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

One Book, One Chicago & “The Warmth of Other Suns”

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       Since 2001 the Chicago Public Library has been uniting the city in one giant book club they call One Book, One Chicago.  In previous years they’ve examined works by a wide range of authors from James Baldwin to Markus Zusak.  Each year there has been a focus on two books, one in the spring and a second in the fall, but this year there’s just one: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.  According to the library’s website, “Instead of just one month spent with a great book, spend a year exploring a great theme through books, films, performances, lectures, storytelling and art. For the next 12 months we’ll look at how migration has shaped—and continues to shape—Chicago.”  Dedicating a year to this over 500 page text also seemed a necessity because it comprehensively conveys the mammoth scope of the Great Migration.  Wilkerson takes such a massive idea, however, and successfully makes it intimate for the reader by sharing the personal struggles and stories of three people that migrated up from the South in order to make a better life for themselves and their children.  One of the three individuals is Ida Mae Gladney, who left Mississippi and came to Chicago with her husband back in 1937.  At an earlier event in September, the Chicago Public Library hosted an event in collaboration with the Urban League at which several of Ida Mae Gladney’s children, and grandchildren were honored.  Her story reveals the history of Bronzeville, which is a neighborhood I’ll be focusing on later this month in future posts.

        Last week Tuesday on October 1st, the library hosted Isabel Wilkerson, the author, at the Harold Washington Library in the Winter Garden on the 9th floor.  The room was packed.  I arrived at 5:40, twenty minutes before it began and ended up in the overflow room with number 568 for the book signing afterward.

People lined up to get their books signed in the Winter Garden.

       At the start of her lecture Wilkerson spoke of how this book had taken over her life.  It came out in 2010 and she is booked to do speaking engagements on it until the spring of 2014.  After reading it, it’s easy to understand why.  Wilkerson weaves big-picture facts about the Great Migration in a smooth, entertaining manner and then transitions to the smaller, personal portrait with each of the three individuals she follows.  As she spoke at the library she shared several of the details from her book.  For example, in one southern courthouse, “there was a white Bible and a black Bible to swear to tell the truth on.  Even the Word of God was segregated!”  In this environment Wilkerson said that “this was a defection” for the individuals who decided to take a chance on going up North.

       She listed off authors like Toni Morrison and musicians like Miles Davis and John Coltrane as examples of icons who would not exist without the Great Migration.  Wilkerson told a quick story about how Coltrane’s mother had moved up North to Philadelphia without him in order to make money and eventually send for him.  “Upon his arrival,” Wilkerson explained, “his mother gave him a gift of an alto saxophone.”   She then added that, “Without the Great Migration, jazz would not exist as we know it.” 

       Jesse Owens, the Olympian who won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, was another product of the Great Migration who Wilkerson shared about that evening.  To fully appreciate her telling of Owens’s story, you need to pick up her book to learn how James Cleveland Owens became known as Jesse.  That evening Wilkerson echoed one of the same points she also made in the epilogue of her novel saying, “These people were not just gifts to the United States, not just our country, but these people were gifts to the world.” 

       Near the end of her lecture Wilkerson emphasized the heartbreaking nature of the migration.  This all happened before the age of social media and even before most people in the South had telephones.  Many African-Americans left, “not knowing if they’d see their loved ones, the people that raised them, ever again.”  Many times while up North they would get a telegram telling them to hurry back home and see mama one last time before she passed.  Thousands of people left and took a chance on a strange land in order to escape the Southern caste system. 

       Wilkerson then made an interesting point about Jim Crow saying that not only did it smother the lives of African-Americans, but it also hurt those at the top of the hierarchy who were keeping African-Americans down.  She said, “Their loss was a spiritual loss,” and went on to say, “If you are going to hold someone down in a ditch, you have to get down in the ditch with them.”  This echoes a theme found throughout Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches and writings.  In his speech The Rising Tide of Social Consciousness King argues, “As a race we must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship, but we must never use second-class methods to gain it.  Our aim must be not to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.”  One of the amazing things about King was his empathy and I believe that is where the true value of Wilkerson’s book awaits us.

       Recently, a study was discussed in the news about how reading literary fiction makes the reader more empathetic.  The study titled, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” appeared in the October 3rd issue of Science.  Despite the fact that Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is a non-fiction text, I will argue that it too inspires empathy, which I believe is something we need so much more of in our culture today.

       Wilkerson shares not only the lives of the individuals she followed, but their hopes and disappointments, their failures and successes.  It is this intimacy that builds empathy.  Wilkerson ended her lecture at the library saying, “We have been bequeathed a beautiful burden: to make their sacrifices means something.”  What wonderful alliteration and what a breath-taking challenge!  I look around at the violence in Chicago and so many other cities today.  We have so much work to do. 

       We must work to overcome indifference.  Work to unite separated neighborhoods.  Work to make each other see that the problems for one are problems for all.  Work to create empathy.  In a speech for integrating schools back in 1959 King eloquently advocated, “Make a career of humanity…You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”  Books like Wilkerson’s are the first step toward that finer world.

My next post about Ida Mae Gladney’s neighborhood, Bronzeville, will be up later this month.

Thank you for reading!

Isabel Wilkerson

Signed!

Signed!