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

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