Photo Essay - African Americans in Chicago
Robert S. Abbott, John H. Sengstacke and the Chicago Defender (Wikimedia Commons)
Business-savvy Robert S. Abbott and his successor in 1940, nephew John H. Sengstacke, succeeded in shaping newspaper publishing as no other African Americans had done previously. As successive publishers of the increasingly influential and profitable Chicago Defender newspaper, Abbott and Sengstacke demonstrated that they were men who fully understood the nexus between the newspaper and its role as a channel of African American racial representation and cultural achievement. Abbott initially attempted a career in law, but circumstances dictated he choose another path to success, so in 1905, he founded the Defender on an investment of twenty-five cents. Sociologist Charles S. Johnson described Abbott's accomplishment: "Here [in Chicago] also is the home of the world's greatest weekly—with a circulation of more than a hundred thousand and a plant valued at as many dollars. When Abbott demonstrated, however, the possibility of the newspaper that would cater to the wants of the Negro people in publishing news concerning them and in a way that they could understand and appreciate it, the publications changed their methods and imitated Abbott." Besides the Defender, he also began publishing Abbott's Monthly during the 1930s which became a forerunner to Johnson Publishing Company's, Ebony. Roi Ottley analyzed him as "thoroughly a Negro himself, that everything he said and did was a reflection of the mass mind." He often spoke of his affinity for "the masses and not the [higher] classes." His intense passion for racial advancement proved unrelenting. He influenced the Great Migration of 1916–1919 as well as expanded black advancement after the Riot of 1919. By the early 1920s, Abbott purchased a sumptuous structure designed in the Queen Anne style and described as "baronial" at a cost of $50,000. His home was located in the Grand Boulevard Community at 4742 on fashionable South Park Way (now King Drive and pictured above). The mansion was the setting of social meetings with nearly every person of social and civic prominence in the Black Metropolis as well a salon for aspiring writers. With his death in 1940, and being childless, the major heir to Abbott's publishing empire was his nephew, John H.H. Sengstacke who continued to champion for full equality. Notably during World War Two, he actively pursued a "Double V," which continued during the tumultuous days of the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s. Consistent with family tradition, Sengstacke founded and became the first president of the National Negro Publishers Association in 1940 (now the National Newspaper Publishers Association) and in 1956, the Defender became the Chicago Daily Defender, the largest black-owned daily in the world. In 1965 Sengstacke purchased the Pittsburgh Courier, and later expansion into neighboring states. John Sengtstacke served as publisher until his death in May 1997.
Civic icons, the Barnetts – Ferdinand L. Barnett and Ida B. Wells-Barnett
One of Black Chicago's original power couples, Old Settler Ferdinand L. Barnett and recent Chicago transplant, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, wed in 1895 in a marriage that lasted until Mrs. Barnett's death in 1931 (Mr. Barnett passed away five years later in 1936). Together, they participated in major civic, political, labor and civil rights efforts throughout the first one-third of the twentieth century. An integral part of the cultural vanguard of the late nineteenth century and modern industrial age, they played active roles within the emerging leadership which was committed to promotion of the beaux arts. Their early involvement in the struggle against racial exclusion in the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 foreshadowed successive efforts in cultural efforts. This was evidenced by their membership in the Prudence Crandall Club in 1888, and later, the Frederick Douglass Center from 1904 on. Their combined contributions in promoting journalism through the independent Chicago Conservator newspaper (that preceded the Chicago Defender) represent efforts that were both productive and courageous. The Barnetts were active in local and national Republican politics as well, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett's activism through the Alpha Suffrage Club introduced a black womanist influence over Chicago government that bore fruit in the election of the first African American member to the Chicago City Council in 1915. While opposed to the nation's imperialist war involvement in the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898, they nonetheless supported the troops of the famed Eighth Infantry Regiment of the Illinois National Guard as they served in Cuba. Two decades later, they fully supported this military unit's service as combatants during the First World War. When the newly-formed Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porter and Maids sought support in Chicago to jumpstart its abortive efforts in New York, the Barnetts directly buoyed the labor union's successful membership drive in Chicago, one which impacted the entire Pullman labor network. Then, the Barnetts helped thwart the early and sustaining efforts by racial bigots to segregate the city's schoolchildren on several occasions through the early twentieth century. The couple moved onto fashionable Grand Boulevard (later called South Park Way and then King Drive) to 3624 South Grand Boulevard during the 1920s. Their home is listed as both a Chicago and a national landmark. (It is pictured above.) A decade after Ida B. Wells-Barnett's death in 1931, a major public housing development stretching along Grand Boulevard (now King Drive) bore her name for eight decades until its demolition two decades ago. It was a source of such national pride that the British Royal couple toured the housing complex upon their arrival in the U.S. in 1959.
Du Sable Museum of African American History
Dr. Margaret G. Burroughs, black Chicago's Grand Dame of the Arts, her husband Charles, and several other local cultural enthusiasts started the Ebony Museum in the Burroughs' mansion in 1961. Their aim was clear cut: They sought inform and elevate the historical consciousness of all humanity, but especially the city's black community, about the contributions their ancestors had made to both Chicago and world civilization since time immemorial. Chicago is a city rich in African American History, and the museum's namesake comes from the contributions of Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, a Haitian of African and French descent who in 1779 established the trading post and permanent settlement which would become known as Chicago. During the 1970s, the institution was relocated and renamed as the Du Sable Museum, and is one of the few independent organizations of its kind in the United States (and is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Museum of Washington, D.C.). The museum was developed to preserve and interpret the experiences and achievements of people of African descent and is dedicated to the collection, documentation, preservation and study of the history and culture of Africans and persons of African descent throughout the world. The Du Sable Museum is proud of its diverse holdings that number more than 15,000 pieces and include archival materials, paintings, sculpture, print works and historical memorabilia. Special exhibitions, workshops and lectures are featured to highlight works by particular artists, historical events, or collections on loan from individuals or institutions. Research, curatorial and educational departments are committed to responding to the needs of both the public as well as those of art and cultural historians. Overall, the museum remains a community institution dedicated to serving the cultural and educational needs of the entire Chicagoland and global communities. A new exhibit and archival collection room named after renowned scholar and Chicagoan, Dr. Charles V. Hamilton, and his scholar-wife, Donna Cooper Hamilton, was opened in February 2018 and contains manuscripts, books and ephemera related to the Hamiltons' careers. Shortly thereafter, a sustaining World War One exhibit was opened, titled "Citizens Soldiers and Democracy" that pays tribute to Chicago's famed Eighth Infantry Regiment of the Illinois National Guard (federally re-designated as the 370th ) during the First World War being fought in France. "Resistance to Freedom" and "Harold Washington, Mayor" are other permanent exhibits open to the public. The Du Sable Museum is conveniently located at the corner of 57th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue in spacious Washington Park on the city's South Side. Museum is conveniently located in Washington
8th Infantry (370th) Regiment Armory and Victory Monument
In the nineteenth century mind, black Illinoisans recognized that a well-organized, perfectly drilled, armed militia unit represented as a step forward in citizenship. Their efforts led to the unit's formation in 1894 as a Chicago-based, all-black militia unit into the "Eighth," a unit that would draw men from all throughout the state. African Americans insisted that all line officers be African American in variance to American military practice. Next, the community's demand for a permanent training facility led to the construction of an armory at 3533 South Giles Avenue in 1915. As combatants, the Eighth served in the Spanish-American-Cuban War of 1898 with the unit's next action in the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916. As American involvement in the First World War loomed, the Eighth was called to duty in 1917 to prepare for combat in France as the federally-redesignated 370th Infantry Regiment. The unit immediately viewed the fight in Europe as further advancing their claim to full citizenship rights in America. Sailing for France, they encountered the racism directed against blacks in the military, so the 370th was assigned to fight with the French Army instead of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Nonetheless, the men of the 370th distinguished themselves with their courage in bayonet attacks in classic hand-to-hand combat. While reaching France with approximately 2,500 men, they returned with only 1,260. In combat, the 370th distinguished itself in the war until the last day of fighting on November 11, 1918. For their valor, the French bestowed upon seventy-one soldiers of the 370th their highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre. Recognition of the fighting skills by their foes earned the sobriquet in combat of "Black Devils" and "Black Partridges." When the 370th returned to Chicago the next year in 1919, a triumphant parade down Michigan Avenue awaited the men. Several years later, a nearby statue, the Victory Monument, was erected to honor them. Meanwhile on the home front, support from black Chicagoans had been overwhelming. As a local symbol of courage and treasure key to claims of citizenship rights, the 370th was even featured in movies shown within the Bronzeville community and was the object of enthusiastic public displays of support. After the war, the men frequently entered political ranks and were active in both veterans' and fraternal groups. As such, these men changed the course of life in Chicago by providing leadership and by functioning as models of unselfish public service.
The George Cleveland Hall Library and Vivian G. Harsh
The George Cleveland Hall Library located at 4801 South Michigan Avenue was a cultural destination where future great African American writers researched the history of their people while enhancing their writing skills. The library's illustrious future began with the facility's opening in 1932, fulfilling civic leader Dr. George Cleveland Hall's dream. With Chicago native Vivian G. Harsh's appointment to head this newly-constructed branch facility, she seized the opportunity to interpret the African American experience through the written word. Her mission was twofold: To use the library as a platform for fledgling writers and to build a collection of materials by African Americans and about the totality of the African American experience. In her success, Harsh truly earned the sobriquet of being the "Historian Who Never Wrote." Within seven years of the Hall Library's opening, Harsh claimed an annual usership of 250,000 patrons. During her career, Harsh succeeded in developing the Special Negro Collection, a black history collection that would become a world-renowned resource for residents and scholars. Appropriately, it bears her name as the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature and has been renamed, expanded and relocated into the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library Center at 95th Street and Halsted Avenue, southwest of the Bronzeville community. The first donation to the Special Negro Collection was from the estate of Dr. Charles E. Bentley, a true Renaissance man, who participated in all phases of the fine arts, along with medical science. Prominent as an eminently successful dentist with a downtown practice, Bentley willed his collection upon his death in 1929 of nearly three hundred books on African American history and literature. Today, the collection includes a constantly growing number of manuscripts, along with the Papers of the WPA's "The Negro in Illinois." Harsh's semimonthly Book Review and Lecture Forum, launched in 1933, provided a rare opportunity for patrons to hear distinguished speakers and participate in dialogue on topics dealing with black history, literature, and current events. During the length of the twenty-year series many prominent writers and creative artists from within and outside the Chicago African American community participated in this Forum. Their ranks included Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Gwendolyn Brooks, Horace R. Cayton, William Attaway, Margaret Walker, St. Clair Drake, Alain Locke, and Katherine Dunham.
Johnson Publishing Company
John H. Johnson started the business bearing his name in 1942 with a $500.00 loan using his mother's furniture as collateral. This link between crucial family financing and his personal sense of vision, impressive level of determination, creativity, and business savvy was added to location – Chicago being a mecca for black business and culture since the early twentieth century – heralding a critical turning point in his life as well as national black business advancement. Subsequently, Johnson developed an ever-burgeoning empire into the leading black-owned publishing corporation in America. He published Negro Digest (later Black World) as his initial entrepreneurial venture in 1942. He subsequently published Ebony in 1945 as a general interest magazine. Tan (a "true confessions"-type magazine) followed in 1951, along with Jet, Hue, and Copper. While Negro Digest's first issue sold some 3,000 copies, within a year the monthly circulation was 50,000. The initial press run of 25,000 copies of Ebony completely sold out. By 1964, Ebony grossed $5.5 million in advertising revenue. At Ebony's 20th anniversary in November 1965, the magazine was selling 900,000 copies per month. By the early 21st century the magazine achieved a circulation of some 1.7 million. A visionary in race, Johnson was committed to changing institutions and behavior through positive imaging and investing every resource at his disposal. Johnson Publishing Company diversified into book publishing, radio broadcasting, insurance, and the manufacture of cosmetics. His black-owned cosmetics companies became a worldwide competitor in that field. In 1974 Johnson acquired a majority interest in Supreme Life Insurance Company, his first employer, and invested over 2 million dollars in its operations to sustain it. Johnson expanded his business and social contacts by sitting on the boards of numerous Fortune 500 companies. His awards were numerous ranging from the NAACP's coveted Spingarn Medal in 1966 to being named to Forbes's list of 400 Richest Americans, 1982 to being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. While individualistic as a daring entrepreneur and wealthy businessman, Johnson nonetheless paved the way for other black-oriented magazines as he launched and promoted the careers of many African American professionals in publishing and advertising, while convincing mainstream American businesses of opportunities awaiting them in the multibillion-dollar patronage of the black consumer market once the former expanded their advertising. Circumstances beyond Johnson's control in 1970 necessitated his moving his company from 1820 South Michigan Avenue, a near Loop location. He skillfully and near-personally financed and built the first downtown Chicago structure to be exclusively designed and constructed by a black-owned corporation at 820 South Michigan Avenue at the end of 1971. The building was later sold to a local college in 2012.y
Business Magnate Anthony Overton and the Overton Buildings
Business magnate Anthony Overton constructed two buildings that anchored Black Chicago's famed "Black Wall Street" from the 1920s through the 1960s. These structures are still located in the 3600 blocks of South State Street. His Overton Building, built in 1923, housed the Hygienic Manufacturing Company, the Douglass National Bank (only the second nationally chartered black-owned bank in the United States), the Great Northern Realty Company and the Victory Life Insurance Company. By 1925, the Chicago Bee newspaper was being published, housed in its own building approximately 100 feet away. Unique along State Street because of its Art Deco architecture, the Bee Building also featured a woman as one of its managing editors. Anthony Overton arrived in Chicago with his immediate family and business operation from Kansas City, Kansas in 1911 with a dream of building a financial empire. His Hygienic Manufacturing Company featured the nationally known High Brown Face Powder, which was "the first market success in the sale of cosmetics for black women." When he arrived in Chicago, his company already had well-developed markets throughout the United States, and internationally in Egypt, Liberia, and Japan. The number of door-to-door representatives approached 500, each selling a line of 60 products. The catalog included not only cosmetics and perfumes, but also other household products ranging from shoe polish to cooking ingredients, extracts, and, of course, Overton's original baking powder. Following the move to Chicago, the growth of his company was exponential: between 1915 and 1927, the assets of the company quadrupling from $250,000 to more than one million dollars. The company was eventually listed by Dun & Bradstreet. Many awards and honors followed, but Overton is to be especially credited for expanding employment opportunities for women by freeing them from low-paying domestic work, so they could work as self-employed contractors.
Provident Hospital and Training School
Provident Hospital and Nursing School was established in 1891 in defiance of Chicago's racial constraints in health care and training. Renowned surgeon Dr. Daniel Hale Williams successfully led an effort to create this interracial facility that became the first African American owned and operated hospital in America. Williams had also bridged the sectional gap between the West and South Side communities, along with major white philanthropic families, in an effective fund- raising effort. With few public or private medical facilities open to black Americans, Dr. Williams moved about the country establishing facilities and services based on the Provident model. The hospital opened in its first location at 29th and Dearborn Avenue with 12 beds. Expansion necessitated relocation to a new location at 36th and Dearborn with construction of a new building on donated land in 1898 which had 65 beds. During its early years the hospital continued to reflect its founders' vision of an interracial enterprise. However, by 1915, Provident had become a predominantly African American institution with a mainly black medical staff and patients. It also won renown as a medical center, graduating 118 women from twenty- four states through its nursing program. With a basically poverty- stricken patient base, financial problems continually strained the facility's resources. Internal administrative controversies arose as well. Dr. Williams left the hospital in 1912, never to return. Nonetheless, under the leadership of his rival, Dr. George Cleveland Hall, the hospital sustained its operations. Further growth was managed until the 1930s with white and black financial support and heavy black volunteerism. Its growth and service continued until 1933, when a new affiliation with the University of Chicago allowed Provident to purchase the old, seven story, Lying-In Hospital at 426 East 51st Street previously owned by the university. One of its notable births was soon-to- be the nation's First Lady, Michelle Robinson Obama. The 51st Street facility allowed an increase in patient care and education. As the hospital's third facility deteriorated, Chicago Defender publisher and civic leader John H. Sengstacke successfully led an effort in 1982 to enlarge the facility and build a new structure at 550 East 51st Street with 300 beds across from Washington Park. However, continuing, major financial crises between the 1940s and 1987 led to increased debt that resulted in bankruptcy by July 1987. Despite community efforts at saving Provident, these efforts proved fruitless. So, the hospital closed its doors for the first time in its history in September 1987. Because of its vital role to South Side residents, the Cook County government acquired the hospital in 1991, reopening it in 1993 as a public hospital – part of the Cook County Hospital System with its being now known as Provident Hospital of Cook County.
Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church
The church began as a seven-member prayer band in 1844. Within three years, this assemblage's expansion was officially recognized as Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church by its governing body in the East. The first congregants of Quinn Chapel were mainly former slaves and persons with certificates of freedom who shared a vested interest in independent black worship. Already a part of the abolitionist movement, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 the church became an important station on the Underground Railroad, a secret network of travel routes and safe houses which were used to guide slaves to free states in the North and to Canada. Four female members of Quinn Chapel, known as the "Big Four," acted as conductors for the Underground Railroad, providing fugitive slaves with food, shelter, and other necessities for their journey or for their settlement in Chicago. During the Civil War, its men served valiantly as Union soldiers. The church's subsequent growth through the years of freedom was phenomenal, with Quinn Chapel often serving as a center for African American activism in Chicago. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed the church and its congregants reassembled and held services in a series of temporary locations in the downtown section. In 1891, the church purchased a new site on 24th Street and Wabash Avenue, and in 1892, the current structure was built at 2401 S. Wabash Avenue. Frederick Douglass addressed an audience of 1,500 at the church on the significance of Haiti, which had a presence at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. The clergy's linkage to Ohio politics even led to two U.S. presidents speaking on the premises. Quinn Chapel was also instrumental in founding Bethel A.M.E. Church, Elam House for recently arriving young women seeking work, and Provident Hospital. Provident Hospital was the first African American owned hospital in the United States. By the 1900s, its Sunday Men's Forum provided an intellectual environment for inquiring minds. Consistent with tradition, Quinn Chapel remained active in civil rights during the 1960s and befitting its success in fulfilling its historical mission, on September 4, 1979, Quinn Chapel was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Further cementing its place in African American history, on September 2007, Quinn Chapel donated an original pew to the Smithsonian institute national museum of African American History in Washington, D.C.
Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rainbow/PUSH
In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assignment of one of his brightest lieutenants to Chicago introduced Chicago to a personality and program that has weathered the test of time and prospective successes. Initially begun as Operation Breadbasket, an economic effort by SCLC to extend its civil rights agenda into the economic mainstream, under Jackson's dynamic leadership between 1965 and 1971, the organization gained successes in opening the city's market to accommodate black-produced products and expand employment opportunities. By 1971, Jackson felt the need to expand the organization's local focus and limited agenda to engage in more pressing problems facing African Americans, so Jackson resigned from Operation Breadbasket after clashing with Rev. Ralph Abernathy, founding Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) in its place. Subsequently, Jackson founded the National Rainbow Coalition in 1984 which merged with PUSH in 1996, forming as a non-profit organization from the merger of the two non-profit organizations founded by Rev. Jackson. The organizations that originally grew to pursue social justice, civil rights and political activism expanded again with a greater emphasis on political empowerment and effecting public policy issues. The merged entity advocates for African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, other minorities, and women. Its main economic goal is to have more minorities on the payrolls, in the boardrooms, and on the supplier lists of major corporations. The industries it most aggressively pursues are the financial sector on Wall Street, the telecommunications field and high-tech firms in Silicon Valley. The Wall Street activities are organized under sub-organization "The Wall Street Project." In the meantime, Rev. Jackson launched two successive, yet unsuccessful, presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988 that served ultimately as icebreakers for future African American candidates who sought the nation's highest office. With a populist style and message, along with his personal charisma, Jackson attracted voters of all backgrounds to his cause. Jackson then moved from Chicago to Washington, D.C. to serve as the district's "shadow senator" from 1991 to 1996. When he returned to Chicago in 1996 he resumed control over Rainbow/PUSH which keeps its national headquarters on the South Side of Chicago on South Drexel Boulevard at 50th Street (pictured above).
South Side Community Art Center
The South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC), located at 3831 South Michigan Avenue, is appropriately named as it still functions after eighty years as a very successfully accessible, public, fine arts center in Chicago's Bronzeville community. It originally opened in 1940 with support through the New Deal's Works Progress Administration's (WPA) Federal Art Project in Illinois. Since its founding, the facility has been an important center for the development of Chicago's African American artists and has proven its worth with its being recognized both as Chicago landmark in 1994 and "National Treasure" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2007. Of more than 100 community art centers established by the WPA nationally, this is the only one that remains open. The idea for a center originated in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's plans to support the fine arts nationally, bolstered by community support from residents, artists and patrons. With implementation of the plan in 1938, fund-raising began in earnest and continued annually. Innovative schemes involved street corner collections which incorporated artist Margaret Burroughs' "Mile of Dimes" on South Parkway (now King Drive); benefit parties, lectures by well- known luminaries; and an annual soiree, the Artists' and Models' Ball held at the Savoy Ballroom within the Regal Theater/South Center Department Store complex along South Parkway at Forty-seventh Street. Members of the Arts Crafts Guild, a group of Chicago- based African American artists organized in 1932 gave their early and strongest support as a dream was reaching fruition. Their ranks included Margaret Burroughs, Eldzier Cortor, Bernard Goss, Charles White, William Carter, Joseph Kersey, and Archibald Motley Jr. One of its earliest highlights featured First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attending its formal dedication in 1941. In its later years, the Center attracted photographer Gordon Parks Sr., along with poetess Gwendolyn Brooks–the first African American woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Over its lengthy existence, the Center has become known as a space that devotedly celebrates the fine arts, and likewise is recognized as a place where residents learn how to master the creative crafts. With consistent governmental support for a structure, professional staff and other necessities, the SSCAC has stood the test of time and continues to serve the entire Chicagoland community.
The Sunset Café (aka the Grand Terrace Café)
The Sunset Café (aka the Grand Terrace Café) represented one of Chicago's hottest musical and dance venues during the 1920s through the 1940s. As a representative jazz club it became one of the most important jazz incubators in America, especially during the period between 1917 and 1928 when Chicago became a creative capital of jazz innovation and again during the emergence of bebop in the early 1940s. From its inception, the club was a rarity as a haven from segregation, since the Sunset Café was a racially integrated, or "Black and Tan," club where African Americans could mingle freely with whites without much fear of reprisal, and only infrequent harassment, from white policemen intent on maintaining separation of the races. Many important musicians developed their careers at the Sunset/Grand Terrace Café. Owned by Louis Armstrong's manager and the Chicago mob, the venue played host to such performers as Billie Holiday, Fletcher Henderson, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan and Cab Calloway (who got his professional start onstage under Louis Armstrong at the Sunset Café). Shortly after beginning to record his Hot Five records, Louis Armstrong began playing in the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra at the Sunset Café in 1926, with Earl Hines on piano. The band with Hines as musical director was soon renamed Louis Armstrong and his Stompers. The building that housed the Café still stands at 315 E 35th St in the newly-recognized labelled Bronzeville community of the South Side of Chicago. While the structure was originally built in 1909 as an automobile garage, acknowledgement of the public's mounting interest in the new medium of jazz led to remodeling in 1921. It now accommodated a bandstand and dance floor, along with around 100 tables. Unlike New York's original Cotton Club that was torn down decades ago, the Sunset/Grand Terrace Café building still stands, and still features some of its original murals on the walls (shown above). The Sunset/Grand Terrace Café building returned to its modest roots after the then Grand Terrace Café closed in 1950, serving as a political office for a short time, and then an essential neighborhood hardware store. The City of Chicago Landmarks Commission recognized its significance to the city's musical history by designating the building with landmark status on September 9, 1998.
Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company
CThe Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company was organized originally in 1919 by veteran insurance man Frank L. Gillespie as Liberty Life Insurance Company, the first legal reserve insurance company north of the Mason-Dixon line. In the meantime, insurance salesman Frank L. Gillespie continued to shape his dream of starting an insurance company to tap into the expanding African American market which white companies were already exploiting successfully. Blacks needed insurance to be sure, however, convincing them to "put thirty to a hundred dollars in a proposition that exist[ed] only on paper" required great sales skills. These Gillespie had, and the result was the formation of Liberty Life Insurance. While its date of incorporation was June 3, 1919, the company did not commence regular business operations until the summer of 1921, when confident investors mortgaged their homes as collateral. With real estate operations added to its portfolio, Supreme acted to stabilize the home ownership market for prospective black home buyers. During the depression of the 1930s, Earl B. Dickerson employed his legal and political legerdemain to help keep the company afloat while others were failing. Then, under the brilliant financial leadership of Harry H. Pace, who assumed control over the company with the 1936 merger of three insurance companies, the company slowly prospered during the 1930s into the 1950s. In the assessment of Supreme's former youth employee, and later owner, publishing magnate John H. Johnson, "all roads in Black Chicago led to Supreme"— whether in the famous restrictive covenant Supreme Court victory of 1940 in Hansberry v. Lee, or in the 1939 local elections. Johnson continued, "It can be said with only slight exaggeration that practically every major event in Black Chicago between 1936 and 1942 was planned, organized, or financed by people who orbited around the Supreme sun." Pace's leadership team included men with the highest academic credentials, all relative to assuring the company's success. Harvard, Yale and Northwestern were represented, along with the Universities of Chicago and Illinois. In its last stage of evolution, legal counsel Earl B. Dickerson encouraged his protégé, publishing giant John H. Johnson, to rejoin Supreme Life Insurance after a 14-year hiatus dating from the late 1950s. Johnson purchased the company in the 1970s, reviving it with nearly a two and one-half million-dollar infusion of personal capital. It remained under his control until the early twentieth century when he relinquished ownership and the company ceased operations.
The Wabash Avenue YMCA
The Wabash Avenue YMCA located at 3673 South Wabash Avenue was a major recreational, social, educational and intellectual center for Chicago's South Side black community for nearly a century. Funding for its construction came from the Chicagoland philanthropic community, led by Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Company, collaborating with various black elites and organizations, and rank and file black residents. The latter two groups raised over $20,000, part of which came through the personal philanthropy of former slave, James Tilgham, who had vowed early in freedom that he would do whatever he could to contribute to his race's progress. He donated $1,000. With the Great Migration taking place within years of its completion in 1913, the "Y" became a center assisting newly arrived migrants, offering educational and job training sessions as well as a housing program. During his annual summer sojourn to Chicago for post-doctorate study at the University of Chicago, Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson enthusiastically participated in the city's Lincoln Half-Century [Emancipation] Celebration during the months of August and September 1915. Eager to transform the concept of a scientifically-based program of writing African Americans into the national academic curriculum, Woodson proposed organizing an organization of intellectually-oriented blacks, including some only in summer residence in Chicago such as himself, into a permanent body perpetually advancing the study and presentation of data on African American progress. The Association for the Study of African American History thus was born. While the role of the intellectual and scholar was important to Woodson, what was paramount was the need to expose the masses of Americans, white as well as black, African American contributions to national and world history. The Y's regular leadership included Harvard University-trained Alexander L. Jackson and George R. Arthur as successive Executive Secretaries. The "Y" also became the home of the Washington Intercollegiate Club by 1919, which by 1927, was headed by Northwestern University law student, Frederick H.H. Robb. In addition, with some of these newcomers joining older residents in support of classical music, Nora Douglas Holt, the Chicago Defender's classical music editor, out of necessary organized the Chicago Musical Association in March 1919. Within months it was transformed into a national organization when like-minded Washingtonians arrived from the East. Meeting at the Wabash YMCA, the favored black venue for the promotion of culture, they formed the National Association of Negro Musicians, from whose ranks Arkansan Florence B. Price, and her protégé, Chicagoan Margaret Bonds, would emerge. Successful cultural efforts such as these exemplified black core culture at its best. The interior of the structure housed an auditorium, a swimming pool, meeting rooms, classrooms, residential quarters and a gymnasium where the early Harlem Globetrotters played before their transformation into a global professional team. Famed artist William Eduardo Scott painted a mural for one of its educational rooms. The structure serves today as an SRO.
Mayor Harold Washington, 1983–1987
Native Chicagoan Harold Washington was born on April 15, 1922 and died on November 25, 1987. He gained national prominence as the first African American mayor of Chicago (1983–87). As a youth, he attended Du Sable High School, the incubator for many of South Side Chicago's leaders over all spheres of black life. During World War II, Washington joined the army and served as an aviator engineer in the South Pacific, receiving an honorable discharge in 1946. After returning home, he matriculated at and graduated from Roosevelt University (B.A., 1949); earned a law degree from Northwestern University (1952); and established a private law practice in Chicago. Politics was in his blood as succeeded his father in Democratic party activities as the Third Ward's precinct captain. Government service followed as he worked as a city attorney (1954–58) and a state labor arbitrator (1960–64), followed by service in the Illinois House of Representatives (1965–76), the Illinois State Senate (1976–80), and finally the U.S. House of Representatives (1980–83) from the vaunted First Congressional District of Illinois. It was during his second term in Congress, Washington was persuaded, after winning a community-based plebiscite at the Bethel A.M.E. Church, to enter the 1983 mayoral race in Chicago. His first attempt at winning the mayor's post in 1976 had ended in a resounding defeat. His second entry into the mayor's race in 1983 proved highly successful as he mobilized a coalition of African Americans, Hispanics and progressive Caucasians to squeeze by incumbent mayor, Jane Byrne, and Richard M. Daley. In a vicious and racially- charged primary election to win the Democratic party's nomination, Washington squeaked out win a 36.28 percent win. The succeeding general election proved anything but a cakewalk in a predominantly Democratic city as the forces of racism tried to derail Washington's campaign at every point. Still relying on coalition politics, his political instincts, high intelligence and personal charisma, he prevailed to take the oath of office on April 29, 1983. His days in office proved difficult as a racially- motivated opposition arose to thwart every program he proposed. The despicable, racially- charged "Council Wars" resulted for two years until Washington adroitly assumed control over municipal affairs. From 1986 on, he stamped his imprimatur on Chicago to the city's betterment as progressive, democratic-based administration of the city's operations replaced self- serving machine politics to the extent that he could manage. His second term began somewhat smoothly on May 4, 1987 but ended abruptly with his untimely death several months later. Several monuments attest to his public service such as the Harold Washington Library Center (pictured above).