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

The Great Migration and Bronzeville (part 3)

Bronzeville Map

Welcome!

Olivet Baptist

North side of Olivet Baptist

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.

Burroughs

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.

MLK Library

Entrance to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library

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.

Wright plaque

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.

Bronzeville Map

Bronzeville Map

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.

Bronzeville Map Close-Up

Bronzeville Map Close-Up

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.

Supreme Life Insurance

Liberty Life Insurance

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.

World War I Doughboy MonumentWhile 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 wasDoughboy Close-Up
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.

Ida LandmarkThe 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.

Ida HomeThe 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!

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: http://quinnchicago.org/news-events/church-videos/
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 http://illinoistourism.org/soul/

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

The Great Migration and Bronzeville (part 1)

A Bench in Bronzeville

A Bench in Bronzeville

In my last post I discussed Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration and her appearance at Harold Washington Library for One Book, One Chicago.  Wilkerson’s book follows three African-Americans who came up north to escape the Jim Crow South.  One of the individuals in the book, Ida Mae Gladney, eventually settled here in Chicago.  With today’s post and my next one I hope to track one possible route that southern migrants like Ida Mae  would’ve taken when coming into Chicago.  Several historical sites and institutions not only exist, but still function in their original capacity such as Quinn Chapel or the Chicago Urban League.  There are numerous places, so keep in mind that what I’ll be including here is only a smattering of possible sites to see.  I’ve collected these points and images to create a driving tour demarking the migrants’ arrival in Chicago to life in Bronzeville.  Today I am focusing on only one site.

Where Central Station once stood until 1974

Where Central Station once stood until 1974

Take a moment and look at the photograph to the right.  Why did I share a picture of a ridiculously pricey South Loop condo?  That is where our first stop on the Great Migration trail to Chicago once existed.  This is where Central Station stood.  It was a depot for many train lines, one of which was the Illinois Central which brought thousands of African-Americans up to Chicago during the waves of the Great Migration.  For migrants coming to Chicago, this is where they stepped off the train.  Sadly, no official City of Chicago marker exists (to the best of my knowledge and searching) to commemorate this station.  We do, however, have a Mississippi Blues Trail Marker that celebrates this historic site.  In the photograph with the condo you can see it standing to the right in the foreground.  Thank you Mississippi.  You can learn more about their Blues trail at msbluestrail.org.  It does also mention a link to explorechicago.com which contained a Blues Tour narrated by none other than our own, Buddy Guy.  The website however, re-navigated me to a new website where I could not find the audio tour.  I find this to be disheartening because I know Mr. Guy has been attempting to create a blues district in Chicago to honor our Chicago blues history, but Chicago politics has proven an obstacle.  At least we have the blues trail marker which explains that migrants such as bluesman, Muddy Waters, “arrived on Illinois Central trains which arrived at Central Station which stood across the street from this site from 1893 to 1974.”

Marker remembering original Union Station

Marker remembering original Union Station

The marker is right near the Museum campus and sits just north of Roosevelt Rd. near Indiana Avenue.  A few paces south of the marker stands 106 cast iron figures called Agora and sculpted by Magadalena Abakanowicz.  If you see those haunting and tall walking sculptures, you are very close.  From public transportation the site and marker are only about a 3 block walk east from the Roosevelt Green/Orange/Red line station.

If you have the opportunity to walk over to where the marker stands, take a moment to pause there and listen to the city.  People rush back and forth, traffic pours by and Metra trains rumble in and out from this spot, but it is still a pleasant park.  The noise and chaos you hear now couldn’t have possibly matched what southern migrants like Ida Mae Gladney experienced when they first arrived in Chicago.  (I strongly suggest that you do not choose to stand and listen at this spot on a Sunday when the Bears are playing at home.  You’ll have an entirely different sound experience.)  In Warmth of Others Suns Wilkerson recounts Ida Mae’s arrival:

                 Ida Mae and her family had ridden all through the night on the Illinois Central and had arrived, stiff and disheveled, in a cold, hurrying place of concrete and steel.  People clipped past them in their wool finery and distracted urgency, not pausing to speak – people everywhere, more people than they had maybe seen in one single place in their entire lives, coming as they were from the spread-out, isolated back country of plantations and lean-tos… The great belching city she passed through that day was the first city Ida Mae had ever laid eyes on.  That first glimpse of Chicago would stay wither her for as long as she lived.

This is why the site remains so historically important.  I write this in the year 2013.  The Great Migration statistically began about 1916.  This place, this entry point, was less than 100 years old yet the station itself is long gone without even a Chicago plaque to remember its value.

I haven’t touched  on any true Bronzeville sites yet, but I will cover several in my next two posts.  Part 2 will be up next Sunday.  As always, thank you for reading.