Museums have the power to share the history, lived experiences, culture, myths and voices of a community, era or people. With that in mind, many are keeping a watchful eye on proposed developments slated in the former Bronzeville homes of blues legend Muddy Waters and journalist Lu Palmer and his activist wife, Jorga.
Relatives of the late musician—born McKinley Morganfield—hope to convert the two-flat at 4339 S. Lake Park Avenue into Muddy Waters MOJO Museum and cultural attraction. At 3654 S. King Drive where Palmer and his wife, Jorga, lived for over 40 years, a not-for-profit is looking to convert the home into a digital archive, coffee shop and tribute to the late activist, who died in 2004.
In recent weeks, both projects have hit a snag due to zoning pushback from 4th Ward Alderman Sophia King, which has since been tabled. In addition, Angela Ford, the new owner of the 40-room “Palmer Place,” has been accused of evicting a cadre of community groups from the property, including two organizations founded by the famed reporter and ally to the late Mayor Harold Washington.
Ford, the executive director of the Obsidian Collection, reportedly acquired the archives from the Chicago Defender newspaper, Jet and Ebony magazines, and from private collectors interested in getting their works in the marketplace. The not-for-profit is planning on converting the Palmer Place into a mixed-use retail space filled with various mementos and photo archives.
On April 22, Ford purchased the massive property from developer Elzie Higginbottom for $1.25 million. The real estate magnate acquired the property in 2005, after Jorga died and Palmer’s heirs relinquished control. According to published reports, the sale was given the greenlight after Ford secured the philanthropic support from the McCormick and Driehaus Foundations, as well as the Chicago Community Trust.
Historian Nathan Thompson, who serves on the advisory board of the Obsidian Collection, said the project is welcomed as the South Side sees new investments. “Instead of that house sitting there waiting to be demolished, it will now be used to secure our history in Bronzeville,” he told the Crusader. “Whether the neighborhood falls victim to gentrification or not, we need to work now to ensure our heritage and contributions to this city are not erased. The project is important and timely.”
Thompson also said that groups being displaced by the new owner had enough warning. “They had almost 20 years to raise money to purchase the property and did nothing with it,” Thompson said. “(Ford) took action. She did her research, met with people in the community, developed a plan and raised the money to purchase the property. That’s a good thing.”
Bronzeville leader Harold Lucas agreed. “We support Black entrepreneurs working to preserve our heritage,” he said. “This is why we established an internationally significant Black metropolis national heritage. That is why we’re proud of [the] Rosenwald and (the late) Bobbie Johnson, who worked to save it, and others like Alderman Pat Dowell and Dorothy Tillman.
“It’s all pieced together by activism and a community of people who know the history and are building on the history,” he said. “It’s not going to gentrify in the classic term of Black people moving out and white people moving in. There’s too many Black people to sustain the area. We need to be empowering the next generation to break the cycle of poverty through enterprise and community economic development.”
The Queen Anne-style Palmer mansion was built in 1885 for Judge D. Harry Hammer before the start of the Great Black Migration. From 1976 to 2004, it was home to Palmer, whose signature tagline, “It’s enough to make a Negro turn Black,” made him a beloved and controversial figure in Chicago history.
As workers begin rehabbing the massive property, a group of community-based organizations operating in the mansion’s adjacent coach house, are scrambling to find new homes. The leader of one group says Ford sought to evict them immediately, despite his attempts to work with her to ease the transition.
“We were hoping to work with the sister, but she hasn’t made herself available,” said Eddie Read, chairman of the Black Independent Political Organization (BIPO) and Chicago Black United Communities (CBUC), two groups founded by Palmer. “There are a number of programs being run out of the coach house that came from this community. How does one develop something to honor our history while working to erase a significant part of it?”
Read told the Crusader that residents in the area remain concerned about gentrification advancing in the area and some worry about Ford’s motives. “We don’t really know what the space is going to be,” he said, “But, our people understand the difference between having institutions funded by the community and those funded by those outside of the community.”
Read also said he had a “gentleman’s agreement” with Higginbottom that included an understanding that Palmer’s legacy in the home would be preserved. “We were hoping to work with the community on a vision for the house,” Read said. “I find it ironic that they intend to put the Defender archives there when Lu was often at odds with them, and even had a lawsuit against them when he passed.
“We also find it ironic that we are finding Hispanics and people who don’t live in the community working on the house,” Read said. “Lu fought his entire life for Black dignity, for our worth, and for equity in this town. In this case, it is unfortunate to see that Black craftsmen can’t even get hired on a so-called Black project in the Black community.”
“We don’t care what color the people are, we just want the work done,” said Thompson in response. “There’s nothing stopping anyone from creating jobs in the community if that’s their mission to do so. That house sat there for all that time, and now folk have something to say?”
There are no plans of turning the Palmer residence into a historic heritage site as of this writing.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Illinois awarded grants to the Waters home, which joins the former home of civil rights icon Emmitt Till at 6427 S. St. Lawrence Avenue, as one of two homes owned by Black Chicagoans to receive such landmark status.
Award-winning art appraiser Clinee Hedspeth said the effort to preserve the history of Black Chicagoans by converting residences into museums is part of Black America’s storied history.
“House museums were made popular in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s,” she said. “These places have a dual mission of education and preservation. “The Schomburg Center started in someone’s home, as did the South Side Community Art Center and the Du-
Sable Museum of African American History.
“But in order for any arts or cultural project to be successful, the organizers have to invest and focus on its central mission and not spread their resources too thin trying to be everything to everybody,” Hedspeth said. She is only one of two African-American certified art appraisers in Illinois, a profession where there are only a handful nationwide.
“Museums, in itself, aren’t designed to spur economic development. Do you see hotels and new businesses popping up by the one focused on science and industry,” she asked. “Central to the success of cultural attractions is ensuring authenticity and finding ways to generate revenue.”