles in his 95 years: historian, teacher, author, activist, and World War II veteran.  Hearing Mr. Black talk about his work and time with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.

We boarded our bus at the University of Chicago right near Rockefeller Chapel.   King delivered three speeches on this campus, two of which occurred at Rockefeller Chapel on April 13, 1956 and then again on October 25, 1959. 1  On our tour bus Mr. Black spoke about King’s first speech at Rockefeller Chapel in 1956 and how it was originally intended to be at the nearby First Unitarian Church.  Black and other organizers soon realized they’d need a bigger venue when they saw the interest King’s presence was garnering and so they moved the event to Rockefeller.

After this discussion our tour bus quickly made its way to the next stop on the tour, Liberty Baptist Church at 49th and King Drive.  At the church we were met by Associate Pastor Rev. Damon Smith who shared some of the church’s history with us.  Liberty Baptist Church originally began as a social group called the Olive Leaf Club in 1917, but would blossom into a church community.  The church’s current building on 49th and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive opened in 1956 under Rev. A.P. Jackson.

Liberty Baptist Church

Liberty Baptist Church

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his work here in Chicago he focused on inequality, redlining, and poor housing on the city’s Westside, but headquartered at Liberty Baptist Church.  “Why headquarter on the Southside when you’re working on the Westside?” Rev. Damon Smith asked us.  “Well, it’s good to have friends,” he explained.  Dr. King, Jr. had gone to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia at the same time as Rev. A.P. Jackson and the two men had been friends.  Rev. A.P. Jackson opened up his church to King, so that Dr. King would have a place to meet, organize, and hold his press conferences.  In fact, Dr. King would hold a weekly press conference every Friday and give the media updates on what he and the Chicago Freedom Movement had accomplished towards their goals of eliminating housing discrimination.  Progress about organizing tenants’ unions, rallies, or marches would be shared.  You can see a picture below of the basement room where Dr. King held his weekly press conferences.

Currently, Liberty Baptist Church is working on updates to its buildings and facilities in order to meet criteria for consideration by the National Register of Historic Places.  It also maintains its presence in the community as a source of change and empowerment.  According to the church’s website, “Liberty Baptist Church of Chicago along with The Interfaith Housing Development Corporation formed a not-for-profit corporation to assist those impacted with HIV/AIDS.  In 1997 Vision House was opened. Vision House provides housing for HIV/AIDS singles and families.” 2

LBC Pulpit

Inside Liberty Baptist Church of Chicago

After touring Liberty Baptist Church and appreciating their hospitality, we got back on the tour bus to head to the Westside.  Our next stop was the Dr. King Legacy Apartments at 16th and Hamlin.  When Dr. King moved into the city in 1966 he chose the North Lawndale neighborhood because it was one of the most racially segregated communities suffering under deplorable conditions.  King hoped that his presence would help shine light on those terrible conditions so that they would change.  The complex in which Dr. King had lived has long since been torn down, but a non-profit, Lawndale Christian Development Corp., helped create “a 45-unit, green, quality affordable residential and commercial property located at 1550 S. Hamlin, built in 2011, in the exact location where Dr. King resided…” 3  This housing unit is one of the many parts that the LCDC will use to create a 4 acre M.L.K. Historic District.  Other elements are the Roots Café, a restaurant that will feature healthy choices for the community, a wellness center and a history exhibit center.


Where Dr. King, Jr. held press conferences

As part of the tour, we were able to get a sneak peek of that exhibit called the MLK Fair Housing Exhibit Center.  The inside featured maps, film clips, and a recreation of Dr. King’s own living room.  One of the highlights is a large mural by artist Phil Collins.  A crew was putting the finishing touches on the exhibit space getting ready for a VIP opening on January 20th and its official public opening on January 26th.  Many photographs were taken as we examined the exhibits and then we made our way back to the bus.

On our way back to Hyde Park we stopped briefly at Marquette Park.  In August of 1966 Dr. King led a march through Marquette park and infamously was met by a mob filled with venom and hate.  Someone threw a stone and struck Dr. King in the back of the head.  After this moment Dr. King leveled a strong indictment saying, “Well, this is a terrible thing.  I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I have seen here in Chicago.” 4

Legacy Apt.I’ve included a YouTube link below which shows this statement.  (Be aware, I believe it mislabeled the march site as Gage Park.)  The clip is less than ninety seconds long, but you get a strong sense of King’s peacefulness and inner calm when under pressure.

After stopping at Marquette Park to reflect on what King encountered, we then headed back to the University of Chicago.  For the entire tour Mr. Timuel Black was sharing anecdotes and stories about the neighborhoods and communities that have changed so much in his long lifetime.  At the end of the tour we applauded and thanked him for sharing his wisdom with us.  He was kind enough to sign my copy of his second oral history volume, Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s Second Generation of Black Migration too.  If you want to learn more about how communities like Bronzeville and North Lawndale grew and developed I highly recommend Mr. Black’s book.  We also thanked Professor Bart Schultz from the University of Chicago Graham School for organizing the tour and Larry Dixon from the CLDC for giving us early access to the MLK Fair Housing Exhibit Center.

Some critics view King’s time in Chicago as one of his less successful endeavors.  His work here though, with the Chicago Freedom Movement and other activists, helped lead to the Fair Housing Act.  Is there still discrimination, segregation and racism here in Chicago?  Yes, but the seeds of Reverend King’s time in Chicago are growing again in the North Lawndale community as organizations work to live up to his legacy.

Thank you for reading!

King Apartment

Putting up the finishing touches in the MLK Fair Housing Exhibit Center.











1 Allen, Susie & Drapa, Michael “When King Made History at UChicago.”

2  Liberty Baptist Church website

3 Lawndale Christian Development Corporation website:

4 YouTube clip:

The Great Migration and Bronzeville (part 3)

Bronzeville Map


Olivet Baptist

North side of Olivet Baptist

In my last post about Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and the Great Migration we left off at Allison Saar’s “Monument to Great Northern Migration” on S. Martin Luther King Drive and Eastgate Place. The next point of interest, the historic Olivet Baptist Church, sits only five blocks south on King Drive at 31st.   If you’re interested in visiting, the specific street address is 3101 S. King Drive and their website address is  Sadly, I don’t believe one can currently see the inside.  It appears there may be restoration work going on.  The limestone building itself was constructed back in 1875 and according to Olivet’s website, “In 1917, OBC purchased its current home, First Baptist Church, then located at 31st street and South Parkway.”  In fact the Church had several different locations before 1917 but has been existence as a church community going all the way back to 1850.  Their website explains, “It was started on April 6,1850 as Xenia Baptist in the home of one its members.  In 1853, Xenia Baptist was incorporated as Zoar Baptist Church. A few years later, in 1861, Zoar Baptist Church merged with Zion Baptist and became OBC.”  Like Quinn Chapel A.M.E. which I mentioned in my last post (part 2), Olivet Baptist was an important part of the Great Migration in Chicago.  In her non-fiction novel, Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson examines how Northern churches grew due to the Great Migration and she cites Olivet Baptist as an example saying, “The city’s Olivet Baptist Church got 5,000 new members in the first three years of the Migration, making it one of the largest Baptist churches and one of the first megachurches in the country,” (288).  Those numbers alone give you a sense of how many people were flowing north to Chicago all at once.


On the sidewalks around Olivet Baptist and on the median of King Drive sit several more of Geraldine McCullough’s Bronzeville Walk of Fame plaques.  Near Olivet Baptist the plaques remember Corneal Davis 1900-1995 “Elected State Representative 1943-1979” and Dr. Joseph H. Jackson 1900-1990 “President [of] National Baptist Convention.”  I’ve included a photograph of Margaret Burroughs’ marker which reads 1917-     “Artist[,] Founded DuSable Museum of African American History 1961.”  Regrettably, her plaque needs updating because Mrs. Burroughs passed in 2010.  Her obituary from the Chicago Tribune lists several organizations she helped found in addition to the DuSable Museum such as the South Side Community Art Center and the National Conference of African-American Artists.  On top of those accomplishments, she taught at DuSable High School for over two decades as well as at Kennedy-King College.  Use the link to read the full Tribune article by Kristen Schorsch, here.

MLK Library

Entrance to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library

After appreciating the Bronzeville Walk of Fame markers around Olivet Baptist Church you should continue to head south on Martin Luther King Drive.  Just before you reach 35th street you’ll encounter another cluster of Walk of Fame markers outside of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Branch Library.  The Chicago Public Library’s website explains, “In September 1969, South Parkway Branch and South Parkway Boulevard were renamed to honor the memory of civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”  The Bronzeville Walk of Fame plaques here sit together in a large diamond just outside the library’s main entrance.  The grouping of markers has a specific literary theme appropriate for a library.  This collection contains a plaque for Lorraine Hansberry 1930-1965 “Author & Playwright” who famously wrote the oft-adapted play, A Raisin in the Sun.  With her plaque sits another writer, Richard Wright 1908-1960 who the plaque lists simply as “Author.”  Wright actually lived in Bronzeville for several years at 3743 S. Indiana.  A future post on Bronzeville will have more about his home and time in Bronzeville.

Wright plaque

The other two figures included outside the library are Fannie Barrier Williams and Vivian Harsh.  Williams’ marker commemorates an extraordinarily long life and career, 1855-1960 “Lecturer, Journalist, Educator, 1st Black Member Library Board of Chicago.”  Vivian Harsh’s plaque reads, 1890-1960 “1st Black Librarian Chicago Public Library, Founder Special Negro Collection.”  Outside of another library further south in Bronzeville, the George Cleveland Hall branch at 4801 S. Michigan, a Chicago Tribute Marker for Harsh at that branch remembers her life’s labor.  The Tribute Marker says Harsh, “…devoted her life to building one of the most important research collections on African-American history and literature in the country.  The first black librarian in the Chicago Public Library system, she was appointed head librarian of the George Cleveland Hall Branch when it opened here in 1932.”  A future post on Bronzeville will also include more about Harsh, the Hall library, and Hall himself.

Bronzeville Map

Bronzeville Map

After viewing the plaques outside the library, head east across the street to the median on Martin Luther King Drive.  A large sign stands there explaining the history of Chicago’s boulevards such as the one you’d be standing on if you are reading that sign.  “The longest boulevard segment is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., (4.5 miles)” reads the sign.  This boulevard sign also lists several of the monuments along the boulevards such as Lorado Taft’s Fountain of Time.  Take a moment to navigate over the bushes around this sign to see its back (which faces north.)  You’ll find a good summary of Bronzeville history there along with some historical black and white photographs of the neighborhood.

A few steps south of the Boulevards sign you’ll find a 14 foot by 5 foot map of historic Bronzeville cast in bronze and inlaid in the ground.  It was installed in 1996 by sculptor and photographer Gregg LeFevre.  LeFevre has done several similar public art maps for other cities.  You can see some other examples of his public sculptures through Andrews/LeFevere Studios, here.

Near the bottom of the map it says, “Depicted here are some to the geographic, cultural and historical features of this area – the ‘Black Metropolis’ of Chicago.”  The bronze Bronzeville map features Migration sites I’ve discussed in this blog already such as the Illinois Central Railroad station, Quinn Chapel, Olivet Baptist Church and also many places I haven’t had the opportunity to discuss yet such as the Liberty Life Insurance Company,  Ida B. Wells’ home, the Sunset Café, Overton Hygienic building and too many more to count.  In addition to those sites you can find other historical locations on the map that occurred before the Great Migration such as Camp Douglas and the Swift Mansion.  Several spots on the map highlight Bronzeville’s cultural legacies like Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool” or the cover of Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son.  The map also shows where the Robert Taylor homes once stood.

If you look at the close-up of the map that I’ve included you can see a giant “YOU ARE HERE” arrow.  To left of the arrow you can see the King library branch which I mentioned above.  To the left of the arrow sits a large building labeled “Liberty Life Insurance” and just to the south is the “Victory Monument” our next two locations.

Bronzeville Map Close-Up

Bronzeville Map Close-Up

The Liberty Life Insurance building (later called Supreme Life Insurance) sits at the southeast corner of the intersection of 35th and MLK Drive.  Its actual address is 3501 S. Martin Luther King Drive.  According to the City of Chicago’s landmarks page it was built in 1921 and designated as a city landmark on September 8, 1998 along with 9 other structures in this Bronzeville Historic district.  Currently the building is most importantly used as the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center which provides tours of the area and acts as a cornerstone for the neighborhood.  You’ll find a gift shop, an exhibit gallery and probably a friendly docent from the neighborhood to answer questions about what to see next.

Supreme Life Insurance

Liberty Life Insurance

In his 2011 book, The Rise of Chicago’s Black Metropolis: 1920-1929, professor and historian Christopher Robert Reed explains why an insurance company was so important to the community back then, “The company was the brainchild of Arkansas-born Frank L. Gillespie, who had arrived in Chicago around 1889; Gillespie conceived of the idea of a black-owned and operated insurance firm and thought the time was ripe to bring it to fruition in 1919… In mid-1921, the Liberty Life Insurance Company opened its doors and began to sell life insurance to those who heretofore had not been considered insurable by white companies.  Insurance premiums were invested back into the community from which they came and each dollar in the Black Belt began to have ‘double duty,’ ”
(93-94).  It’s good to see an almost 100 year old building still invested in community’s development and growth.

World War I Doughboy MonumentWhile talking about the Liberty Life Insurance building above, I mentioned that it was one of 9 structures that had attained landmark status as part of the Bronzeville historic district.  Another one of those is the Victory Monument that stands on the median directly across the street from the Supreme/Liberty Life Insurance building.  This cylindrical monument was erected in 1929, “In memory of the heroes of the old 8th Infantry, Illinois National Guard, redesignated during the World War as the 370th Infantry of the United States Army who died in France.”  The inscription on the monument then goes on to list the names of the 137 members of the 8th Infantry who died during World War I.  The monument consists of a granite column with three bronze panels that feature a figure, one bronze panel with a commemorative inscription listing the soldiers’ names and finally a bronze statue of a WWI doughboy on top.  Under the eagle’s talons on the north facing panel you’ll find the artist’s signature, L. Crunelle.  For more specific information about the monument and its details go to the Historical Marker database website which states that this Victory Monument was, “The first state-sponsored memorial to Afro-American veterans of World War I…”

Even though he sits far atop the column, the doughboy on top has some incredible detail.  Click on the close-up photograph of the doughboy that I’ve provided to enlarge the image and see the intense detail of his face, uniform and bayonet.

Around the base of the Victory Monument sits several more Bronzeville
Hall of Fame plaques.  Close by you will find one marker remembering Lt.
George R. Giles c. 1895-1920 “World War I Hero.”  Giles Avenue wasDoughboy Close-Up
named after Lieutenant Giles who died in World War I according to Streetwise Chicago: A History of Chicago Street Names.  The 8th Regiment Armory, which is another historical structure from the list of 9, stands on Giles Avenue.  (A brief sidenote: the plaque lists a Lt. George R. Giles, but most sources I’ve read refer to him as Lt. George L. Giles.)

Another marker near the Victory Monument and Supreme/Liberty Life Insurance Company is for Truman Gibson Sr. 1882-1972 “Founded Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Co.” and also Truman Gibson Jr.  1912-      “Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War, 1940-1945.”  It appears this plaque also needs updating because Mr. Gibson Jr. passed in 2005.

Ida LandmarkThe last marker near the Victory Monument is for Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. 1935-1967 “1st Black Astronaut.”  I located an article from the Defense Department’s website recognizing Major Lawrence of the Air Force as an astronaut.  He died at Edwards Air Force base in a F-104 Starfighter crash.  This article from back in 1998 explains, “At the time Lawrence died, the Air Force and NASA programs were not connected. Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program participants were not considered astronauts even though they had the same skills and the two programs eventually merged. The Air Force reviewed Lawrence’s case after a request from the Astronauts Memorial Foundation on Jan. 2, 1997, and decided to raise his status to ‘astronaut.’ ”  The thing I appreciate about the Bronzeville Walk of Fame markers are these stories about heroes like Giles and Lawrence that I’ve never had the chance to learn about.

After studying the Victory Monument and the Bronzeville Walk of Fame plaques around it, cross back over to the west side of the street and head about half a block south to 3624 S. Martin Luther King Drive.  There you’ll find the home of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and her husband, Ferdinand Barnett.  The Chicago Tribute marker outside her home describes Wells-Barnett as, “An advocate for civil rights, woman’s suffrage and economic justice, her anti-lynching campaign stirred the nation…”  It goes on to explain her Chicago ties explaining, “In 1893, Wells came to Chicago to report on the lack of African American representation at the World’s Columbian Exposition.  She moved here and in 1895 married Ferdinand Lee Barnett, founder of Chicago’s first black newspaper, the Conservator.  That same year, she published A Red Record, the first statistical report on lynching…” Many of the original homes of important Bronzeville figures have been torn down or fallen into disrepair, but this home is still beautiful.  If you have the opportunity, I suggest that you also take a trip to the Chicago History Museum at North and Clark Avenues.  On the second floor of that museum in an exhibit titled The Crossroads of America you’ll see a bronze statue of Ida B. handing out pamphlets advocating for more African-Americans at the 1893 World’s Fair.

Ida HomeThe next site I’d like to discuss is the Sunset Café only about a block away from the Ida B. Wells home, but I’ll save that for a future blog.  I intended for my Bronzeville series to be only 3 parts long, but there’s such a wealth of history in this neighborhood and I’ve taken so many photographs that I intend to share more in the near future.

I need to focus on a reader request about a famous Irish sculptor and some of his famous statues for my next post in January.  Hopefully you are following this site through Twitter and Instagram where I put out updates about Chicago sports, books, beers, tours, authors, history, and more books.  If you have any questions or suggestions for future blog topics feel free to reach out to me through Gmail, Twitter, or Instagram.

Thank you for reading!

The Great Migration and Bronzeville (part 2)

"The Monument to the Great Northern Migration" just south of McCormick Place

“The Monument to the Great Northern Migration” just south of McCormick Place

Welcome!  My last post about the Great Migration into Chicago examined the end of the line for the Illinois Central railroad at old and now gone Union Station.  At that point thousands of African-Americans coming up from the South would’ve disembarked from their train to a new world and a new way of life.  Regrettably though, they would face some of the same problems here that they faced in the South such as terrible living conditions and limited choice about where they actually could live in Chicago.

Quinn Chapel AME on Wabash at 24th

Quinn Chapel AME on Wabash at 24th

In her epic exploration of the Great Migration called The Warmth of Other Suns author, Isabel Wilkerson, eloquently explains where the migrants were forced to live:

They were confined to a little isthmus on the South Side of Chicago that came to be called ‘Bronzeville,’ the ‘black belt,’ ‘North Mississippi.’  It was ‘a narrow tongue of land, seven miles in length and one half miles in width,’ as the midcentury historians St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton described it….
Up and down Indiana and Wabash and Prairie and South Parkway, across Twenty-second Street and down to Thirty-First and Thirty-ninth and into the low Forties, a colored world, a city within a city, rolled out from the sidewalk, the streets aflutter with grocers and undertakers, dressmakers and barbershops, tailors and pressers, dealers of coal and sellers of firewood, insurance agents and real estate men, pharmacists and newspapers, a YMCA and the Urban League, high steepled churches – Baptist, Holiness, African Methodist Episcopal churches practically transported from Mississippi and Arkansas – and stacked-heeled harlots stumbling out of call houses and buffet flats.  (268-269)

Our next stop on this Great Migration driving tour is one of those African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) churches that Wilkerson mentioned above.  In the photograph to the right you’ll see a building of worship for , “the oldest black congregation in Chicago, tracing its origins back to 1844,” as stated by the Chicago historical plaque next to the red doors nearest the corner. In fact, if you look at those doors you’ll see the Chicago landmark plaque (which was placed back in 1977 making it one of the earliest landmarks recognizing anything related to African-American history in Chicago) and also the cornerstone of the building which says, “Organized July 22, 1847 – Erected A.D. 1891.”

Quinn front door

The cornerstone is below the Quinn Chapel sign.

Quinn chapel would’ve been one of the first places a southern migrant may have stopped after stepping off an Illinois Central train.  He or she could’ve walked from old Union Station at Roosevelt and Indiana Avenue to Quinn at 24th and Wabash Avenue. Quinn was a large, permanent meeting place only a mile and a half from the hustle and bustle of Union Station.  Newcomers could’ve met family there or just stopped there to get help finding a place to stay in Chicago.  The amazing thing is that Great Migration of the 20th century was not the first time this congregation was an epicenter for newcomers.  It was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.  Historian Christopher Robert Reed recounts in Volume One of his Black Chicago’s First Century that, “Quinn Chapel also served as an important station on the Underground Railroad.  This resistance to slavery remained a proud part of Quinn Chapel’s heritage throughout the nineteenth century and beyond,” (83).   The church had several physical locations before the building at 24th and Wabash Avenue was completed, but it had been a spiritual force since the 1840s.  Robert Reed goes on to explain the church’s early origins:

Clarifying historical memory, Chicago African-American church history began undramatically in 1844 when a prayer band of from four to seven persons met in Abram T. Hall’s barbershop at Canal and Lake to worship and discuss his group’s religious needs.  By these actions they laid the foundation for the Quinn Chapel A.M.E.  So, based on necessity, but spurred with deep religiosity, the Chicagoans met continually in the homes of members…
The church was named after William Paul Quinn, a leading African American minister of the faith who converted them to the A.M.E. cause in his extensive and successful missionary work in the Old Northwest.

Landmark plaque for Quinn Chapel
Landmark plaque for Quinn Chapel

Quinn Chapel is unique because not only is it an important historical site, but it still functions as an active church and remains relevant to its community and congregation to this day.  If you have the opportunity, pay a brief visit to the church on a Sunday to see its splendid interior.  If you can’t make it there, check out the excellent 2010 documentary from PBS called DuSable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis because you’ll get a mini-tour of Quinn Chapel from current senior pastor Reverend James M. Moody.  For more information about the church and clips about it, go to their website:
I highly recommend viewing the clip, Quinn Chapel AME Restoration Video 2 (9:22).

The next stop on the Chicago Great Migration tour is a sculpture that didn’t exist during the Great Migration, but was created in honor of it.   If you drove to Quinn Chapel, now drive north on 24th Avenue, and take a right onto S. Michigan Avenue. As you drive south on Michigan Avenue you’ll cross over the Stevenson expressway and then take a left onto 25th street and begin heading east.  At Martin Luther King Jr. Drive you will take a right and head south very briefly.  The sculpture waits in the middle of King drive near Eastgate Place.

Sculptor Alison Saar's "Monument to the Great Northern Migration"

Sculptor Alison Saar’s “Monument to the Great Northern Migration”

This sculpture titled, “Monument to the Great Northern Migration,” was created by Alison Saar and dedicated in 1996.   Saar, the sculptor, works in a figurative style and this bronze monument to the Great Migration is an excellent example.  It stands about fifteen feet tall and the man Saar depicts appears to have a jaunt in his step as if he is excited to walk into his new future.  Near the base of the statue is a diamond-shaped plaque with information about the piece.  You can see it in a photograph below.  The base of the statue and the man himself have been sculpted to look as if they are composed of shoe soles and the diamond plaque explains, “The soles, worn and full of holes, symbolize the often difficult journey from the South to the North.  It commemorates all the African-American men and women who migrated to Chicago after the Civil War.”   Around the statue are a series of posts called bollards and the city’s own website details that,  “The bollards surrounding the monument are also suitcases that are textured with a pattern derived from the tin ceilings of the era. The figure is oriented to the north, symbolizing the traveler’s destination.” The link for statue through the city’s website is here.

The last photographs I’ve included below are two other diamond plaques on the sidewalks near the monument.  These markers are part of the “Bronzeville Walk of Fame” and honor important figures from the neighborhood’s history.  Designed by Geraldine McCullough these plaques appear on sidewalks and medians along King Drive starting near 25th and Saar’s migration sculpture.  According to the Illinois tourism website this spot is the beginning of a 1.5-mile stretch containing 91 bronze plaques from 25th to 47th.  For more information go to their website at

Marker for the Migration Monument

Marker for the Migration Monument

One of the plaques is for Richard Motts who founded the Pekin Theater which once stood at 27th and State.  The other plaque is for John E. Johnson the founder of the eponymous Johnson Publications which produces Ebony and Jet magazines.  Currently at the Chicago History Museum there is an exhibit focusing on Ebony’s fashion shows.  It runs only until January 5th.  If you’re interested in learning more go the exhibit’s website.

This is the end of this post.  I’ll be covering several more Bronzeville sites along King Drive in my next blog on Bronzeville and the Great Migration which will be up soon after Christmas.  I’ll include several more of the “Walk of Fame” plaques and many other important landmarks.

Then in January I’ll focus on a reader request about a famous Irish sculptor and his Chicago connections.  Thank you for reading!

John H. Johnson diamond

John H. Johnson diamond

Robert Motts diamond

Robert Motts diamond