Shermann Dilla Thomas standing outside his 48-passenger bus.

Shermann Dilla Thomas, the ComEd lineman-turned-TikTok historian, outside his bus by the Ida B. Wells-Barnett memorial, the one place where he leads his Bronzeville tour participants outside the bus “because it’s the only time you’re going to be standing at 37th and Vincennes.”

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Time to explore all of Chicago

Historian Shermann Dilla Thomas leads visits to South and West Side neighborhoods

“This is example one of why everything dope about America comes from Chicago,” said Shermann Dilla Thomas, delivering his trademark buzz phrase to a busload of tourists on a recent Saturday at the west edge of the Midway Plaisance. “This is my main man, Lorado Taft’s ‘Fountain of Time.’”

I’d been to the fountain before. Even written about it. But never grasped why it’s here. Thomas filled us in.

“It was made in honor of the 100 years of peace between Great Britain and the United States,” he said. “Let’s see: Raise your hand if you know why the White House is painted white? I can help you with that.”

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Maybe something to do with the British setting it on fire? I almost said that but kept my hand down. Shutting up is an art form, and I didn’t want to intrude. Smart, since I could never have explained it with half the panache that Thomas did:

“In 1812, we tried to jack Canada from Great Britain,” he began. “It didn’t really work out in our favor. In fact, any time you sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ you are talking about when Great Britain was kicking our butts in Baltimore with the ‘rockets red glare.’ During the War of 1812, they also burned down the presidential residence. We didn’t call the place where the president lived ‘The White House’ in 1812.

“After the redcoats burned it down — sadly, chattel slavery was still going on. So they went up to the enslaved Americans and said, ‘Hey yo, y’all gotta rebuild this crib.’ They were like, ‘Damn, OK.’ So they rebuilt it.

“And then when someone walked around to do the inspection, they were like, ‘Hey man, there are still some char marks from the fire. You gotta clean that off.’ So they tried, they tried, they tried, they couldn’t get the char marks off.

“Then finally, some dude was like, ‘Hey, just paint the whole thing white!’ It’s been painted white ever since. That’s why we call it the White House.”

Whitewashing a historic shame — like the British waltzing into our nation’s capital and torching the place — can you get any more American than that? The go-to move for some people.

Shermann Dilla Thomas, whose slogan is “Everything dope about America comes from Chicago,” offers historical tours of Chicago neighborhoods like North Lawndale and Englewood that are not typical tourist draws. He’s working to change that.

Shermann Dilla Thomas, whose slogan is “Everything dope about America comes from Chicago,” offers historical tours of Chicago neighborhoods like North Lawndale and Englewood that are not typical tourist draws. He’s working to change that.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Me, I take my history as it comes. Which is why I was on Thomas’ Bronzeville tour. A glimpse of U.S./Canadian relations was just the start. Over two hours, there was a steady stream of information from the highly relevant to the merely interesting.

From redlining to the first use of the phrase “learning disabilities.” From the Chicago Defender Building to the Mabel Banks boarding house on East 44th Street, where Satchel Paige and Negro League stars stayed when playing in town “because they couldn’t live anywhere else.” From Provident Hospital to the park named for Lil’ Hardin, Louis Armstrong’s second wife. And much more.

I’m blessed in that my job takes me all over the city. But not everyone is so fortunate. And with spring finally here, and outsiders pouring calumny on Chicago from their sun-washed patios in Punta Gorda, this seems an apt moment to remind people they have half a year to stop being prisoners of their own neighborhoods and get out and look around.

Knowledge banishes fear. That goes for everybody.

Among the noteworthy sights on Shermann Dilla Thomas’ Bronzeville tour is the First Church of Deliverance at 4315 S. Wabash. “You didn’t know it was here because it’s on the South Side, ‘ Thomas said. (Actually I did, having read Lee Bey’s “Southern Exposure,” but it was still cool to see it in person).

Among the noteworthy sights on Shermann Dilla Thomas’ Bronzeville tour is the First Church of Deliverance at 4315 S. Wabash. “You didn’t know it was here because it’s on the South Side, ‘ Thomas said. (Actually I did, having read Lee Bey’s “Southern Exposure,” but it was still cool to see it in person).

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Thomas wants to put the South Side and West Side on tourists’ radar the same way visitors trek to Oak Park to see the Frank Lloyd Wright homes, but Jahmal Cole, founder and chief executive of My Block, My Hood My City, is working to welcome Black youth into areas of the city they might have never visited.

“I don’t want kids saying they’ve never been downtown,” Cole said. “Seeing the lake and asking, ‘What ocean is that?’ I’ve been at the Red Line station and had kids look at me and say, ‘How do you get downtown?’ You can see downtown from the platform. They might as well be in another world.’’

He’s had 1,000 kids sign up for his Downtown Day, coming July 8.

“There are so many different communities, different areas, but only one Chicago,” Cole said. “Step outside your comfort zone. Expose yourself to different cultures, different cuisines. That’s how we get better as a city.”

Thomas has 40 tours scheduled this summer — not only to Bronzeville but Englewood, North Lawndale, Bridgeport and Pullman. Tickets are $45 or $50. Thomas is an amiable host whose easygoing approach disguises historical rigor. The ComEd lineman began making 60-second TikTok videos to bring his kids up to speed on Chicago history, and they caught on — and garner millions of views.

What I particularly like is the tour, though historical, is not confined to the past. We stopped in front of brightly colored shipping containers — Boxville Marketplace, a sort of floating mall and kitchen on East 51st that entrepreneurs take over to sell goods, opening pop-up restaurants and such.

“We’re going to see a lot of vacant lots,” he said. “We’re going to talk about why there are so many vacant lots.”

We got not only fact but context. Thomas explained why working in a slaughterhouse in Chicago was a better deal than sharecropping in the South — because the Southern landowners not only charged tenant farmers rent for their land and homes, but for the seed spread, the tools used. The sharecropper could work for a year and end up further in debt.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, skinning cows was hard and dangerous, “but come Friday, nobody was going to say, ‘You’re using my butcher knife and have on my apron,’’’ Thomas said.

Shermann Dilla Thomas talks about Ida B. Wells-Barnett, one of the many important Chicagoans he discusses on his tours of the city.

Shermann Dilla Thomas talks about Ida B. Wells-Barnett, one of the many important Chicagoans he discusses on his tours of the city. | Neil Steinberg

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Getting out to see parts of the city you haven’t explored before helps you, and it helps the places you visit.

“Man, it does so many things,” Thomas said. “It starts with changes in perspective about those places, it lifts up small businesses. You may have thought Old-Fashioned Donuts wasn’t still there” — it is, 51 years at 11248 S. Michigan Ave. “Maybe something on a tour, something someone shows you makes you want to go back. There’s economic value there.”

He also makes a point of giving the full history of the neighborhoods, which is why Bronzeville history turned out to be noticeably Jewish: Julius Rosenwald, Emil Hirsch, the Marx Brothers.

“When I take people on tours, I try to find connecting points,” Thomas said. “So you relate to Bronzeville or Pullman or Englewood the same way you’d relate to Wicker Park or Bucktown.”

Later, we talked about the unrest the weekend before last and the way Chicago has turned into a GOP punching bag. Thomas put it in historic perspective, naturally.

“It’s always been like that, in one form or fashion,” he said. “They were putting us down for Capone. Putting us down for Old Man Daley. Putting us down for Jeff Fort and Larry Hoover. Now they’re putting us down for what happened downtown. ... I don’t know why we forget we’re all Americans. We shouldn’t want each other to fail.”

For information on bus tours with Shermann Dilla Thomas, go to chicagomahogany.com. For more information on My Block, My Hood, My City, go to formyblock.org.

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