Alderman Sophia King (4th ward) on Tuesday, March 23, withdrew her controversial museum ordinance after drawing heavy backlash from organizations and preservationists. They were concerned about the future of historic homes where owners had plans to turn them into museums to educate generations about their significance.
King recently introduced the ordinance that aimed to prohibit museums from opening in private homes in neighborhoods that are not zoned for that purpose. Without community input and no process in place, King believed an ordinance would help crack down on efforts to turn private homes throughout Chicago into museums.
King drew immediate backlash from historic preservationists and Black leaders who mounted a campaign to defeat her ordinance.
At the start of the City Council Committee on Zoning Landmarks and Building Standards, King withdrew her ordinance after Mayor Lori Lightfoot called her proposal an “overreach.”
For the Black community, King’s ordinance was viewed as a threat to transform important residences that were once owned by prominent people into museums.
They include the Emmett Till house in Woodlawn, the Phyllis Wheatley house, Lu Palmer mansion in Bronzeville and the Muddy Waters house in Kenwood. Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded a $50,000 grant toward efforts to turn Muddy Waters house into a museum. In January, the owners of Till’s house revealed plans to turn it into a museum after it was designated a Chicago Landmark.
Activists pointed out that the Hyde Park home of the late Nation of Islam Leader Elijah Muhammad is currently being renovated as a museum at 4847 S. Woodlawn Ave. That house is just a few steps away from Alderman Sophia King’s home and Marty Nesbitt, a friend of former President Barack Obama.
“Alderman Sophia King has spent the last year in a failed attempt to block the development of the Elijah Muhammad Home, a legally permitted project located in King’s 4th Ward dedicated to honoring the legacy of the former Nation of Islam leader who resided in the mansion for decades.
“The Elijah Muhammad Home, built in 1892, became a center for Black economic and social development from the 1950s through the 1970s welcoming Black icons including Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Stokely Carmichael, Sam Cooke, Adam Clayton Powell, Louis Farrakhan, and many, many others.
“Stymied in her efforts to derail the Elijah Muhammad Home, Alderman King has introduced an amendment that would outright prohibit house museums in many residential zoning districts while restricting other’s expansion or require ‘special use’ zoning approval subject to the discretion of the Alderman.”
King’s ordinance had drawn over 12,000 signatures on a petition on change.org.
Before she withdrew her ordinance, King told the Sun-Times, “If indeed you want to open a museum, all I’m saying is that there should be a community process, so that your museum doesn’t adversely impact the quality of life for your neighbors.”
King also said in one report that there was a “coordinated campaign” to defeat her proposal by an organization that wants to set up a museum in Lincoln Park, which is Alderman Michele Smith’s 43rd ward.
For decades, museums located in private homes were viewed as an asset to communities as they preserved the historical significance of neighborhoods while educating future generations of their impact on society.
In a statement from the Chicago Coalition of Black House Museums, which includes owners of the homes of Till, Muhammad, Wheatley, Waters and the A. Phillip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, Black leaders said, “This ordinance is a shameful effort to erase Black History. We ask the Zoning Committee AND the entire City Council to vote “NO” on this amendment and ensure that Black House museums can preserve the cultural heritage sites that honor the Black heroes who made Chicago their home.”