Closed School Biographies: Samuel Gompers

 

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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.

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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.

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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: http://www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks/gompers-park/

3         Gompers, Samuel. What Does Labor Want? A Paper Read before the International Labor Congress, Chicago, IL. September, 1893.  http://www.gompers.umd.edu/1893%20more%20speech.htm

Closed School Biographies: Anthony Overton

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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