By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
It was once the birthplace of Gospel music before a devastating fire destroyed the historic landmark Pilgrim Baptist Church building in Bronzeville over a decade ago.
Now, after years of legal battles, financial problems and calls to tear down what’s left of a significant piece of Black history, a prominent businessman and gospel producer plans to reinvent an endangered landmark as a sprawling National Museum of Gospel Music. And if all goes well, the project will save a revered building, whose aging church members struggled to raise millions of dollars to restore a relic that harks back to a bygone era when some of the most renowned gospel artists and soul artists in the world lit up Sunday mornings with soul-stirring worship hymns.
On the same site where Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson moved the hearts of many will now be a place that teaches future generations the roots and significance of a genre that changed the Black church forever, and added gospel music to the rich history and legacy of Chicago’s Black community.
The big announcement and details of the plans will be unveiled at 2 p.m. on Friday, December 8, 2017 at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture’s S.R. Crown Hall, 3360 S. State St., at 2:30 p.m.
The driving force behind the project is Don Jackson, CEO of Central City Productions and founder of the popular annual Stellar Gospel Music Awards. Jackson hopes to open in September of 2020, the month designated by former President Barack Obama as Gospel Music Heritage Month. Guests will include gospel artists and prominent Chicago religious, political, community and business leaders.
“The National Museum of Gospel Music will be one of the biggest attractions for Chicago, and for the world, to have a place to gather and reflect upon the rich heritage of gospel music. Nothing like it exists right now,” said Jackson, who created the first, and oldest annual televised awards show honoring gospel music artists for the past 32 years.
Designed as a Jewish synagogue, the building was built in 1890 at a time when Chicago’s wealthy and elite lived in the neighborhood and erected cathedrals that were places of worship throughout the city’s South side. With its soaring 50 foot ceilings, grand entrances, fine masonry and arched windows, the building was considered an architectural masterpiece. But Jewish, Irish and white residents moved north and left behind grand church buildings and mansions as thousands of Blacks flooded Bronzeville during the Great Migration. In 1922, Pilgrim Baptist Church moved into the building, located at 3301 S. Indiana Ave.
In the 1930s, Thomas A. Dorsey, a young gifted young man from a small town in Georgia served as Pilgrim’s music director. At Pilgrim he wrote “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” a gospel hymn made popular by the “Queen of Gospel,” Mahalia Jackson, and loved by slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King. Infusing soulful vocals with spirit-filled lyrics, Dorsey earned the title of the “Father of Gospel Music,” as word spread in Chicago and worldwide of his influence and worship style.
In addition to Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers, Detroit’s late Reverend James Cleveland, and Albertina Walker are among the prominent gospel singers who have performed at Pilgrim Baptist Church.
In addition to being a Chicago landmark, the building was listed on the coveted U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
On January 6, 2006, a fire broke out after workers were performing roof repairs as a part of $500,000 renovation. The fire quickly spread, gutting the building and destroying many important church records. All that was left standing was the building’s front façade and side walls, which have been held up with massive braces ever since. A public campaign to raise millions of dollars to restore the landmark has dragged on for years. A lawsuit was filed accusing organizers of misusing thousands of dollars that were donated for the effort. As the problems continued, neighbors once circulated a petition to tear down the church to reclaim the neighborhood sidewalks.