By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
The reporter asked the neighbor if she knew that a famous person once lived in her neighborhood. The answer came fast.
“Yup, Gwendolyn Brooks. She lived right there,” she replied, pointing to the gray and white, one and a half story house across the street.
She’s been dead for almost 17 years now. But as America celebrates the Centennial anniversary of its first Black Pulitzer Prize winner, Gwendolyn Brooks’ house in Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood remains a popular attraction in the 7400 block of South Evans.
Tourists and college students stop, stare and take pictures of the building. It’s the closest many ever get to the famous poet, who along with another famous writer, Lorraine Hansberry, put Chicago on the literary map with their award winning prose.
Born in Topeka, Kansas on June 7, 1917, Gwendolyn Brooks at age six moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. In 1954, she moved into the house in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. She attended Chicago’s Hyde Park High School (now known as Hyde Park Career Academy), and transferred to the historically Black, storied Wendell Phillips High School before graduating from Englewood High School. She was a professor at Chicago State University and occasionally wrote for the Chicago Defender newspaper.
In 1950, Brooks won the Pulitzer for “Annie Allen,” a three-part volume of poetry about an African American girl growing into womanhood. Some of her prominent works were about Black life in Chicago. They include A Street in Bronzeville, In the Mecca, Riot and Black Love. In 1983, the year Chicago elected its first Black mayor, Brooks published Mayor Harold Washington; and, Chicago, the I Will City.
Most of these works were written while Brooks lived in her home in Greater Grand Crossing. The house is an unassuming but well-kept wooden 768 square foot residence built in 1885. It remains exactly the way Brooks left it when she moved out in 1994. The small, cozy porch is still intact. The charming white latticework fencing beneath the porch floor complements the wooden white railings around the veranda.
It’s a house that stands out against the two-story brick houses that dot the block. Three years after Brooks made history by winning the Pulitzer Prize, she moved to the block. It was at a time when Chicago’s neighborhoods, parks and schools on the South Side were experiencing racial integration.
During her time in the neighborhood, Brooks produced some of her most renowned works of poetry, some of which were about Black life in Chicago. She lived in the neighborhood until 1994.
Brooks died on December 3, 2000. Her funeral was held at the University of Chicago’s soaring Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, the same location where the funerals of Black notables Jesse Owens and John H. Johnson were held. Brooks is buried in the Lincoln Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.
Today, Brooks’ house is an official Chicago landmark. It was designated as such in 2010, becoming one of the few of Chicago’s many prominent Black citizens to receive the honor.
While the legacies of Chicagoans Nat King Cole, Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Payne and Muddy Waters still burns in the Windy City, the homes where they once lived are not official Chicago landmarks. With- out a marker to identify them, some are forgotten relics. And the home belonging to Sam Cooke, in Bronzeville, was torn down decades ago. The house in Woodlawn where Emmett Till lived is not an official landmark despite the lasting impact the murdered 14-year-old had on the Civil Rights movement.
During a visit to Brooks’ landmark home, a Crusader reporter met the current owner of the house. Her name is Ella, a slender, single mother of two boys. She had just moved into Brook’s house on April 1. She said she learned of her new house’s famous owner when she visited the home as a prospective buyer and saw the historical marker outside the gate.
“I was so happy because I write poetry myself and I’ve always been a fan of Gwendolyn,” said Ella. “She did a lot for Blacks and to see what she has done is mind boggling. It’s good to have this house as a landmark because many young people don’t know who Gwendolyn was.”
Ella said many people, especially college students, stop by to view the home as they do research projects and papers.
Ella’s neighbor Crystal has lived in the neighborhood for 12 years. She learned about the house when the historical marker was placed during the landmark dedication in 2010. Before then, she did not know anything about the house.
“It’s a blessing that she lived on this block,” Crystal said. “I told my kids, ‘look this is history.’”
Ella didn’t know that day was Brooks’ 100th birthday. When the Crusader reporter mentioned it, Ella’s neighbor Crystal, went to her house and retrieved a helium birthday balloon left from her birthday the day before, and tied its string around the front gate of the former Brooks home.
The women said they were proud to celebrate and honor Gwendolyn Brooks.