When Ariajo “Joanne” Tate and her husband bought a gray limestone in 1989, they had no idea their new Bronzeville home had once been the Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home — a historic settlement house established by Black suffragettes in the early 1900s.
It was named for the former slave who at age 20 became the first African American ever to publish a book of poetry, and the second American woman to do so, the home an offshoot of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC) founded in 1896 by iconic Black women activists like Harriet Tubman, Mary Church Terrell and Chicagoan Ida B. Wells.
“I had no idea of its history. I just knew I fell in love with the house. It wasn’t until we were having problems with all the repairs that someone told me its history,” said Tate.
“I went down to the Harold Washington Library and looked up the Phyllis Wheatley settlement house movement, and sure enough, there was a picture of my house.”
Currently uninhabitable and in Buildings court, the 125-year-old home at 5128 S. Michigan Ave. is facing potential demolition. In need of significant structural repairs to a rear wall and its roof, it is back up in court on March 16. A judge could potentially issue a tear-down order.
Tate, a holistic health practitioner who raised her 10 children in the home and for 12 years ran a nonprofit there, was forced to vacate it in August 2019 because of the structural issues. She and her husband temporarily live with one of their kids in the south suburbs.
Tate’s battle to preserve the property’s history — and convert it into a public exhibit space — has gained the support of preservationists, along with some Bronzeville residents who started a change.org petition, now with 2,258 signatures.
The building was among the rare settlement homes founded for African American women at a time when well-known ones like the famed Jane Addams Hull-House and the YWCA were segregated, closed to women of color, according to Preservation Chicago research.
Wheatley’s first name is “Phillis.” But the clubs changed their name, spelling Phyllis with a “y.”
“I stumbled upon this history while researching Black women change agents in Bronzeville. I couldn’t believe I was raised two blocks away, at 5020 S. Prairie Ave., and never knew,” said Joi Weathers, a millennial born and raised in Bronzeville, who initiated the petition.
Weathers has long immersed herself in Black history — especially that of her historic community once known as the Black Metropolis.
“My father graduated from DuSable High in the early ’50s, and walking down the streets with him as a child, he’d point out, ‘That’s where Nat King Cole got his hair cut.’ Or, ‘That’s the Palm Tavern, where all the big jazz acts would hang out,” she recalled.
“This is so important to me because when that first wave of gentrification happened, my parents, lifelong integral members of the community, were pushed out, as renters. If you don’t own your own home, no one respects you. The Wheatley home should not be torn down. Not only for history. Dr. Tate doesn’t deserve to lose her home.”
Kidnapped from West Africa and brought by slave ship to Boston via the horrific trans-Atlantic slave trade, Wheatley was purchased by slave owner John Wheatley at age 7 or 8, as a servant to his wife. Educated by her owners, she’d publish her first poem at age 13.
She then gained international renown for a 1771 poem, a tribute to popular preacher the Rev. George Whitefield of England. Her trailblazing first book, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” was published in 1773, the year her owners freed her.
Listed among 100 Greatest African Americans, Wheatley wrote as many as 145 poems, but despite acclaim was never able to find a publisher for a second volume. She led a tragic, short life, dying at age 31 in Boston, on Dec. 5, 1784.
Inspired by her accomplishments, Phyllis Wheatley Clubs sprung up nationwide, under the NACWC. Prominent African American educator Elizabeth Lindsay Davis established the Chicago branch in 1896. Its Phyllis Wheatley Association set out to provide housing for young women coming from Down South during the Great Migration.
The first Phyllis Wheatley Home opened in 1908, at 3530 Forest Ave. A larger brownstone at 3256 Rhodes Ave. opened in 1913. And the third and final location, Tate’s home, opened in 1915. The 6,600-square-foot home had operated for 50 years, housing 22 women, according to Preservation Chicago research. A gut rehab is estimated at $1.5 million.
“What I love so much is that it was Black women helping Black women,” said Weathers, who moved to Baltimore in September for medical treatment.
“In the early part of the 21st century, there were Phyllis Wheatley chapters sprouting all over the place, honoring this poet who had broken barriers despite coming from slavery; and through her legacy, extending a hand to women coming North in search of better lives for themselves. It’s why it is so important this history be preserved.”
Of seven known settlement homes for African Americans in that era, only one other, the Melissa Elam Home for Working Women and Girls, 4726 S. King Drive, still stands as testament to the countless who fled Jim Crow, according to Preservation Chicago research.
In recent years, Wheatley scholars have found undiscovered poems, letters, and more on her life and association with 18th century Black abolitionists. If able to save the home, which still boasts original wood cabinetry and staircases, trim mouldings, doors and historic light fixtures, Tate plans to focus the exhibit space on Black women’s history.
“I believe I was led to this home,” said Tate. “My dream is to reinvent the Phyllis Wheatley Home to celebrate the achievements of Black women in Chicago, and to continue its legacy of helping women in need. Saving this history for future generations has become a calling.”