The Grid: Exploring the Bronzeville neighborhood
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Welcome to the “The Grid,” the Chicago Sun-Times in-depth look at Chicago neighborhoods.
Today’s stop: Bronzeville. For more than 100 years, Bronzeville has been the heart of Chicago’s African-American community.
Located along Lake Michigan about 4 miles from downtown Chicago, this neighborhood began as home to many of the millions who fled the South during the Great Migration of the early 1900s. Through its sometimes difficult history, Bronzeville has remained home to a vibrant cultural scene often called the “Chicago Black Renaissance,” and to many history makers like Gwendolyn Brooks and influential businesses and media like the Chicago Defender.
Today, it is all that and more, as you’ll find in this episode of The Grid.
Our story includes:
- The history of Bronzeville
- History makers with Bronzeville roots
- Things to see and do
- Where to eat, drink and shop
This story on Bronzeville is one in a series by the Sun-Times focused on the interesting people and places in Chicago’s many neighborhoods, intended for locals and visitors alike in hopes that all will be inspired to explore our city. We have an engaging video and a comprehensive story all curated by our Sun-Times audience team to help provide you with the most current and meaningful information about the important and best things to do in each neighborhood.
We’re proud to welcome Baird & Warner as presenting sponsor of “The Grid.” Leading our video adventure is Sun-Times program host, Ji Suk Yi.
Ji visits Bronzeville
Stepping into Bronzeville is entering hallowed ground. As Chicago’s mecca for African-American history, the neighborhood speaks to you. Just looking around, you can see the lasting legacy of the Black Renaissance: the monuments, the historic architecture, stately homes, the ghosts of what once stood in empty lots and the whispers of a new dawn brought on by development, city initiatives and local businesses.
Bronzeville has had its fits and starts, but what’s clear from my visit is that the people who make their lives there — by working, living and investing in the community – are at the heart of this revival. Bronzeville is on the cusp again; you can just feel it as you walk around and talk to the people who live there… and I strongly urge you to take a trip there to give them your business.
Bronzeville runs north/south from 25th Street to 51st Street. The east/west boundaries are Cottage Grove to the Rock Island Metra Rail line.
There is such a wealth of history in Bronzeville that to delve in only momentarily feels sacrilegious, but there are a lot of knowledgeable historians (who know much more than I do) and resources about the once “Black Metropolis” that in this case, I’ll direct you to the experts.
A great place to start is with The Bronzeville Historical Society. Sherry Williams is a lifelong learner and a daughter of parents who escaped the Jim Crow South to find a better life in Chicago. She’s an incredible and generous resource and is always willing to share the history of Bronzeville and is currently working on a project to record oral and video histories about the neighborhood.
Lifetime champion of civil rights and educator, Timuel Black, has a wonderful book “Bridges of Memory” that documents interviews of hundreds of African-Americans who migrated to Chicago. He has lived the history of Bronzeville first-hand, witnessing historic events at the source and knew many of the historic visionaries who were at the crux of Bronzeville history. He is honored with a street sign at the intersection of 50th and State.
There are many guided walking tours given by the Chicago History Museum and the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Bernard Turner, author of “A View of Bronzeville” offers a self-guided walking tour and, also, gives tours.
Another great resource to learn more about Bronzeville is at The Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies (part of Northeastern Illinois University). Currently, there is a group collaboration of community researchers, students and faculty that form the “Bronzeville Neighborhood Research Project” and have a blog called the “Bronzeville Bloggers.”
There is also the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center run by Harold Lucas, who has been a valuable resource and vocal custodian of the community.
The History of Bronzeville
The Great Migration of African-Americans escaping from Jim Crow laws that legalized racism, segregation and disenfranchisement that dominated the American South resulted in more than half-million new settlers in Chicago.
At the gateway to Bronzeville stands Alison Saar’s “Monument to the Great Northern Migration” which was installed in 1994 to commemorate the six million African-Americans who traveled North from 1910 to 1970. The statue of a man with a hat and suitcase in hand, is poignantly made out of what seems to mimic worn-out soles of shoes.
While the new migrants were able to escape the South, they weren’t able to escape all the pitfalls of racism and discrimination. They still found segregation in their new home in Chicago through the restrictive land and real estate covenants that forced blacks to live mostly in a narrow 7-mile stretch of the South Side thoughtlessly referred to as the “Black Belt.”
Theater critic for the Chicago Bee, James J. Gentry, who later worked for the Chicago Defender, suggested the name Bronzeville be used to describe the neighborhood, since bronze more closely resembled the skin tones in the neighborhood.
Gentry was also a club promoter who financed the annual “Miss Bronze America” beauty pageant. He also suggested a contest — a nomination and election of a “Bronzeville Mayor” – as a promotional campaign to sell more newspapers. The Bronzeville Mayor wasn’t an official political office, but it was decided through election and became an incredible honor and played an influential role — one that spoke for the concerns for an entire community and represented the neighborhood as a whole, without the baggage of political party affiliations.
Despite overcrowding, lack of resources and facing another type of segregation, the new African-American migrants from the South managed to do for themselves. Because their greatest resource was themselves, as a people, and the resulting density of everyone being together – for better or worse – created a “Black Metropolis.”
Walking around Bronzeville and thinking about its history, I was in awe of its resiliency. It’s a community that has suffered so much, yet finding the courage and strength to scrape together groundbreaking businesses, create trail blazing history-makers, and ignite a “Chicago Black Renaissance” in literary movements, the arts and music — all against the odds.
Bronzeville history makers
Ninety-one bronze plaques stretch ten blocks on medians, sidewalks, and crosswalks and make up Bronzeville’s King Drive Walk of Fame. The bronze plaques commemorate the more than 100 residents that have contributed to African-American society and culture. It occupies the stretch between 25th and 35th Streets.
A big part of a visit to Bronzeville includes paying homage to the historic homes of African-American greats, activists and pioneers. Many of the former homes of these game changers are privately owned so be sure to walk by respectfully, but they are worth checking out. An easy place to start is at civil rights activist and journalist Ida B. Wells’ former home at 3624 S. Martin Luther King Blvd.
You can walk by Nat King Cole’s former residence on Vincennes. He also lived in the Rosenwald Building. The Rosenwald was renovated in 2016 and is now mostly apartments occupied by seniors, but it has had a complex history.
The Rosenwald Building was started by philanthropist and Sears Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald, as an experiment on affordable housing in African-American neighborhoods. While he contributed many charitable gifts including the Rosenwald schools project inspired in part by his friend, Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald wanted to show that providing affordable housing could be profitable. It worked in the beginning but also faced a period of decline when it was abandoned. With the 2016 renovations, hopefully it is on track to having fully occupied storefronts soon.
In its prime, the Rosenwald Building was fully occupied by a large cross section of residents. Renowned music producer Quincy Jones lived there as a child. Other notable residents included playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author of “A Raisin in the Sun,” who was also the first African-American to have a play on Broadway.
Also four-time Olympic Gold medalist track star Jesse Owens, jazz musician great Duke Ellington, the first African-American librarian in the Chicago library system, Vivian G. Harsh, and publisher of Ebony magazine, John H. Johnson were all one-time residents.
Boxer Joe Louis, heavyweight champion for a record 12 years, also lived in the Rosenwald Building. In fact, the first professional fight he won was in Bronzeville.
Bronzeville was once considered the “cradle of the blues” and 47th Street is still considered the “blues corridor.” Various blues found their way to Chicago with the migration — including blues from the Mississippi Delta and Texas. Entrepreneurs opened nightclubs where artists performed, and record companies (specifically Chess Records) signed musicians like Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett), Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Willie Dixon and Chuck Berry. There aren’t any blues clubs in Bronzeville any longer, but hopefully a music venue revival will be in its future and the blues can finally come home.
Jazz was also at home in Bronzeville. Legendary musician Louis Armstrong owned the jazz club, Sunset Cafe, on 35th Street. It’s currently boarded up after Ace Hardware left but it’s worth seeking out, as this was where legendary musicians- black and white – shared the stage.
Speaking of music, gospel great Mahalia Jackson traveled to Chicago as a teen to learn nursing, but destiny intervened, when she started singing with composer and musical director Thomas A. Dorsey of Pilgrim Baptist Church. After suffering from a fire in 2006, the church – which was originally a synagogue designed by famed architects Adler and Sullivan — is now the planned future home of a gospel music museum.
The first African-American Pulitzer Prize recipient and national Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks moved to Chicago as a young child and eventually her poems were frequently published in the Chicago Defender. Her very first collection of poems, “A Street in Bronzeville,” was inspired by the neighborhood.
Activist and poet Margaret Burroughs wasn’t just a writer but worked in many forms of art including painting and sculpture. She also taught at the DuSable High School and founded the DuSable Museum and the South Side Community Art Center in Bronzeville. Founded in 1940, it was created to provide support for black creativity and was recently designated National Treasure status.
Robert S. Abbott founded The Chicago Defender in 1905. After an initial investment of only 25 cents and a run of 300 copies, the paper was touted as the world’s most influential black weekly by the start of World War I. Abbott became one of Chicago’s first black millionaires and gave back substantially to the community. One of the Defender’s lasting legacies is through Chicago Defender Charities which still sponsors the Bud Billiken Parade. Since 1929, this is the largest African-American parade in the nation and is held on the second Saturday in August, celebrating children going back to school!
The Chicago Bee was published from 1926 to 1946 by businessman Anthony Overton to compete against the Defender. Overton, despite being born a slave, earned a law degree, was briefly a judge and then became the first African-American to own a business conglomerate. He was considered the cosmetics king catering his business to fulfill the needs of African-American women. His vast business empire included Victory Life Insurance, Douglass National Bank and Northern Realty Company. The Chicago Bee building is now a library branch.
Astronaut Robert H. Lawrence was the first black astronaut. He graduated high school at the age of 16. He died in a training accident at age 32. Due to the persistence of his widow until her death in 2016, his name will be commemorated at the Kennedy Space Center.
The first African-American female licensed to fly, pilot Bessie Coleman, hailed from Bronzeville. Undeterred by American laws that forbade teaching aviation to blacks, she taught herself French and went to France to attend flying school.
An African-American pioneer in medicine, Daniel Hale Williams, opened Provident Hospital, the very first hospital with a nursing and intern program to have an interracial staff. He was also one of the first doctors to perform open heart surgery.
Another prominent African-American surgeon at Provident was Dr. George Cleveland Hall. He once was head of the Chicago Urban League and helped to found the organization currently known as the “Association for the Study of African American Life and History.” The first full service library on the South Side was named after him. The library branch named for Hall became a huge supporter of local writers along with other important African-American writers like Langston Hughes (who was also a columnist for the Defender) and Zora Neale Hurston. Also, Vivian Harsh (mentioned as living in the Rosenwald Building) was the librarian here who often had Hughes speak at the library and even donate some of his papers into its collection.
The very first black vaudeville act, Butterbeans and Susie, (married couple Jodie Edwards and Susie Hawthorne) once lived at 3322 S. Calumet Ave. They started the bickering, hapless husband routine adopted by many sitcom routines to follow. Another famous vaudeville act, the Marx Brothers, lived in Bronzeville at 4512 S. Grand Blvd.
Another notable is Andrew “Rube” Foster, who hailed from Texas but eventually lived in Bronzeville and played for the Chicago American Giants. He was deemed the “father of black baseball” and one of the architects of an all-black league, ignited by Foster’s desire to prove that black ballplayers were good enough to play in the big leagues.
My favorite things by Tabrina Davis
Tabrina Davis is a fashion stylist and has lived in Bronzeville since 2004 with her husband, son and Shih Tzu.
- The close proximity to the lakefront, of course
- Walking my dog Coco on Drexel Blvd
- Order a salmon panini from Simply Soups, Salads & Sandwiches
- Sip champagne in the garden of talented artist and interior designer Raub Welch
- Eat peach bourbon compote waffles at Peach’s restaurant
Things to see and do
Gallery Guichard is a 4,000-square-foot gallery that exhibits a diverse rotating collection of art. Owners and artists Andre and Frances Guichard have created an environment where all are welcome and a healthy exchange of ideas are shared and inspiration found! Next door to the gallery is the Great Migration Sculpture Garden which will have a rotating exhibition of sculpture.
Gallery Guichard participates in the Bronzeville Art District 3rd Friday Trolley Tour. The participating art galleries have live music, food and drink to welcome visitors and the incredible part — the event is free! But be sure to mark it on your calendar, it only happens during summer, during the months from June to September.
Attached to Guichard are the Bronzeville Artists Lofts. It’s a live-work incubator space for artists. Completed in 2014 as part of the Chicago Neighborhood Stabilization Program, the building has historic roots. Built in 1937, it was at one time the world’s largest African-American department store known as the Jones Brothers Ben Franklin store.
Cliff Rome is the owner of Peach’s Restaurant, but is also behind Bronzeville’s historic Parkway Ballroom and Blanc Gallery. The Parkway Ballroom was a popular club in its heyday during the 1940s — 1960s. Rome has made the iconic location available for gatherings and special events. Rome’s mission is to rekindle the “culture of conversation.”
Blanc Gallery‘s mission is to “ignite dialogue on issues of spiritual, political and social significance” through art. Four times a year, Blanc showcases one artist in an exploration of a compelling theme.
There’s a lot of public art on display as well. Two that you must seek out are the “Bronzeville Mural” under the Green Line 35th IIT Stop, and the “Wall of Daydreaming, Man’s Inhumanity to Man” at 47th Street and Calumet, painted by Mitchell Caton, Bill Walker and Santi Isrowuthakul in 1975.
Community Art Garden at Elliott Donnelley Youth Center features a mural and park. In 1991, encouraged by the Openlands Project, the center began transforming three vacant lots south of its building into a sculpture park, playground, and community garden. Since 1956, the center has provided youth-development specialists who give individual attention to nearly 700 children and teens each year to help them with academic achievement and social and life skills development.
In addition to historic homes, spots to visit include the Monument to the Great Northern Migration, the King Drive Walk of Fame, (both mentioned before in the history of Bronzeville), Victory Monument and the Douglas Tomb.
There’s a lot of green space in Bronzeville and easy access to the lake, lake trail and beaches. Check out Ellis Park, Dunbar Park, Mandrake Park and Burnham Park and Burroughs Beach.
On the former site of the Robert Taylor housing complex is a farm. This is no ordinary farm but an incubator program that teaches farming, business skills and sustainability.
Launched in 2013, Windy City Harvest’s Farm Incubator Program in conjunction with the Chicago Botanic Garden, carefully selects incubator farmers. Windy City Harvest’s largest farm, Legends South, is in Bronzeville at 4431 S. Federal Street, more than two acres, the incubator for small farm businesses independently run by graduates. Each year, student applicants who have completed Windy City Harvest’s apprenticeship and 14-week “Business and Entrepreneurship for Local Foods” course, apply to put their skills to the test and launch their own farming business.
Bronzeville Memories by Zenobia and Timuel Black
Long-time Chicago community activists Zenobia and Tim Black both grew up in Bronzeville.
Bronzeville was an exciting place in which to grow up. Zenobia grew up across the street from the Ellis family of musicians, Jimmy and Morris. In fact, “Jazz in the Alley” originated in the alley on 50th Street, between St Lawrence and Champlain.
- Gospel music was originated by Tommy Dorsey at Pilgrim Baptist Church 33rd and Indiana. The site of the future Gospel Music Museum.
- Jazz and “city blues” got their maturation in Bronzeville.
- The Harlem Globetrotters, started out as a local team, and originally were known as the “Savoy Big Five,” until the team was purchased by Abe Saperstein and moved to NYC.
- Chicago’s Bronzeville elected the first black congressman since reconstruction, Oscar DePriest.
- The Negro Baseball League was founded here by Rube Foster.
Where to eat, drink and shop
Since 1990, Abundance Bakery has been making cakes, pastries, donuts and brownies. It’s most famous for its upside-down caramel cupcakes. Not only will the sweets have you smiling but so will talking with the owner, William Ball. He’s charming, hilarious and one-of-a-kind.
Peach’s is owned by Cliff Rome, and it’s the perfect place to start your day! It’s bright and airy, and the food is delicious. It’s comfort food with Southern charm. Occupying a corner on 47th and King it’s right in the hub of where everything is happening.
Pearl’s has been serving Bronzeville residents for more than 30 years. There are white tablecloths, and they serve a delicious southern style soul food buffet. It also has a breakfast buffet during the week and weekends.
Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles is where you want to go to satisfy your savory and sweet tooth all at the same time. It’s not just about the waffles and fried chicken here, it serves delicious skillets, sides like collard greens and mac-n-cheese, and fish.
Truth Italian is sleek and sophisticated. It’s a great place to take your time, savor your meal and catch up with friends or go on a date. There’s also an outdoor patio.
Yassa Restaurant was previously located in Chatham, but owners and married couple, Madieye and Awa Gueye, have been wowing Bronzeville with their Senegalese cuisine since the beginning of 2015. The couple is as warm and welcoming as their delicious food. The namesake dish is chicken marinated in lemon and spices over white rice. Another popular dish, is maffe which is comprised of cubed lamb cooked in a peanut butter and tomato sauce, served with carrots and potatoes.
On a stretch of 43rd Street, between Vincennes and St. Lawrence Streets, there’s a cluster of spots not to be missed.
Ain’t She Sweet has delicious sandwiches, wraps, salads and desserts. Plus, it serves ice cream. I was there at lunch, and it was bustling with activity with a diverse clientele popping in and out of the front doors. Try anything with the jerk seasoning!
Sip n’ Savor is a coffee shop right next door. You can enjoy your certified fair trade coffee while working on your lap top or reading in the coffee shop. This is a coffee company that’s exclusively on the South Side with five locations throughout.
Agriculture Custom Tailors is a gorgeous, refined boutique for men. There is custom tailoring, styling and also ready-to-wear items. Owner Milton Latrell is incredibly talented and from Bronzeville. Each item is hand selected and incredibly thoughtful. He also just came out with his own line of cologne. It’s a gorgeous space.
Farther down on 43rd Street, there is Bronzeville Boutique which carries clothes for women and men.
All along 47th Street between Michigan and King Drive are shops for sneaker heads. Notable ones include Villa, Shoe Avenue, J Bee’s and City Sports.
Honey 1 BBQ has been in several locations, moving from Austin to Bucktown. Since 2015, Bronzeville residents have embraced the restaurant with open arms, and it looks like this will be its final stop. Pit master Robert Adams, Sr. is an Arkansas native who cooks his bbq low and slow over wood.
If you feel like saucy fried chicken, then you can head over to Uncle Remus’ chicken.
Two Fish is a recent addition on 47th Street. Serving up seafood boils daily except for Mondays. There’s shrimp, crawfish and lobster. It offers five types of seasonings and six kinds of seafood daily. You’ll also find a great selection of fried baskets.
A great place to end the evening is at Renaissance Chicago. It’s a bar with dance floor and music, and a great patio. The space took over the historic comedy club, Jokes and Notes.
Bronzeville is a neighborhood where history surrounds you. You can’t visit or live there without it permeating your experience. It’s also on the cusp of another renaissance – as investors and Chicagoans move to the neighborhood lured by beautiful stately homes, new development and proximity to green space and the lake. It’s a wonderful neighborhood to invest your dollars into – whether you’re moving or just visiting. You’ll leave enriched in more ways than one.
I hope you enjoyed our guide to Bronzeville and will use the information here to go explore this interesting piece of Chicago’s history. Check out our other neighborhood guides as well! See you next time on The Grid.
This new Sun-Times video series showcases the best of Chicago’s neighborhoods (and suburbs!) by turning a spotlight on the people, places and things that make our city one-of-a-kind. Look for a new video episode each Wednesday on the Chicago Sun-Times website. #thegrid. We hope you will watch, read and share all of The Grid stories!
The Grid neighborhood guides
- Episode 1: Logan Square
- Episode 2: Andersonville
- Episode 3: Pilsen
- Episode 4: Hyde Park
- Episode 5: Ravenswood
- Episode 6: Printers Row
- Episode 7: Roscoe Village