By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
It’s a quiet morning at the Bronzeville Historical Society (BHS). The organization’s founder and President Sherry Williams, walks with a heavy limp. A car accident a year ago left her with a broken ankle and broken bones in her leg. She now gets around with a cane. But in one week, Williams’ problems will get much worse.
After nearly five years at the historic Stephen A. Douglas site, Williams and her historical society may be out on the streets. The state wants Williams to pay rent that’s triple the amount she’s been paying since she relocated to the site in 2012. Williams said it’s all part of a new lease agreement the state wants her to sign by October 1.
Williams said she believes it’s the state’s way of forcing her organization to vacate the premises rather than going through the long legal process of evicting her.
For Williams, it’s a reality that’s slowly been building in the past year, one where she has had to work with broken toilets, crumbling pipes, an aging furnace and empty promises to repair the facility. Williams says she believes the state deliberately neglected the building to discourage her organization and force her to leave the site. With two weeks left before the deadline, the Bronzeville Historical Society has nowhere to go.
But while Williams must go, the elaborate tomb and marker that honors the legacy of a notorious slave owner will stay, despite protests from activists.
Things looked rosier five years ago in 2012, when the Bronzeville Historical Society moved into the Douglas site, located at 636 E. 35th Street. Despite the site’s ties to a prominent slave owner, it was an ideal location for a Black organization that preserves and researches Bronzeville’s rich Black history. A non-profit organization, the group is well known for its documents on the Great Migration and Black Chicago during segregation.
But for an organization that connects Black Chicago to its past with numerous artifacts, documents and photographs, the story of the Bronzeville Historical Society is like that of an orphan who wanders from one foster care home after another.
Founded at the demolished Robert Taylor Homes, the organization has struggled to find a permanent home since it began in 1999. After a year there, it operated out of the historic Swift Mansion at 45th and Michigan Avenue. It was there for eight years before Williams moved the historical society to the historic Hotel Florence in the Pullman District.
When the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA) began renovating the Hotel Florence in 2012, Williams relocated to the Douglas site, the oldest Illinois state landmark. It honors Douglas, a former U.S. Senator who defeated Abraham Lincoln in 1858 before Lincoln defeated his political rival in the race for president on November 6, 1860.
Since his death in 1861, Illinois still recognizes Douglas as a revered figure who persuaded Congress to pass a land grant that greatly expanded the Illinois Central Railroad. He owned 53 acres in Bronzeville and a chunk of the land was used as a training and detention camp. It is located at the site where the Black-owned Griffin Funeral Home operated until it closed in 2012.
In 1856, Douglas donated 10 acres on the northwest corner of 35th street and Cottage Grove to create the original University of Chicago, where he served as the school’s first president. The school closed in 1886 after it filed for bankruptcy. After Douglas died in 1861 Illinois bought two acres of his “Oakenwald Estate” to create the Douglas historic site in his honor.
But what many visitors to the Douglas site won’t read in pamphlets and brochures is that Douglas was a fervent and cunning pro-slavery supporter who built his immense wealth owning and selling slaves. In Illinois and other northern states, Douglas cleverly avoided backlash for his pro slavery views as he cleverly argued “popular sovereignty,” giving white voters the right to decide whether slavery should be legally allowed in the state. Douglas’ treatment of his slaves was so bad other slave owners wanted nothing to do with him. Yet after he died in 1861, the city shut down and held a parade and elaborate funeral to celebrate Douglas’ life, according to an extensive article in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.
But while a former slave owner rests in peace, Williams is living a nightmare.
When Williams, and the Bronzeville Historical Society moved into the Douglas location in 2012, the arrangement was considered a mutual benefit to both sides. While the Bronzeville Historical Society would have a place to operate, the organization would promote and make relevant a historical site in an area that’s no longer predominately white. In addition to Douglas’ achievements, the Bronzeville Historical Society would present a more balanced view of Douglas’ history as a reviled slave owner. But Williams says things have been far from rosy.
As part of the lease agreement signed in 2012 with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, the Bronzeville Historical Society would operate out of a small red brick building known as the Caretaker’s Cottage while paying $200 a month to share the costs of the electrical, water and gas services. Called a memorandum, a copy of the lease agreement was obtained by the Chicago Crusader. According to the agreement, the Bronzeville Historical Society’s 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. operating hours would be the same schedule as the Douglas site. As part of the lease agreement, Williams was required to unlock the gates and public restrooms by 10 a.m.
Williams signed the lease on October 4, 2012. Four months later, on Monday, February 27, maintenance workers conducted a routine inspection that uncovered $3,217.09 in repairs for broken toilets that don’t flush, urinals that leak, aging furnaces and faucet fixtures in the sink. According to Williams, the state did not make repairs on many of the problems despite her request. During a visit by a Crusader reporter in August, one toilet was out of order and the odor of human waste permeated the office during an interview with Williams.
It’s unclear why the IHPA would neglect one of the state’s oldest and most revered historic sites that’s still respected today, but Williams believes the IHPA is trying to force her organization off the site.
Williams said she paid a total $1,400 between January of 2015 to January 2017 after the IHPA failed to make some repairs despite her frequent requests. As part of the reimbursement, Williams said site supervisor Ryan Priehn with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, allowed her to not pay her $200 a month operating costs to make up for her paying the repair costs out of her pocket. Williams also paid for supplies for the bathroom for visitors. And while the lease agreement expired on December 31, 2014, Williams said the Bronzeville Historical Society and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency had been operating on a verbal agreement rather than a written one.
According to Williams, on October 16, 2016, Priehn called saying that the rent was going up to $650 a month as part of a new lease agreement. As a non-profit, Williams said neither she nor her organization can afford the rent increase.
Williams has been left unable to work full time since she broke her leg and other bones after an accident on the Dan Ryan expressway in July 2016. Her car hit a median after one tire came off causing Williams to lose control of the vehicle. With few financial resources, Williams relies on friends and family for financial support.
Williams said her organization’s lawyer sent the IHPA a letter rejecting the proposed increase, calling it unacceptable. Williams said the state has not responded since. Last month, volunteers began helping the BHS pack up files as they prepare to leave the Douglas site with nowhere to go.
In July, the IHPA became part of the Illinois Department of Human Resources, which oversees 73 state parks, and museums. The move was part of a budget cost cutting move under Governor Bruce Rauner.
The Crusader reached out to the Illinois Department of Human Resources several times, but department officials did not want to talk. Edward Cross, the department’s director of communication emailed the following statement to the Crusader:
“The state thanks Bronzeville for its past service to the Douglas Tomb State Historic Site. However, the nature of the relationship between BHS and the state had changed considerably since the last contract, and BHS halted discussion with IHPA on new contractual language, and ceased to continue dialogue over concerns. Consequently, the state deemed furthering the relationship as not in the best interest of limited resources, and gave BHS 5 months to remove their belongings, which have yet to be removed.”
The Crusader followed up with an email about the eviction but the IHPA did not respond.
Williams disagreed with Cross’ comment, saying “We did not cease in talking to them. We ceased accepting whatever they would give us.”
The Crusader filed a request for all documents pertaining to the state’s lease agreement, but for now the clock is ticking for Williams and her organization to move out. She plans to move the organization’s items to a storage space, but without a location, the BHS will be unable to display and showcase Bronzeville’s history or hold historical events.
“This is like a shell game. I think its institutional racism,” Williams said. “I think they’re taking these important places and making them into corporate entities.”