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

Rube Foster and Schorling’s Park

South Side Park (later, Schorling Park) stood at 39th and Wentworth Ave.

South Side Park (later, Schorling Park) stood at 39th and Wentworth Ave.

Warm weather has arrived to stay (at least for a few months) and baseball season is heating up.  Much has been made in Chicago news recently about Wrigley Field and the commemorations for its 100th anniversary.  The ballpark began as home to the Chicago Whales, a Federal League team, in 1914 and it was originally called Weeghman Field for its owner, Charles Weeghman.  All of this has been covered, however, in honor of Wrigley Field’s centennial celebrations.

What I want to look into with today’s post is a relatively forgotten ballpark that housed many championship games on Chicago’s other side of town: South Side Park (and later Schorling Park).  This park stood at 39th and Wentworth Avenue from 1893 until it burned down on Christmas Day in 1940.  It was called South Side Park (and sometimes 39th Street Grounds) from 1900 to 1910 while the Chicago White Sox (then known as the White Stockings) played there.  According to Paula Lupkin of the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “The relocation of the White Stockings to Comiskey Park enabled Chicago’s Negro League team, the American Giants, to purchase their old facility, South Side Park, located at 39th and Wentworth. Rechristened Schorling Park, it stood until 1940 when it was destroyed by fire.”  Shortly after baseball began integration, the Negro League started to fade and was gone by the 1950s.

Today, near the spot you can find a Chicago Tribute marker (as seen in the photograph above) which commemorates Andrew “Rube” Foster.  We’ll look at him more in a moment.

No other ballpark went up on the 39th and Wentworth Avenue site after the fire in 1940.  What intrigues me, however, isn’t the park’s end, so much as its beginning in 1893.  As every Chicago history fan knows, 1893 was the year of the World’s Columbian Exposition.  In the excellent book When Chicago Ruled Baseball: The Cubs-White Sox World Series of 1906 author, Bernard A. Weisberger explains, “The park had opened in 1893 in time for the world’s fair for a professional cricket team known as the Chicago Wanderers, who played and drew their audience from recent immigrants from the British Isles.  There were not enough of these to make the Wanderers a success, however, and by 1900 the grounds were no more than a bumpy abandoned lot strewn with junk.  Yet Comiskey spotted the place as a choice location,” (62).  The thing I love about Weisberger’s book is that he takes plain facts like the dimensions of a ballpark and puts them fluidly into context.  Look at his description of South Side Park:

In 1900, Comiskey’s first task after cleaning up, leveling and seeding the deserted cricket field (a job in which he sometimes joined with his own hands) was to create seating.  The First National Bank of Chicago lent him the money for an enclosed wooden grandstand extending from first to third base, the roof supported by whitewashed posts.  The dimensions made it a tough place for right-handed hitters: the left-field foul line was 355 feet long, left center was 400 feet from home plate, and center field was a deep 450 feet (but only when not accommodating standees).  The distance to the right-field fence seems to have disappeared from available records, but given the fact that the White Sox’ regular-season lineup featured four left-handed hitters (and one who batted from either side of the plate), it seems likely that it was at least as short as and possibly shorter than the left-field line. 63-64.

The White Sox played in South Side Park until 1910 when Comiskey’s new park opened its gates on July 1st of 1910.  Before leaving however the White Sox would make a lot of memories there such as winning Chicago’s only crosstown World Series in 1906.  A fact that I need to research more involves whether or not Comiskey had owned or was leasing the land for South Side Park.  One of the most recent biographies on his life, Turning the Black Sox White: The Misunderstood Legacy of Charles A. Comiskey states, “…Comiskey was a man who treasured tradition and familiarity.  That being said, he initially discussed terms with the owner of the current South Side Park at 39th and Wentworth Avenue to buy or lease the land for twenty years.  A mutually satisfactory agreement could not be reached, so Comiskey moved on,” (171).  Another text, however, titled Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, The Great Migration, and Black Urban Life examines the uneasy transition from South Side Park to Schorling Park.  That author, Davarian L. Baldwin, states, “The major point of reported contention among race leaders was Foster’s partnership with John Schorling, a white saloon keeper and son-in-law of Charles Comiskey, who leased the old White Sox stadium on 39th and Wentworth to the American Giants,” (212).  Regardless of who owned it, after the White Sox moved out, Rube Foster and his Chicago American Giants moved in.

The city’s tribute marker remembers Foster and explains, “Andrew ‘Rube’ Foster dominated the Negro Leagues as a pitcher, manager, owner, and league organizer.”  Foster came to Chicago in 1906 to play for and manage the Leland Giants but, “In 1911, in partnership with white saloonkeeper John Schorling he founded the Chicago American Giants, which became one of the greatest teams in black baseball history…He led his team to Negro League championships in 1914, 1915, and 1917.”  In many ways Foster was the heart of the league and an excellent promoter of the sport.  In his book Chicago’s New Negroes Baldwin argues, “For the next decade, Foster’s Giants were among the most dominant black nine, and some would say baseball team more generally.  Foster’s disciplining and ‘scientific’ style of speedy play focused on pitching, targeted hitting, base stealing, and signaling,” (213).  Foster entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981, but I feel his legacy sadly needs greater prominence and emphasis in Chicago.

You can find his tribute marker on the northwest corner of 39th/Pershing and Wentworth Avenue just a few block south of where the White Sox currently play.  After games many baseball fans drive past it and the very spot where South Side/Schorling Park once stood when they attempt to get back onto the Dan Ryan expressway.

 

Rube Foster Tribute Marker

Rube Foster Tribute Marker

 

Resources and Citations

Baldwin, Davarian L.  Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, The Great Migration, and Black Urban Life.  2007.

Hornbaker, Tim.  Turning the Black Sox White: The Misunderstood Legacy of Charles A. Comiskey. 2014

Weisberger, Bernard A.  When Chicago Ruled Baseball: The Cubs-White Sox  World Series of 1906. 2006.

 

White Sox timeline
http://chicago.whitesox.mlb.com/cws/history/timeline01.jsp

Paul Healey’s Project Ballpark

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.

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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

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!

Kinzie: Chicago Pioneer? Part 3

 Kinzie Corridor

      Welcome back!  This is my third and final post on John Kinzie and his life in early Chicago.  We left off examining the death of Jean Lalime, the man that John Kinzie killed.  The first account I shared came from Kinzie’s granddaughter, Eleanor Lytle Kinzie Gordon, in which she described a knife fight between the two men outside of Fort Dearborn.  Most accounts, however, mention that Jean Lalime had a gun, not a knife.

The next account I’ll share comes from Joseph Kirkland’s Chicago Massacre of 1812, a text published back in 1893.  Kirkland shares an 1881 letter from Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, another fur trader, to “Long John” Wentworth, a Chicago Mayor.  (If the names are familiar, it’s because they’ve been memorialized with Hubbard Street and Wentworth Avenue.)  In the letter Hubbard shares the version of Lalime’s death that he heard directly from Kinzie’s wife.  This is yet another account from a Kinzie family member which lends credence to the cliché, history is written by the victors.  Hubbard tells Wentworth, “Mrs. Kinzie said that her husband and Lalime had for several years been on unfriendly terms, and had had frequent altercations; that at the time of the encounter Mr. Kinzie had crossed the river alone, in a canoe, going to the fort, and that Lalime met him outside the garrison and shot him, the ball cutting the side of his neck…Mr. Kinzie, closing fast with Lalime, stabbed him and returned to the house covered with blood.  He told his wife what he had done, that he feared he had killed Lalime, and probably a squad would be sent for him and that he must hide,” (Kirkland 189).

After killing Lalime, Kinzie did go briefly into hiding.  Remember, Lalime was the interpreter at Fort Dearborn and a federal employee for the United States.  Soldiers, Lalime’s friends, may have wanted to apprehend Kinzie, but Lieutenant Helm, an officer at the Fort, was Kinzie’s son-in-law.  Hubbard goes on to explain in his letter, “Lalime was, I understand, an educated man, and quite a favorite with the officers, who were greatly excited.  They decided he should be buried near the Kinzie’s house, in plain view from his front door and piazza,” (Kirkland 189).  There was an investigation, but the only mention I’ve seen of a trial is in Kinzie Gordon’s sometimes inaccurate John Kinzie: The “Father of Chicago”; A Sketch.  She states that her grandfather had a trial in which he was exonerated.  She also mentions details about Lalime’s grave saying, “In the meantime some of Lalime’s friends conceived the idea that it would be suitable punishment to Mr. Kinzie to bury his victim directly in front of the Kinzie home, where he must necessarily behold the grave every time he passed out of his own gate.  Great was their chagrin and disappointment, however, when Mr. Kinzie, far from being annoyed at their action, proceeded to make Lalime’s grave his especial care,” (Kinzie Gordon 9).  Like Kirkland, Kinzie Gordon also cites a letter from Gurdon S. Hubbard.  This time Hubbard is writing Kinzie’s grandson, Arthur Kinzie.  While Hubbard repeatedly states in one letter that Kinzie never talked about Lalime’s death, Hubbard himself, who first arrived in Chicago six years after the murder, appears unable to stop talking about it.  The intriguing thing is this story about Lalime’s gravesite which we’ll examine in a few moments.

Before that, I want to look at one more account of Lalime’s death.  This one comes from Volume Two of Alfred Theodore Andreas’s History of Chicago.  Andreas shares the account of two sisters who say, “Kinzie and Lalime came out together, and so we heard Lieutenant Helm call out for Mr. Kinzie to look out for Lalime, as he had a pistol.  Quick we saw the men come together.  We heard the pistol go off and saw the smoke.  Then they fell down together.  I don’t know as Lalime got up at all, but Kinzie got home pretty quick. Blood was running from his shoulder where Lalime shot him….You see, Kinzie wasn’t to blame at all.  He didn’t have any pistol nor knife – nothing.  After Lalime shot him and Kinzie got his arms around him, he (Lalime) pulled out his dirk, and as they fell he was stabbed with his own knife.  That is what they all said,” (Andreas V.II, 105).  This third version states that Kinzie never had any weapon at all.  The second version which I shared above states that Kinzie had a knife and Lalime had a gun.  In the first account I shared in a previous post, both Lalime and Kinzie had knives and there is a detailed dialogue between Kinzie and son as he sharpens his blade.  Which version is the truest?

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The alleged skeleton of Jean Lalime

John Kinzie's grave, the oldest marker in Graceland Cemetery

John Kinzie’s grave, the oldest marker in Graceland Cemetery

 

One can compare accounts and find the common details and overlapping facts, but we’ll never know for sure.  Either way, Kinzie killed Lalime, but there were never any official consequences for Lalime’s death.  Some accounts allege that Lalime was buried directly on Kinzie’s property (as mentioned in Kinzie Gordon’s account above) or that Lalime’s grave was several hundred yards away from Kinzie’s house while others say that never happened at all.  Joseph Kirkland’s book, Chicago Massacre of 1812, dedicates an entire appendix to Jean Lalime, his death, and his bones.    Kirkland says, “On April 29th, 1891, there was unearthed at the south-west corner of Cass and Illinois streets a skeleton,” (190).  In fact, Appendix F, in his book was the, “Substance of a paper read by Joseph Kirkland before the Chicago Historical Society, on the occasion of the presentation to the society of certain human relics, July 21, 1891,” (185).  Kirkland goes to great lengths to determine whether or not the skeleton belonged to Lalime.  He used Hubbard’s information about the grave saying, “The place where the bones were found is within a stone’s throw of the exact spot indicated by Gurdon Hubbard as the place where the picket fence marked the grave, ‘two hundreds west of the Kinzie house,’” (191), and then tried to get information via letters from several early Chicagoans to recall the location of Lalime’s grave.  Despite Kirkland’s efforts, there never has been any definitive evidence to confirm that the bones found were indeed, Lalime’s.

As for Kinzie, we know where he is buried.  John Kinzie’s grave is currently in Graceland Cemetery on the northeast side of the city.  His faded limestone headstone is the oldest marker in the cemetery.  According to Graceland Cemetery’s website Kinzie was “Originally interred in Fort Dearborn, he was moved to Chicago’s north side burial grounds, then to the lakefront cemetery, where the Lincoln Park project forced him to move one last time.”  http://www.gracelandcemetery.org/pages/dickens.html

If you wish to visit John Kinzie’s grave, it is only a two minute walk from the main entrance of Graceland Cemetery at Clark and Irving Park Avenue.  Graceland Cemetery’s website does not currently include him on their map of historical resting places, but their map does list the monument for hotelier, Dexter Graves.  This monument was designed by the famous sculptor, Lorado Taft, and you can see his hooded figure of Eternal Silence from Kinzie’s grave.  See the photograph below for reference.

Let me know if you have any questions or comments about John Kinzie at chicagogreys@gmail.com or @chicagogreys on Twitter.  My next post on the Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” text, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, will be up shortly.

As always, thank you for reading,

Jack Foley

More DuSable week

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DuSable homesite National Historic Landmark

If you head to the mouth of the Chicago River to see the DuSable statue, you’ll notice several historical plaques along the wall behind the statue.  Walk northeast along that wall to see the plaques.  As mentioned in my previous post, this spot is rich in history.  Thousands of people stroll by daily, heading to working or seeing the city, but many may not have a moment to fully appreciate the river.  Consider what was there and then take a moment to look at what is there.

About fifty paces north along that wall you’ll see a historical marker commemorating the site of DuSable’s home.  According to that marker, DuSable’s homesite was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1977.  Near that is another marker for the Kinzie mansion which stood in the same location after DuSable left the river for Missouri. It’s interesting to note, Kinzie had a mansion and DuSable had a cabin, even though John Kinzie, “purchased the DuSable home and lived there until is death in 1828,” according to a placard at the Chicago History Museum.  (Kinzie, his mansion, and the street named after him will be a post in the near future.)  Much of the early information about DuSable came from first volume of Alfred Theodore Andreas’s three-volume History of Chicago.  It contains an illustration that portrays DuSable’s home as a simple cabin although that same home somehow later became the Kinzie mansion.  There’s more of that grey area between black and white in Chicago.  (You can look up the drawing through the Encyclopedia of Chicago website.)

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Plaque for Marquette

The other prominent plaque along the same wall refers to a point even further back in time and remembers Father Pere Jacques Marquette.  He traveled with Louis Jolliet and mapped much of the Northern part of the Mississippi River.  Portions of Father Marquette’s 1673 diary can be viewed online through the Wisconsin Historical Society.  Like Kinzie, I will examine more on their local history, memorials and monuments.  If you look at the photograph of the plaque, you’ll see it was, “Erected by Illinois Society Daughters of Colonial Wars.”  I’ve never heard of that group before and it is the kind of name that gets my curiosity wondering and wandering.  Put it on the list as something else to research.

As I said before, the mouth of the Chicago River overflows with history, but if you’re looking for something else DuSable related for DuSable week, just head 2 miles north.  On Clark at North avenue stands the Chicago History Museum.  In their “Crossroads of America” exhibit they cover early Chicago life and history.  There you’ll find more information about DuSable and Marquette.

Our last stop for DuSable week will be the DuSable Museum of African-American History which I’ll post about on Saturday.  Check out the photographs below about Chicago from the Chicago History Museum.

Portrait of DuSable at the Chicago History Museum from the Moss Engraving Co.

Portrait of DuSable at the Chicago History Museum from the Moss Engraving Co.

DuSable placard at the Chicago History Museum

Chicago: Crossroads of America exhibit

Chicago: Crossroads of America exhibit