On April 16th, 2015, we conducted a highly educational excursion into Bronzeville. It was a unique experience that revealed a vast amount of artistic, social, cultural, ethnic and political elements that all contributed to the rapid rise, decline and gradual resurgence of this incredible neighborhood. Our group visited several places that had a lot of significances; however, before describing our journey, a brief history is necessary so that one can really emphasize with our experience.
Location and brief history
The Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago is located south of the main downtown area just beyond the environs of Chinatown. From municipal documents, its northern boundary is East 26th street and its southern boundary is East 51st street (although some maps show a more conservative southern edge that ends at 47th street).
A brief research into the history of the area establishes that it is also called the Black Metropolis, and was the main region in the city of Chicago that attracted African Americans after they began to immigrate to Chicago following the abolition of the slave trade. The place has a very rich culture and several famous jazz musicians, ethnic activists and artists emerged from here.
One of the significances of the rapid growth of this neighborhood was that even though it was segregated, it was a place where African Americans could send their children to school, where they could hold poilitical office, and where they could eventually thrive very successfully. This allowed the African Americans to have their own enterprises that florished. This included their own banks, insurance companies, enterprises and even their own local newspaper. With all these social dynamics in place, several promiment African Americans emerged:
- Gwendolyn Brooks, who published poetry in the Chicago Defender
- Andrew Rube Foster, creator of the Negro League Baseball
- Walter T. Bailey, the first licensed African-American architect in the state of Illinois
- Louis Armstrong, who sang at the Sunset Cafe
Speaking of Armstrong, another very important element in the history of Bronzeville is that the culture of Jazz developed here. It must be emphazised that this was also where Gospel choir music was born and properly organized (at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on 4501 South Vincennes Ave). It is also interesting to note that another famous blues musician, Bo Diddley, learned how to play music here.
The African Americans in Bronzeville created their own kind of music that had some of its foundations in soul, jazz and the blues. Research revealed that jazz was initially preferred by the upper class of African Americans who had already settled in Bronzeville while blues was preferred by the newer immigrants from the South who were initially considered the less privileged class of African Americans..
Nonetheless, this neighborhood became the Jazz capital of the world and there was also a famous area called “The Stroll”. In the decade spanning 1910 to 1920, “The Stroll” was the name of a particular stretch of State Street that ran between East 26th Street and East 39th Street. It boasted a wide variety of artistic, intellectual and commercial amusement for the neighborhood
(Image Courtesy of Bronzeville Wiki)
Thus, Bronzeville indeed thrived very well until the late 1930s when the Great Depression affected much of the commerce in the area and bankrupted many of the African American owned businesses. A few years later, the city of Chicago built the massive Ida B Wells housing projects that was bordered on the west by King Drive, 37th Street to the north, 39th Street to the south and Cottage grove to the East. Unfortunately, the Ida B. Wells project residences ended up becoming overcrowded and crime-ridden. This would eventually contribute to the blight that affected the area over the next few decades.
Fortunately, the community has began to see resurgence in commerce and tourism. This was evident as we made our tour from East 26th street all the way to Pershing road (39th street). We began our tour at the intersection of East 26th street and Martin Luther King Drive. Additional research and documentaries explained that King Drive used to be called the Grand Boulevard in the past when the city of Chicago began its urban renewal program to develop its network of parks and green spaces.
Moving along however, at 27th and King Drive, we saw the Great Immigration statue which signified the many thousands of African Americans who migrated from the southern states to Chicago during the early part of the 20th century. The statue faces north to emphasize the direction of the immigrants that made their way to Chicago; and it also represented their search for freedom and an oppurtunity to make a better life for themselves. What is interesting is how the statue is clad in shoe soles. The soles symbolize the very difficult journey that the African Americans had to make from the southern states of the United States to the city of Chicago in the north.
The image on the right is the plaque on the ground below the statue. Directly opposite the statue is a lovely crafted bench with “Bronzeville” etched into it.
Just a few blocks away, we were able to notice several signs of a resustitating community. This was due to the number of new residential developments that we saw as we headed south on King Drive towards 31st street
Then we saw the Praire Shores complex of high rise residences which made their presence known starting from around 28th Street on King Drive.
By the time we arrived at 30th Street, we decided to stop and visit Dunbar Park which was named after Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 – February 9, 1906). He was a famous African American poet, novelist and playwright of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Next, we arrived at Christ the Mediator Lutheran chruch on 31st and Calumet. This was one of the several churches that we found in the community and it was an example of how the religion of Christianity continues to be very prevailent in the neighbourhood
The importance of churches in the area could be seen by how many were congregated within just blocks from one another. Just across this church was the Olivet Baptist church at 3101 South King Drive, with its undoubtedly beautiful architecture. Completed in 1850, the significance of this church was that it is the oldest African American Baptist church in Chicago and also played a major role during the period of the Great Immigration. It is also important to note that several of the church’s elders, pastors and congregation have always been very influencial in local, municipal, state and even national politics.
Proceeding along, we located Camp Douglas at 33rd and King Drive. This site used to be one of the largest Union Army prisoner-of-war camps for the Confederate soldiers that were taken prisoner during the American Civil War.
As we continued our tour, we were also very keen about the superb architecture of the old stone mansions that lined King Drive. What was again interesting to note was how some of these homes had been replaced by newer, more modern contempoary residences that once more reflected the gradual resuscitation of the neighbourhood
Not far from here, we found the location of the old Sunset Cafe at 315 East 35th Street, around 35th street and Calument (which is now a hardware store). The Sunset Cafe used to be a highly popular jazz spot where even Louis Armstrong played and at the peak of its popularity, it was one of the most famous jazz clubs in the United States. Another reasons why the place was so popular was because it had the “Black and Tan” club which was where all types of ethnicities could integrate and intermingle freely with one another.
This helped to give us a visual of how the neighborhood had changed so much over the past several decades while also putting into context the effects of socio-economical degradation or decay on a community. Another interesting example of this could be seen from the way the community seemed to turn more religious as a form of solace as the area got more blighted. For instance, just a few blocks from the old Sunset cafe, we saw two churches together side by side next to several vacant lots
After we returned towards 35th Street and Giles, we found the Eighth Regiment Armory building at 3533 South Giles. The significance of this building being placed on the National Register of Historical Places is that it was the very first armoury in the United States that was purposely built for an African-American military regiment. The regiment was known as the Fighting Eighth and today, it is a public high school military academy.
We then made our way to the Stephen A. Douglas tomb at 636 East 35th Street. Stephen Arnold Douglas (April 23, 1813 – June 3, 1861) was a Democratic party Senator and politician. He ran against Abraham Lincoln during the Presidential election and lost. Camp Douglas which we visited earlier was named in his honor.
After this, we visited the Ida B. Wells – Barnett House located at 3624 South King Drive. It was the residence of the famous civil rights advocate, Ida B. Wells (1862-1931). She was a famous African American female activist, editor, suffragist and sociologist. She was also a very skilled rhetorician who spoke fiercely on behalf of women. Furthermore, she made several efforts to properly document lynching in the United States which exhibited evidence that it was a practice that was a method of punishing African Americans who dared to compete with Caucasians in society.
Next stop was the Victory monument at 35th Street and King Drive. The monument was built in 1927 to honor the Eighth Regiment of the Illinois National Guard. This particular regiment was an African-American unit that bravely served in Europe (France to be exact) during the First World War. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
Pearl’s Place Restaurant on 3901 South Michigan was where we eventually ended up to eat after a very exhasuting day. All three of us in my group unanimously declared to have the all you can eat buffet for $13.00 which turned out to be extremely delicious.
In conclusion, the excursion was a fanstastic insight into the rich history, culture and traditions of Bronzeville, the “Black Metropolis”. Our experiences while walking the streets afforded us the oppurtunity to talk to people about their recollections on how they visualize the area over the next five to ten years.
As for the feel of the neighborhood, we were able to notice how vibrant the community was (especially on King Drive). The demographics still continues to be predominantly African American; however there were a lot of Asian and Caucasian students around the Prairie Shores complex. The religious centers will also continue to be a staple of the community (I still find it unfortunate that we were not able to go inside one of the churches to view the interior)
I also tentatively predict that the presence of the thriving commerce on 35th street will likely continue to be one factor that will help regenerate economic flow to the community over the next few years. Having the Comiskey Park nearby will also act as another element to help maintain an active source of sports entertainment.
In addition, several residential redevelopment projects in the area including the presence of institutions like the De La Selle High school, the military academy, Illinois Tech and the College of Optometry will likely continue to contribute to the educational sustenance of the area.
- Encyclopaedia of Chicago
- Book – “City of Big Shoulders – A history of Chicago” by Robert Spinney