Closed School Biographies: Anthony Overton

DSCN1108

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

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in Chicago

Timuel LBC

Timuel Black

Hello and welcome!

This past Saturday, January 18th, I had the unique opportunity to take a tour called “The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” through the University of Chicago Graham School and the Civic Knowledge Project.  The fact that historian, Timuel Black, was leading this tour  made it truly special.  Mr. Black, born in December of 1918, has carried many titles in his 95 years: historian, teacher, author, activist, and World War II veteran.  Hearing Mr. Black talk about his work and time with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.

We boarded our bus at the University of Chicago right near Rockefeller Chapel.   King delivered three speeches on this campus, two of which occurred at Rockefeller Chapel on April 13, 1956 and then again on October 25, 1959. 1  On our tour bus Mr. Black spoke about King’s first speech at Rockefeller Chapel in 1956 and how it was originally intended to be at the nearby First Unitarian Church.  Black and other organizers soon realized they’d need a bigger venue when they saw the interest King’s presence was garnering and so they moved the event to Rockefeller.

After this discussion our tour bus quickly made its way to the next stop on the tour, Liberty Baptist Church at 49th and King Drive.  At the church we were met by Associate Pastor Rev. Damon Smith who shared some of the church’s history with us.  Liberty Baptist Church originally began as a social group called the Olive Leaf Club in 1917, but would blossom into a church community.  The church’s current building on 49th and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive opened in 1956 under Rev. A.P. Jackson.

Liberty Baptist Church

Liberty Baptist Church

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his work here in Chicago he focused on inequality, redlining, and poor housing on the city’s Westside, but headquartered at Liberty Baptist Church.  “Why headquarter on the Southside when you’re working on the Westside?” Rev. Damon Smith asked us.  “Well, it’s good to have friends,” he explained.  Dr. King, Jr. had gone to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia at the same time as Rev. A.P. Jackson and the two men had been friends.  Rev. A.P. Jackson opened up his church to King, so that Dr. King would have a place to meet, organize, and hold his press conferences.  In fact, Dr. King would hold a weekly press conference every Friday and give the media updates on what he and the Chicago Freedom Movement had accomplished towards their goals of eliminating housing discrimination.  Progress about organizing tenants’ unions, rallies, or marches would be shared.  You can see a picture below of the basement room where Dr. King held his weekly press conferences.

Currently, Liberty Baptist Church is working on updates to its buildings and facilities in order to meet criteria for consideration by the National Register of Historic Places.  It also maintains its presence in the community as a source of change and empowerment.  According to the church’s website, “Liberty Baptist Church of Chicago along with The Interfaith Housing Development Corporation formed a not-for-profit corporation to assist those impacted with HIV/AIDS.  In 1997 Vision House was opened. Vision House provides housing for HIV/AIDS singles and families.” 2

LBC Pulpit

Inside Liberty Baptist Church of Chicago

After touring Liberty Baptist Church and appreciating their hospitality, we got back on the tour bus to head to the Westside.  Our next stop was the Dr. King Legacy Apartments at 16th and Hamlin.  When Dr. King moved into the city in 1966 he chose the North Lawndale neighborhood because it was one of the most racially segregated communities suffering under deplorable conditions.  King hoped that his presence would help shine light on those terrible conditions so that they would change.  The complex in which Dr. King had lived has long since been torn down, but a non-profit, Lawndale Christian Development Corp., helped create “a 45-unit, green, quality affordable residential and commercial property located at 1550 S. Hamlin, built in 2011, in the exact location where Dr. King resided…” 3  This housing unit is one of the many parts that the LCDC will use to create a 4 acre M.L.K. Historic District.  Other elements are the Roots Café, a restaurant that will feature healthy choices for the community, a wellness center and a history exhibit center.

DSCN1452

Where Dr. King, Jr. held press conferences

As part of the tour, we were able to get a sneak peek of that exhibit called the MLK Fair Housing Exhibit Center.  The inside featured maps, film clips, and a recreation of Dr. King’s own living room.  One of the highlights is a large mural by artist Phil Collins.  A crew was putting the finishing touches on the exhibit space getting ready for a VIP opening on January 20th and its official public opening on January 26th.  Many photographs were taken as we examined the exhibits and then we made our way back to the bus.

On our way back to Hyde Park we stopped briefly at Marquette Park.  In August of 1966 Dr. King led a march through Marquette park and infamously was met by a mob filled with venom and hate.  Someone threw a stone and struck Dr. King in the back of the head.  After this moment Dr. King leveled a strong indictment saying, “Well, this is a terrible thing.  I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I have seen here in Chicago.” 4

Legacy Apt.I’ve included a YouTube link below which shows this statement.  (Be aware, I believe it mislabeled the march site as Gage Park.)  The clip is less than ninety seconds long, but you get a strong sense of King’s peacefulness and inner calm when under pressure.

After stopping at Marquette Park to reflect on what King encountered, we then headed back to the University of Chicago.  For the entire tour Mr. Timuel Black was sharing anecdotes and stories about the neighborhoods and communities that have changed so much in his long lifetime.  At the end of the tour we applauded and thanked him for sharing his wisdom with us.  He was kind enough to sign my copy of his second oral history volume, Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s Second Generation of Black Migration too.  If you want to learn more about how communities like Bronzeville and North Lawndale grew and developed I highly recommend Mr. Black’s book.  We also thanked Professor Bart Schultz from the University of Chicago Graham School for organizing the tour and Larry Dixon from the CLDC for giving us early access to the MLK Fair Housing Exhibit Center.

Some critics view King’s time in Chicago as one of his less successful endeavors.  His work here though, with the Chicago Freedom Movement and other activists, helped lead to the Fair Housing Act.  Is there still discrimination, segregation and racism here in Chicago?  Yes, but the seeds of Reverend King’s time in Chicago are growing again in the North Lawndale community as organizations work to live up to his legacy.

Thank you for reading!

King Apartment

Putting up the finishing touches in the MLK Fair Housing Exhibit Center.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Allen, Susie & Drapa, Michael “When King Made History at UChicago.”
http://www.uchicago.edu/features/20120109_mlk/

2  Liberty Baptist Church website
http://www.lbcofchicago.org/History.html

3 Lawndale Christian Development Corporation website:
http://www.lcdc.net/mlk_historical_district.html

4 YouTube clip:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_pjbnMXM1o