This week in history: Victory Monument honors Chicago’s Black veterans
In 1923, Rep. George T. Kersey’s bill for a Chicago war memorial honoring Black veterans passed. Here’s a look at how the memorial now known as Victory Monument came to be.
As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:
The celebration of the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918 — known as Armistice Day or Veterans Day — turned the city of Chicago “topsy turvy,” according to a report from the Chicago Daily News that day.
“From one end of the city to another, everything was turmoil,” the paper said. “Its millions of citizens gave themselves without bounds to the delirium of joy the news of the war’s grand finale had evoked in them. Pandemonium was in the saddle wherever its citizens congregated.”
In the years that followed, war memorials honoring World War I veterans began popping up around the city. In 1923, the state granted funding for a special memorial — one dedicated to the 8th regiment of the Illinois National Guard, which became the state’s first Black regiment that later served in the war, though not as part of the U.S. Army. Black soldiers were not allowed to fight alongside white ones, so the regiment actually joined the French army though they still wore American uniforms.
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“Representative George T. Kersey’s bill providing for a monument at East 35th street and South Park avenue for the members of the 370th infantry (Chicago’s old [Black] 8th regiment) who lost their lives in the world war passed 120 to 1,” a Daily News brief published May 29, 1923, read. “The measure provides that $15,000 shall be used for the purpose.”
Becoming the 370th Infantry of the 93rd Division at the start of the war, the unit saw action in France towards the end of the war. The soldiers in the regiment pursued retreating German forces in the Aisne-Marne region just northeast of Paris. Seventy-one soldiers from the infantry were awarded French Croix de guerre medals, but none of the soldiers ever received recognition from their home country.
Kersey, a Bronzeville mortician with a home at 656 E. Bowen Ave., won election in 1922. In addition to securing funding for the memorial, he also introduced a bill to create a committee to investigate the unusually large number of African American voters arrested by the Chicago Police Department, according to author Erma Brooks Williams.
With the funds secured thanks to Kersey, construction on the memorial began, and on Aug. 1, 1928, the Daily News previewed two of the panels on the monument, one a Black woman representing victory and the other a Black soldier.
“[Victory] balances the figure of Columbia on the opposite side of the monument, while the sturdy [Black] warrior, a tribute to the sacrifice of the [African Americans] of the 370th infantry, adorns the other side,” the paper said.
The Daily News praised sculptor Leonard Crunelle’s “resourcefulness with new themes” and how he “puts the stamp of his own personality in his work.” The brief also, unfortunately, gave the incorrect address of the future monument, listing its coordinates as Grand Boulevard and 35th Street. Although the monument would be in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood, it would stand at 35th Street and South Parkway Avenue, which was later renamed Martin Luther King Drive.
The sculpture was officially dedicated on Nov. 11, 1928. Despite the preview, the Daily News did not cover the dedication ceremony, but the 370th and 365th infantries (the 365th infantry was another all-Black regiment) and all of Illinois’ other veterans were honored that Armistice Day in a separate story recounting their heroics and their sacrifice.
“More than 5,000 men of Illinois gave their lives in the world war, the honor roll shows,” the paper reported. “Some fell in battle, others died of wounds, and still others, of disease.”