The Great Migration and Bronzeville (part 1)

A Bench in Bronzeville

A Bench in Bronzeville

In my last post I discussed Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration and her appearance at Harold Washington Library for One Book, One Chicago.  Wilkerson’s book follows three African-Americans who came up north to escape the Jim Crow South.  One of the individuals in the book, Ida Mae Gladney, eventually settled here in Chicago.  With today’s post and my next one I hope to track one possible route that southern migrants like Ida Mae  would’ve taken when coming into Chicago.  Several historical sites and institutions not only exist, but still function in their original capacity such as Quinn Chapel or the Chicago Urban League.  There are numerous places, so keep in mind that what I’ll be including here is only a smattering of possible sites to see.  I’ve collected these points and images to create a driving tour demarking the migrants’ arrival in Chicago to life in Bronzeville.  Today I am focusing on only one site.

Where Central Station once stood until 1974

Where Central Station once stood until 1974

Take a moment and look at the photograph to the right.  Why did I share a picture of a ridiculously pricey South Loop condo?  That is where our first stop on the Great Migration trail to Chicago once existed.  This is where Central Station stood.  It was a depot for many train lines, one of which was the Illinois Central which brought thousands of African-Americans up to Chicago during the waves of the Great Migration.  For migrants coming to Chicago, this is where they stepped off the train.  Sadly, no official City of Chicago marker exists (to the best of my knowledge and searching) to commemorate this station.  We do, however, have a Mississippi Blues Trail Marker that celebrates this historic site.  In the photograph with the condo you can see it standing to the right in the foreground.  Thank you Mississippi.  You can learn more about their Blues trail at msbluestrail.org.  It does also mention a link to explorechicago.com which contained a Blues Tour narrated by none other than our own, Buddy Guy.  The website however, re-navigated me to a new website where I could not find the audio tour.  I find this to be disheartening because I know Mr. Guy has been attempting to create a blues district in Chicago to honor our Chicago blues history, but Chicago politics has proven an obstacle.  At least we have the blues trail marker which explains that migrants such as bluesman, Muddy Waters, “arrived on Illinois Central trains which arrived at Central Station which stood across the street from this site from 1893 to 1974.”

Marker remembering original Union Station

Marker remembering original Union Station

The marker is right near the Museum campus and sits just north of Roosevelt Rd. near Indiana Avenue.  A few paces south of the marker stands 106 cast iron figures called Agora and sculpted by Magadalena Abakanowicz.  If you see those haunting and tall walking sculptures, you are very close.  From public transportation the site and marker are only about a 3 block walk east from the Roosevelt Green/Orange/Red line station.

If you have the opportunity to walk over to where the marker stands, take a moment to pause there and listen to the city.  People rush back and forth, traffic pours by and Metra trains rumble in and out from this spot, but it is still a pleasant park.  The noise and chaos you hear now couldn’t have possibly matched what southern migrants like Ida Mae Gladney experienced when they first arrived in Chicago.  (I strongly suggest that you do not choose to stand and listen at this spot on a Sunday when the Bears are playing at home.  You’ll have an entirely different sound experience.)  In Warmth of Others Suns Wilkerson recounts Ida Mae’s arrival:

                 Ida Mae and her family had ridden all through the night on the Illinois Central and had arrived, stiff and disheveled, in a cold, hurrying place of concrete and steel.  People clipped past them in their wool finery and distracted urgency, not pausing to speak – people everywhere, more people than they had maybe seen in one single place in their entire lives, coming as they were from the spread-out, isolated back country of plantations and lean-tos… The great belching city she passed through that day was the first city Ida Mae had ever laid eyes on.  That first glimpse of Chicago would stay wither her for as long as she lived.

This is why the site remains so historically important.  I write this in the year 2013.  The Great Migration statistically began about 1916.  This place, this entry point, was less than 100 years old yet the station itself is long gone without even a Chicago plaque to remember its value.

I haven’t touched  on any true Bronzeville sites yet, but I will cover several in my next two posts.  Part 2 will be up next Sunday.  As always, thank you for reading.

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