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 olivetbaptistchurchchicago.org. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While 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 was
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.
The 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.
The 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!