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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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