By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
The gift bags with samples of Popacorn popcorn were ready. Soul music from the Isley Brothers blared from speakers. All that was needed was some bodies on the trolley waiting across from the Art Institute of Chicago on Michigan Avenue. One by one they came from different directions before they boarded and nearly filled the vehicle. It was time for a tour, but instead of going to Navy Pier or the Field Museum, this tour was headed to the ‘hood on the South Side.
On Tuesday, June 5, Chicago got a dose of Black history, going where most tour companies have never gone before: Black neighborhoods. It was the inaugural voyage of Black Owned Chicago Tours and guests were in for a real treat.
On the mic was Deanna Reed-Foster, a sassy, hilarious, no nonsense tour guide who’s also an actress on the hit NBC drama “Chicago Fire.” But this tour was about real lives and places that with some humor and interesting facts made an intriguing history lesson. Reed-Foster led nearly 20 passengers on a two-hour excursion to Black historical sites that some passed by every day without knowing the story behind it.
In what is hoped to be the beginning of a new era in Black tourism in Chicago, Black Owned Chicago Tours on Tuesday kicked off its ambitious plan to promote and highlight Black neighborhoods and businesses often shunned by Chicago’s numerous bus and trolley tours.
As Chicago tourism swings into high gear for the busy summer season, Black Owned Chicago Tours wants to make sure the city’s Black sites and Black businesses get a piece of tourism dollars. In April, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that despite a brutal winter, hotel room occupancy in the first quarter reached a record-breaking 2.33 million, an increase of 10.5 percent compared with the same period last year. In 2017 a record 55.2 million tourists visited Chicago but far fewer made trips to sites in the city’s Black and low income neighborhoods.
“We’re going to the South Side y’all so buckle up,” said Reed-Foster, who also starred in the movie ‘Southside With You,” about Bar- ack Obama and his wife Michelle’s lives in Chicago before they made history as the first Black president and first lady.
“You can’t talk about Black history without talking about the South Side.”
The first stop was the Johnson Publishing building at 820 S. Michigan Avenue. It’s vacant but that didn’t stop the clicks from the cell phone cameras. John H. Johnson built the building in 1971. At the time it was the only Black-owned building on Michigan Avenue.
The property was sold last year for $10 million to 3L Real Estate, which plans to turn the space into apartments. Guests on the tour struggled to look upward, determined to view the iconic Ebony/Jet sign. Because the building is now a Chicago landmark, the sign will remain atop of the structure.
The tour was packed with visits to other historic sites in Bronzeville and Washington Park that have interesting stories behind them. A Crusader reporter was invited to ride along with the group, where nearly all the guests were Black.
“Who knows Margaret Taylor Burroughs,” asked Reed-Foster as she arrived at the mansion of the late founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History.
Only two hands went up.
One guest, Reshonda Harris said when she lived in Bronzeville, she passed by the Burroughs’ chateauesque mansion at 3806 S. Michigan without ever knowing about its owner or the history behind the building. When Reed-Foster said that Burroughs started the DuSable Museum in the living room of the mansion, many of the guests said “wow.”
“Now we’re going to the Dan Ryan. Some people call it the Damn Ryan because it’s always crowded,” Reed-Foster said.
Guests were taken by surprise with a stop at Eden Place in Fuller Park. It’s the only Black-owned farm and petting zoo in Chicago and perhaps Illinois. They got off the trolley for a special tour of the facility at 4917 S. Stewart. The farm has donkeys, turkeys, goats and chickens. They sell fresh eggs and produce that’s grown on the site.
The tour ended with a visit to the leafy Hyde Park neighborhood, where guests took selfies in front of the impressive mansion owned by Barack Obama. During his presidency the Secret Service blocked off the entire street, but now barriers only surround the red brick Georgian house.
Black Owned Chicago Tours founder and CEO Tanika Carpenter said eight additional tours are scheduled in the coming weeks. She said more tours will be added if demand for tickets remains steady.
Tours are scheduled for the month of June only, every Tuesday, from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Ticket prices are $20-30. Purchase tickets at blackownedchicago.com.