The Crusader Newspaper Group

Fighting to maintain Black family history in Chicago’s oldest house

One of two buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire was The Henry B. Clarke House, once owned by Bishop Louis Ford, pastor of the Old St. Paul Church of God in Christ, and it is at the center of negotiations between the grandson of Ford and city officials who have removed the museum from the historic house, effectively erasing the African American history.

And that doesn’t sit well with Ford’s grandson, Elder Kevin A. Ford, who now heads his grandfather’s and his late father’s, Bishop Charles Mason Ford’s church.

To add insult to injury, city officials have placed a picture of Ford’s grandfather in a corner of the Clarke basement to represent the African American history involved in the Clarke House. Ironically, the picture sits by a panel in the basement where the late Bishop Louis Ford’s wife, Margaret, once cooked for her dining room business.

Having his grandfather’s picture sitting in a corner in the Clarke basement is an insult to Elder Ford who told the Chicago Crusader, “It has, it must be corrected. Our history and our church members caring for that House must be included in the Clarke House.”

“I grew up in that house. My family owned that house,” Elder Ford said.

His grandfather, Bishop Louis Henry Ford, who was also the presiding international bishop of a 8.5 million-member Church of God in Christ, bought the Clarke House in 1941 which was once known as the “Widow Clarke House.” Then, it was located at 4526 S. Wabash Avenue.

“My grandfather began to raise funds to preserve this home,” said Elder Ford. “He was Chicago’s first preservationist.” The Clarke House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a Chicago landmark.

The Clarke House was built for Henry B. Clarke, a hardware merchant. It was located at 16th and Michigan Avenue; after Clarke died, his widow lived there until 1872. It was sold to John Chrimes who feared another Chicago Fire and moved the Clarke House to 4526 S. Wabash Ave.

The house was then sold to Chrimes’ daughter and her husband, William H. Walter, who lived there until 1935. It was a place where job training was provided through the Great Depression.

Ironically, the late Bishop Ford, who was born in Lexington, Mississippi, once preached on the corner of 47th and Dearborn Streets, each day passing the Clarke House. Strangely, he vowed to one day make that house the home of the church he was trying to grow. That became a reality in 1943 when Bishop Ford moved his family into the Clarke House.

In 1948, Bishop Ford and his wife, Margaret began to renovate the interior of the house. In the late 1940s, Mrs. Ford opened Chicago’s Oldest House Dining Room where she served lunch during the week.

In 1955, Bishop Ford gained more notoriety when he eulogized the funeral of Emmett Till at the Robert’s Temple Church of God in Christ where thousands passed the open casket viewing the badly mutilated body of Emmett Till. Till had been visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi and was kidnapped and killed by two white men claiming he had whistled at one of their wives.

In 1977, Bishop Ford sold the Clarke House to the City of Chicago for $250,000. It was then moved to 16th and Prairie near its original site. In June of 1982, the City of Chicago opened the Clarke Museum; however, neither Bishop Ford nor his family was invited to the grand opening. Later, Bishop Ford was included on the program.

After his grandfather died in 1995, Elder Ford and his father, Bishop Charles Mason Ford, began a construction apprenticeship program teaching African Americans trades such as plumbers, electricians and getting them into the unions, an idea that began with the restoration of the Clarke House.

As the third family pastor of the St. Paul Church of God in Christ, Elder Ford feels compelled to continue his grandfather’s passion of preserving the Clarke House, including its African American history.

“Our history,” Elder Ford said, “must be included in the Clarke House.

“It is not just our legacy that is at stake but the African American community. We cannot let it die or be erased and replaced by European history when it was our family and our church members who nurtured and kept the Clarke House alive.”

Architectural historian Elizabeth Blasius, who is working with Elder Ford, said with the help of Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd) the city has reportedly agreed to rename the house the Henry B. Clarke-Bishop Louis Ford House.

That isn’t good enough for Elder Ford or Blasius.

“How can you tell the history of this house without the museum? The City has removed the museum,” said Blasius.

Referring to the recent Chicago landmarks, the Muddy Waters House, the Emmett Till House and the Mamie Till Mobley House, Blasius told the Chicago Crusader, “without a museum, without a way to interpret that history, they are just average” houses. She added, “You need the museum to tell the full story.”

And, that is the crux of the story. On one side of the negotiations is the Ford family demanding that the African American history of the Clarke house be included vs. the City of Chicago that is pushing the European history of the historic landmark.

“It is a challenge, but we’re going to bring it back,” said Elder Ford.

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