Crowd coming out of Regal movie theater. Southside of Chicago, Illinois by Russell Lee, 1941, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USF34-038566-D/Canva
As we prepare for Black History Month, the Crusader examines the heyday of African American progress and explores the declining quality of life in many Black communities throughout Chicago. Though this is not meant to be a comprehensive recitation of the numerous accomplishments of notables in the city, this snapshot is provided as a modern day contrast.
Remnants of Black Chicago’s recognition as a leading global center for racial progress remain. But scores of rich and hope-building history has been torn down like ancient landmarks and replaced by blight, gentrification and outright erasure. In recent years, a sort of “reverse migration” has taken hold in the city and seen many Black families unroot and return South in order to secure their futures.
In the mid-20th Century, Chicago was referred to as the “Black Business Mecca,” due to its attraction to African Americans looking for opportunity and stability, and because of its concentrated wealth of Black-owned businesses and cultural institutions.
Also dubbed, the “Black Metropolis,” by sociologists Sinclair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Jr, in 1945, Chicago earned its new moniker in the 1960s and lasted roughly until the late 1990s. The city of skyscrapers, a glistening lakefront among swarths of deprivation and poverty, became a proving ground for Black entrepreneurs and professionals across the arts and sciences.
The Black Mecca was home to many of the largest and most successful Black-owned banks, publishing firms, manufacturing companies, distribution networks, cultural institutions, insurance agencies, restaurants, advertising firms, beauty and barber shops, churches, motels, nightclubs, dance schools, modeling agencies, grocery stores, construction companies, gas stations, music schools, janitorial and extermination services, contractors, and real estate agencies in the United States.
It began with the first Great Black Migration in 1910 when Black Southerners, two and three generations removed from chattel slavery, relocated to northern cities such as New York, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Chicago to take advantage of turn-of-the-century opportunities. The new migrants did well for themselves, as they used their trade skills, creativity, scientific knowledge and self-determination to thwart the pitfalls of Northern racism to carve out thriving communities.
“I went to Chicago as a migrant from Mississippi. And there in that great iron city, that impersonal, mechanical city, amid the steam, the smoke, the snowy winds, the blistering suns; there in that self-conscious city, that city so deadly dramatic and stimulating, we caught whispers of the meanings that life could have,” said famed Native Son author Richard Wright.
“Chicago is the city from which the most incisive and radical Negro thought has come; there is an open and raw beauty about that city that seems either to kill or endow one with the spirit of life,” he said.
During the Second Great Black Migration (1940-1970), some five million Blacks moved to Chicago and other cities to escape Jim Crow, lynchings, and lives of poverty, only to wind up in the bosom of northern apartheid-like conditions. Greeted in the Windy City by hostile white political leadership. labor and business leaders, this group took advantage of concentrated racial segregation by consolidating resources and forging ahead.
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams a Black surgeon and graduate of Chicago Medical College founded Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses in Bronzeville. Provident was the first Black-owned and operated hospital in America. Until the hospital closed in 1987, it provided training and jobs for thousands of African Americans seeking careers in nursing and health care.
Trailblazing entrepreneur Annie Turnbo Malone was the richest Black woman in Chicago. Born in 1869, five years after Emancipation, she went on to create the largest Black-owned hair care products company in the nation. At her height, the philanthropist founded a massive beauty college at 44th and King Drive in 1918, owned hotels and restaurants, took expeditions to Africa, and funded numerous charities and philanthropic causes to aid those trapped in poverty or rendered orphans.
Malone, who died in Chicago in 1957 at Provident Hospital, was also the mentor to Madam CJ Walker. Mollison Elementary School now stands at the site where her Poro College once stood. Mollison is named after Irvin Mollison, the first African American elected as a federal judge in 1945.
Using Turbo’s blueprint, Black male entrepreneurs turned Chicago into a Black hair care and cosmetic industry manufacturing hub. SB Fuller opened Fuller Products in 1929 with a $50 investment and it became one of the largest Black-owned businesses in the world, and the first to be listed on the American Stock Exchange. Fuller protege George Johnson, founder and CEO, opened Johnson Products in 1954 and manufactured Afro Sheen and other hair care products. Two other proteges, Edward and Bettiann Gardner, founder/CEO of Soft Sheen Products, opened for business in 1964. Both companies operated massive manufacturing plants and employed thousands of people over the years.
In 1993 Johnson Products was purchased by Florida drug company Ivax Corporation and ten years later resold to Proctor and Gamble (P&G). In 2009, a consortium of Black investors purchased the brand from P&G and continues to work to reestablish its Black market share. Soft Sheen was sold to L’Oreal in 1998 for $130 million, later merged with Carson Products.
On other fronts, Darryl Grisham, president of Black-owned Parker House Sausage Company, became executive director of the Chicago Housing Authority from 1975 to 1983. Parker House was founded by Judge H. Parker in 1919 and remains in business to date. Dempsey Travis, president of Travis Realty was a mortgage broker, writer, and publisher who chronicled Black Chicago’s history. In 1980, Elzie Higginbottoam, a former Olympian and businessman, opened East Lake Management and quickly became one of the most successful and wealthiest real estate developers in the nation. He started his entrepreneurial journey by opening laundrymats in under-served areas.
What led to such prolific prosperity from a people fresh out of cotton fields? Some historians argue that because of Chicago’s segregated systems, African Americans had little choice but to unify, consolidate their resources, and carve out a life of hope and prosperity for themselves.
Others note the tremendous influence of the Black Press. The Chicago Daily Defender, founded by Robert S. Abbott in 1905, championed the Great Black Migration. In 1940 Black labor leaders Balm Leavell and Joseph Jefferson founded the Chicago Crusader to advocate for the black working class. Other Black-owned newspapers included the Citizen, the Independent Bulletin, Muhammad Speaks, Chicago Bee, the Final Call, Windy City Word and scores of the small and specialty periodicals championed our cause.
Dr. Timuel Black, who moved to Chicago in 1919, served in World War II, and became a leading university scholar on the Black Migration and the city’s African American population. Black journalists such as Ida B. Wells, Willard Motley, Fletcher Martin, who became the first Black reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1952, joined Vernon Jordan, Nate Clay, Lu Palmer, Ethel Payne, Louis Lomax, Hon. Elijah Muhammad, Earl Calloway, Wendell Smith, Lacy J. Banks, Chinta Strausberg, Perri Small, Fred Mitchell, Clarence Page, Leanita McClain, Barbara Reynolds, John W. Fountain, Laura Washington, Mary Mitchell and this writer, as national and local chroniclers at general market and Black-owned newspapers, here and across the country.
Photojournalists and freelance photographers captured the stills of Black life. Gordon Parks, a famed photographer and director, moved to Chicago’s South Side in 1940. He opened a studio at the South Side Community Art Center. In 1964, John Tweedle became the first African American hired at an American daily newspaper. In 1982, John H. White won the Pulitzer Prize for his body of work at the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Daily News. Other notables include Bob Black, Brent Jones, Martha Brock, Milbert O. Brown Jr., Walter Mitchell, and others. In 1999, many formed the Chicago Alliance of African American Photographers to celebrate and chronicle their careers and Chicago’s Black cultural heritage.
Carole Simpson was the first Black woman to broadcast news in Chicago when she was hired by WCFL radio in 1965. In 1971, Michele Clark was the first Black female correspondent for CBS affiliate WBBM-TV. Mary Dorham, better known as “Merri Dee ” started her career at WGN-TV in 1972, four years after hosting a popular entertainment show on WCIU TV (Channel 26) beginning in 1968. Harry Porterfield became the first African American weekday news anchor at the same station in 1978. And, based in Chicago Max Robinson, brother of Randall Robinson of TransAfrica was the first Black man to anchor a nightly network news broadcast when he joined ABC News in 1978. When he left national news, he joined WMAQ-TV Channel 5 in 1983, an NBC affiliate, as the station’s first Black anchor.
Jim Tillman was an aviation expert and one of the first Black commercial airline pilots in the nation. He joined Channel 5 in 1972 as a reporter and weatherman and retired in 1994. Steve Baskerville became the first African American network meteorologist when he joined CBS in 1984 and worked for both their Chicago radio and TV affiliates.
“The Good Guys” broadcast news, music, and commentary on WVON for over a decade starting in the 1960s. The group included Herb Kent, E. Rodney Jones, Wesley South, Richard Pegue, and Joe Cobb, the voice behind the iconic “Soul Train” howl. Speaking of which, Don Corneliuss started at the station in 1966 and jumped to television a year later before creating “Soul Train,” in 1970. It became one of the longest-running syndicated programs in American television history.
All of them stood on the shoulders of radio giants such as Jack Cooper, recognized as the nation’s first Black disc jockey, having started his career in 1929 at WSBC radio. Roy Wood, Sr., started in Chicago in 1948. His eponymously named son is a comic and national correspondent on The Daily Show. Other radio notables include Syd McCoy, Al Benson, Bernadine C.Washington, Bill Doc Lee, “Butterball” Bill Crane, Felicia Middledbrooks, Lucky Cordell, Shannon Dell, Bonnie Deshong, Doug Banks, Glenn Cosby, Yvonne Dainels, Tom Joyner, Derrick Hill and many others.
Business titan John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony (1945) and Jet (1951) magazines, opened the doors of Johnson Publishing Company in 1942. He became the first African American to own a business in downtown Chicago in 1971 and in addition to his publications owned WJPC radio and Fashion Fair Cosmetics. The building at 820 S. Michigan cost an estimated $8 million. In 2010, the property was sold to Columbia College by Johnson’s daughter Linda Johnson Rice, for exactly $8 million. Four years later she ceased publication of Jet and two years after that sold Ebony to a private equity firm in Texas.
Pervis Spann and Wesley South, co-founders of Midway Broadcasting in 1975 became owners of WVON-AM which began in 1963, a by-product of Chess Records. Today, WVON remains Black-owned through a licensing deal with iHeartRadio (formerly Clear Channel). Jovon Broadcasting operates the TV station WJYS Channel 62 which was founded in 1981 by Joseph Stroud, and exists today on religious programming and infomercials. Oprah Winfrey opened Harpo Studios in downtown Chicago in 1986 after her breakout role in the film, the Color Purple. In 2010 she closed the studio, moved to California, and launched the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) a year later.
Between 1970 and 1989, the South Side exploded with a thriving Black middle class and was home to the nation’s largest group of Black millionaires. On the West Side, working-class African American families maintained homes, nationally recognized restaurants, cultural institutions and often were the standard bearers for advocacy, social justice and local accountability.
Though poverty, a housing crisis, and crime began to decimate Black neighborhoods such as Woodlawn, Austin, Englewood, and Roseland, the city’s Black middle class continued to grow, buoyed by its independent economic engine and its increasing professional class.
As Margaret Burroughs created the Dusable Museum in 1961 on the South Side, local West Side artists such as Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and Magic Sam blazed a trail as musicians helping to enrich Chicago’s unique blues legacy. Fourteen-year-old musical genius Curtis Mayfield and his friend Jerry Butler came out of Cabrini Green on the near North Side. Baritone Lou Rawls born in 1933 grew up in Ida B, Wells. Other artists such as Nat King Cole, Mahalia Jackson, Oscar Brown Jr., Dr. Thomas A Dorsey, Ramsey Lewis, the Sally Martin Singers, Muddy Waters, Dinah Washington, William Russo, Gene Chandler, Etta James, the Staple Singers, Albertina Walker and the Caravans, Rev. James Cleveland, Ralph Shapey, Leotyne Price, Camilla Williams, the Chi-Lites, Barbara Anglin, Otis Clay, Nora Holt, and Sam Cooke thrived in Bronzeville and other parts of the city; while writers such as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Arna Bontemps, and Lorraine Hansberry shaped Black America’s identity through poetry and prose. Sports legends such as Jesse Owens, Jack Johnson, Night Train Lane, Joe Louis, Ernie Terrell, Ernie Banks, Sonny Liston, and Muhammad Ali could be seen walking the streets of Chicago where they lived and raised their families.
Born in St. Louis, John Sanford, known by his stage name Redd Foxx, moved to Chicago and attended DuSable High School along with future mayor Harold Washington. The comedian/actor is the grandfather of the Tate Brothers, from the city’s West Side, of which the more famous one, Larenz, has starred in a number of Hollywood blockbuster films. Actress Marla Gibbs was born in 1931 in Chicago and has graced film, television, and stages. Her most recognized role was that of Florence Johnston on “The Jeffersons.”
Legendary comic and political activist Richard “Dick” Gregory was also from St. Louis. After attending Southern Illinois University on a track scholarship and serving in the US Army, he moved to Chicago to pursue his career. Despite his successful entertainment career, he became a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. The outspoken social critic ran for mayor of Chicago in 1967 and received 47,000 votes, losing to the “American Pharoah” Richard J. Daley. A tear later he ran for president under the Peace and Freedom Party.
Comedian and actor Bernie Mac, born Bernard McCullough in 1957, grew up in the Englewood neighborhood and cut his eye teeth at local Black-owned nightclubs before making it big in Hollywood. Willadele “Adele” Givens, a comedic actress and writer, grew up on the city’s West Side and started her career in 1989 while waitressing at the Rose Cocktail Lounge and a big break at Chicago’s Real Theater.
The Regal, which broadcast the first Amos ‘n’ Andy minstrel radio show in 1929 was only one of scores of venues to give sparkle to Chicago’s stars. The Club DeLisa opened in 1933 on the South Side and for 25 years featured prominent national and local acts. In 1956 the Collins Brothers opened the Sutherland Hotel and hosted jazz acts until it closed in 1989. The High Chaparral opened in 1969 on the West Side. Chic Ricks was a popular hot spot, opening in the early 1980s in the South Loop. The Warehouse became the birthplace of House Music, created by Robert Williams and DJ Frankie Knuckles in 1977. In 1985 the Cotton Club opened downtown. African Americans also owned scores of neighborhood bars, small nightclubs, and social clubs, often named after the southern state one had migrated from.
NATIONAL BLACK LEADERSHIP BLOSSOMS
By the early 1980s, Chicago continued to be marketed as the “Black Business Mecca” by nationally circulated Black-owned magazines such as the Jet, Dollars and Sense, and PUSH Magazine, the official publication of Operation PUSH. Each year, professional marketers and Black ad agencies boasted about Chicago’s multi-billion dollar spending power.
Major corporations were reminded by Black-owned ad agencies such as Burrell Advertising, RJ Dale and Barbara Proctor, to allocate considerable amounts of their advertising budgets toward Chicago’s Black Press and to support African American caucuses.
PUSH was founded on Christmas Day in 1971 by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., after he resigned from leading Operation Breadbasket (c. 1962), an economic justice auxiliary of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The organization was financed by many of Chicago’s Black business titans, along with award-winning soul/gospel singer Aretha Franklin.
PUSH (People United to Save/Serve Humanity) was a key factor in turning Chicago into a haven for Black businesses. Under Rev. Jackson’s leadership, and with the aid of Rev. Willie T. Barrow, Rev. Ed Riddick, and scores of others women, preachers, youth, artists and activists, the group led countless protests, economic boycotts against white-controlled corporations and various racist socio-political initiatives.
In addition to Rev. Jackson, the city was home to national Black leadership including Minister Louis Farrakhan (Nation of Islam), Prince Asiel Ben-Israel (Hebrew Israelites), Dr. Conrad Worrill (National Black United Front), and the largest branch of the Urban League under James Compton. Activists such as Al Raby, Edwin C. Bill Berry, Nancy Jefferson, Gus Savage, Marian Stamps, Miriam Kabba, Addie Wyatt, Charlie Hayes, Lutrell “Lu” Palmer, Alice Tregay, Jackie Vaughn, Rev. Al. Sampson, Ora Sanders, Joe Gardner, Mandrake, Alice Tregay, Nahaz Rogers, Dr. Alvenia Fulton, James Bevel, Harold Lucas, Gloria Peace, Atty. Lewis Myers, Judge R. Eugene Pincham, Hazel Johnson, Dorothy J. Tillman, James Anyike, Mark Allen, and scores of others fought Chicago’s racist political system to strengthen public education, fight for decent, safe, and affordable housing, access to labor unions, and well-paying unionized jobs.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. moved to Chicago’s West Side in 1966 to fight city open housing policies and other issues. He and local activists dubbed the campaign the “Chicago Freedom Movement.” Facing strong opposition from powerful Black churches, led by National Baptist Convention President Rev. Joseph H. Jackson returned South to develop his Poor People’s campaign, but was assassinated in 1968 at1 age 39. Following his death President Lyndon B. Johnson passed many civil rights laws, long demanded, giving Black Americans another round of “freedoms.”
The Hon. Elijah Muhammad, founder of the powerful Nation of Islam, moved to Chicago in 1935. Under his leadership, the NOI opened hundreds of Black Muslim-owned businesses, including banks, clothing stores, restaurants, barbershops, schools, and other enterprises, in Chicago and around the nation. He made his transition in 1975. After Min. Farrakhan assumed the mantle of leadership, the nation launched People Organized and Working for Economic Rebirth (POWER) in 1985 and manufactured personal care items and other items in partnership with Chicago’s Black manufacturing companies.
THE RISE OF BLACK POLITICAL POWER
Aided by the city’s Black economic strength, the rush of southern Black migrants and its segregated neighborhoods, African Americans seized political power just before the turn of the century.
Long after Republican John W. E. Thomas became the first African American elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1879, Oscar De Priest was elected to the U.S. House representing the 1st Congressional District in 1929 and served until 1935. He was the first Black member of Congress post-Reconstruction and had been the leader of Chicago’s most powerful predominantly Black 2nd Ward.
Depriest was succeeded by Arthur Mitchell who in 1934 became the first Black Democrat elected to Congress. He served until 1943 when powerful Democrat William L. Dawson assumed the seat at the start of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement and served until 1970. Chicago elected its first Black alderman from the West Side in 1959 with Republican Ben Lewis from the 24th Ward. Shortly after winning his second term in 1963, Lewis was assassinated while sitting in his West Side ward office—a murder mystery that remains unsolved.
Olympian Ralph Metcalf, a Democrat, was elected to represent the powerful 1st Congressional District in 1971 where he served eight years, before dying in office. He was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. It should be noted that the 1st Congressional District, once called a super majority-minority district, has elected 18 consecutive African Americans to the position, more than any other state.
Attorney Anna Langford, a noted Civil Rights activist representing Englewood, became the first Black woman elected to the Chicago City Council in 1971. John H. Stroger, a former public school teacher, was elected Cook County Board President in 1994 after being considered the most powerful Black Democrat in Illinois. His son, Todd Stroger ran the county in 2006 for one four-year term. In 2010, Toni Preckwinkle became the first woman and second African American to serve as president of the county board. Before that, Cecil Partee became the first African American to hold the title of Cook County State’s Attorney in 1989 by appointment, and after a long career in politics.
Another public school teacher, Jesse White was first elected to the Illinois House in 1974. In 1998 he became Illinois’ first Black Secretary of State, after serving in other governmental capacities over the years. He retired in 2023 as the longest-serving Secretary of State in Illinois history.
Black judges were elected to various courts. In 1990, Justice Charles Freeman (b.1933 – d. 2020) became the first African American to serve on the Illinois Supreme Court. He became chief justice in 1997 and served the state’s most powerful bench for 28 years.
Samuel Nolan was the first Black to serve as interim head of the Chicago Police Department in 1979; he served for one year. Fred Rice was the first Black person to serve as a permanent superintendent of police after being appointed by Mayor Harold Washington in 1983. The city’s first Black mayor then appointed LeRoy Martin as police chief soon after re-election to his second term. Terry Hillard served as top cop from 1998 to 2003, followed by Eddie T. Johnson, who was appointed in 2016. David Brown began serving in the role in 2020, followed by current police superintendent Larry Snelling appointed in August of 2023 by the city’s third African American mayor.
As the city’s Black political power surged, research shows Chicago had a minimum of eight Black-owned savings and loans, as well as a plethora of insurance companies between 1960 and 1970, including Supreme Life Insurance Company, Seaway National Bank, Drexel Bank, Independence Bank, and South Central Bank. Banks and other financial institutions flourished after the path was paved by Binga Bank at 36th and State Street, founded in 1908 by Jesse Binga.
Binga was known as a staunch advocate for Black rights and his home and businesses were bombed several times by white racists. After taking losses following the 1919 race riot which destroyed numerous Black churches, Binga Bank failed during the Great Depression. In 1930, it was seized by the Auditor General of the State of Illinois after Binga refused to foreclose the many Black churches and properties of its customers adversely impacted by the white supremacist attack.
It should be noted, as Black Chicago built its economic, social, and political power, opposition was often fierce, swift, and sometimes aided by Negros in leadership who were afraid to stand up to the status quo. As W.E.B. Dubois once noted, “The slave went free, stood a brief moment in the sun, then moved back toward slavery.” Whites and their allies were determined to keep Blacks oppressed, subjugated and relegated to second-class citizenship.
Many Black-elected officials in the 1960s refused to endorse civil rights demonstrations, often called the Chicago Freedom Movement, for fear of losing their position and upsetting white officials and business leaders. This behavior was not unique to Chicago, research and oral history reveals this conduct was prevalent throughout the country.
Black townships and heavily populated cities thrived as economic centers. But many were set upon and destroyed by mobs of wild, jealous, and crazed white citizens: Atlanta (1906); East St. Louis, Illinois (1917), the 1919 Red Summer which impacted Chicago, Washington, D.C., Omaha, Nebraska, and Elaine Arkansas; Tulsa (1921}; Harlem, New York (1935); Detroit (1943); and Hayes Pond in Maxton, North Carolina (1958). When Blacks began to rise against the blatant injustices they faced in urban cities, including police brutality, riots broke out in Harlem (1964); Watts/Los Angeles (1965); Detroit (1967). Following the King assassination in 1968, Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. went up in flames. As police terror against unarmed Blacks continued, cities such as Miami (1980), Los Angeles (1992); Cincinnati (2001); Ferguson, Missouri (2014), Baltimore (2015); and Milwaukee (2016) followed suit. In 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, thousands of far-right, torch-carrying white supremacists in khaki pants stormed the city. Then in 2020 places such as Minneapolis, Portland, and Kenosha, Wisconsin erupted in protest after the live-streamed police murder of George Floyd.
THE FAITH AND THE GOOD FIGHT
Generations of trauma caused by decades of racism, disinvestment, over-policing, and genocidal patterns and practices in health care, mental health, education, and public safety have deepened the Black communities’ reliance on faith and moral traditions.
During both migration periods, the Black Mecca was home to storefront, mid-size, home-based, and mega-churches led by some of the most dynamic clergymen and women: African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Quinn Chapel (1844); Olivet Baptist Church (1850); Bethel AME (1862); Friendship Baptist Church (1862); Greater Harvest Baptist Church (1912); Roberts Temple COGIC (1916); Mount Pisgah (1926); Apostolic Church of God (1960) Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church (1950); Stone Temple (1954); Christ Universal Temple (1956); Salem Baptist Church (1985); and New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church (1993) have some of the largest congregations during this period. Originally constructed in 1948 as a Greek Orthodox church, Mosque Maryam became the national worship center for the Nation of Islam in 1972. Popular preachers, ministers and clery in the Windy City included the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, Rev. Louis Boddie; Rev. Clarence Cobb, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Rev. Shelvin Hall, Rev. Henry Bracken, Rev. Clay Evans, Story Freeman, Father George Clements, Dr. Johnnie Coleman, Revs. Claude and Addie Wyatt, Bishop Ford, Bishop Arthur Brazier, Minister Louis Farrakhan, and Rev. James Meeks, among others.
Elder Lucy Smith Collier Is credited with having the first and largest megachurch in Chicago, and perhaps in the nation during her time. Born in Georgia in 1874, she arrived in the city in 1910 and a decade later established the All Nations Pentecostal Church at 518 E. Oakwood Blvd. The first church established by woman in the city, All Nations boasted services that included the first Black broadcast ministry. More than 3,000 people were in its membership roles, and according to her papers kept at the Carter G. Woodson Library, more than 60,000 people attended her 1957 funeral.
Until a lawsuit was filed in 1912 by a Black widower, African Americans were barred from being buried in “white” cemeteries. Many deceased people were simply buried in potter’s fields. However, whether wealthy or poor, families were serviced by Black-owned funeral homes on the South and West sides such as A.R. Leak and Sons. Founded in 1933 by Rev. A.R. Leak services were originally offered at 4448 S. State Street before expanding throughout the city and suburbs. A.A. Rayner Funeral Home opened in 1947 at 4141 S. Cottage Grove and was cemented in history for handling the body of 14-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till. Other Black-owned mortuary services were offered by Griffin Funeral Home founded in 1969; Christian Funeral Home, founded in 1972; Gatling Chapel, founded in 1986; and many others. Burials were conducted at Oakwood, Burr Oak, Mount Greenwood, and Lincoln.
Families unable to purchase or prepare food and beverages for funeral repasts would receive donations from local caterers, Black-owned restaurants, and food companies such as Baldwin Ice Cream (1921); Army & Lou’s (1945); Gladys Luncheonette (1947); Harold’s Chicken (1950); Joe Louis Milk Company (1954); Lem’s Barbecue (1954); Izola’s (1957); Uncle Remus (1963) Soul Queen (1966); Edna’s (1966), Reggio’s Pizza (1973), and Kenny’s Ribs and Pizza (1984), among many others.
Not everyone experiencing the brunt of northern racism turned toward the God of their ancestors. Many Black youths organized street organizations as a response to police brutality and abuse from neighboring Irish and other white gangs. The Almighty Black P. Stone Nation was organized in 1952 by Jeff Fort and Eugene Hairston; the Vice Lords, founded in 1957, was led by Edward Perry and others; King Charlie Wright organized the Black Souls were born in 1962; the Four Corner Hustlers formed in 1968, the brainchild of Walter Wheat and Freddy Malik Gauge; the Gangster Disciples formed in 1969, led by Larry Hoover and David Barksdale; and, the New Breeds were founded in 1978 by George “Boonie Black” Davis.
Over time, these street groups morphed into criminal organizations after Black neighborhoods were flooded with illegal drugs and guns while simultaneously experiencing cuts to social services, an erosion of public schools, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the excessive promotion of gangster rap music, and the downward spiral of Black Chicago’s economic power—the latter of which led to a significant loss of jobs for Black youth and their parents.
Following the political assassinations of Malcolm X (1965), King (1968), and 21-year-old Chicago Black Panther leader Chairman Fred Hampton, Sr. (1969), African American leaders collectively seemed lost, bewildered, and divided. Many of Hampton’s hunger, health, and social programs were adopted by the federal government and rebranded. A congressional committee revealed Black leaders and their organizations had been labeled as domestic threats by the federal government. Many became victims of the taxpayer-funded counterintelligence program dubbed COINTELPRO.
Sensing the collective cultural shift and growing apathy, many Black leaders of competing ideologies and methods gathered in Gary, Indiana, for the National Black Political Convention, where they seemingly agreed to shift Black America’s focus to independent politics.
The 1972 political convention to date remains the country’s largest independent Black political gathering in U.S. history, with more than 8,000 people in attendance. Rev. Jackson attended the convention with his two elementary-school-age sons, Jesse and Jonathan, both of whom would go on to be elected to represent the 2nd Congressional District and 1st Congressional District of Illinois in 1995 and 2023, respectively.
After Mayor Daley the First dropped dead at his City Hall desk, 34th Ward Ald. Wilson Frost was briefly declared mayor in 1976 but was blocked from taking the seat by other aldermen. Critics believed he didn’t fight hard enough to secure the seat. After a long political career which began in 1967, he died at age 92 in 2018. The Black community would not “regain full control” of City Hall until Lori Lightfoot became the first Black woman elected mayor in 2019, more than three decades after Washington’s death.
THE FOUNDATION BEGINS TO CRUMBLE
Ironically, as Black Chicago’s political power grew and members of the first Black migration died off, its economic infrastructure seemingly began to crumble. After the election and re-election of the city’s first Black mayor in 1983 and 1987 respectively, African Americans locally and nationally began to shift focus to national politics after the Black electorate had fully transitioned into the Democratic Party.
Black men had become mayors of major U.S. cities: Carl Stokes (1967) in Cleveland; Richard Hatcher (1967) in Gary, Indiana; Tom Bradley (1973) in Los Angeles; and Maynard Jackson (1973) became the first Black mayor of a major U.S. City. For many African Americans, the time was at hand to seize additional political power.
Moderate Republican Edward Brooks served in the U.S. Senate from 1967 to 1979. He was the first Black person to serve in that position since Reconstruction. In the seat, he supported fair housing and other social programs.
U.S., Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), was the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress in 1968. She ran a serious and controversial campaign for president in 1972. Rev. Jesse Jackson was inspired by Washington’s success in Chicago and disturbed by the policies of President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush. The preacher and civil rights leader ran two high-profile presidential campaigns in 1984 and again in 1988, winning five primaries in the first race, and 11 primaries and caucuses in his last one.
Jackson’s successes led to scores of African Americans being elected to state houses, congressional seats, and local offices. It also solidified and showcased Black voting power which became the strongest block of the modern-day Democratic Party. State Senator Emil Jones Sr. was elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1983. He served as president of the Illinois Senate from 2003 to 2009.
Based on that strength, Cook County, muscled by Chicago, subsequently sent three African Americans to the U.S, Senate: Carol Moseley Braun (1993-1999) Barack Obama (2005-2008), and Roland Burris (2009-2010), who was appointed to the position by then Governor Rod Blagojevich after Obama was elected president. The appointment led to statewide white backlash and a special election was called. Republican Mark Kirk was elected and served until 2017, when the nation’s first Thai-American woman, Tammy Duckworth was elected.
It must be noted, that Burris is a famed civil rights activist and attorney, who made history years before in 1978 when he became the first African American elected as state comptroller in the nation. He made history a second time when he was elected as Attorney General in 1991, leaving his post four years later in a bid for governor. He resides in a South Side home once owned by gospel singer Mahaila Jackson.
REMOVING THE ANCIENT LANDMARKS
By the time Burris was leading state politics, as a whole Black Chicago had been struggling to keep its head afloat. If culture provides a cue into the social, emotional, and political thoughts of Black Americans, gone were the uplifting and inspiring R&B, gospel, blues, jazz, and soul music of the 1970s, replaced by the brooding, bass-filed, often violent and self-deprecating lyrics of rap.
Positive, party, and political sounds of Hip Hop favored by such groups as Public Enemy, KRS One, and others in the mid-1980s were swapped out by record companies in the early 1990s with the lyrics of artists from Ruthless Records and Death Row Records on the West Coast, Bad Boy Records and Murder Inc.’s roster on the East Coast and a rotating plethora emerging Black gangster artists in the South.
When Mayor Washington died suddenly after sipping a cup of coffee as he sat at his City Hall desk, it was as if most African Americans metaphorically jumped into the grave with him. Ald. Eugene Sawyer, the Black representative from Chatham, was elected by the City Council on December 2, 1987. He was the second African-American to serve as mayor of Chicago.
However, political infighting and a hastily called special election led to a return of the fifth floor to the Irish Catholic community. Black Chicago witnessed the city foster a complete collapse of historic independent, African American businesses and support systems. Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration was blamed for limiting Black access to capital and a loss of lucrative city contracts by Black-owned trucking contractors, construction companies, and other businesses.
But politics isn’t the only hidden hand at play. The crack epidemic, which blossomed under President Ronald Reagan’s leadership, took Chicago by its throat. This new crisis led to spikes in property crimes, mental health crises, and breakdown in otherwise stable family units. Chicago experienced the highest levels of violence with homicides reaching a whopping 970 in 1992.
Community violence, drug sales and usage, property crimes, and theft led to the rise of the prison industrial complex which saw thousands of young Chicagoansu, ushered into state and federal prisons, juvenile detention centers, and Cook County Jail. Not to be outdone, the crack and heroin abuse became the kissing cousin to the AIDS/HIV crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the Windy City had one of the highest HIV infection rates in the nation, with 40 percent of drug addicts who used needles testing positive. Far too many died.
In the meantime, Black churches which galvanized African Americans into civil rights campaigns and self-sufficiency through “liberation theology,” shifted toward a “prosperity gospel,” which refocused Christian churchgoers into conservatism, individualism, and the pursuit of material “blessings.” Prosperity pastors rarely addressed social issues from their pulpits and instead redirected their followers to take personal responsibility for their failures.
Perhaps in part fed up with the direction of faith leaders, many congregations began to decline. Father Michael Pfleger, a white Catholic Priest in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, has the largest Black Catholic congregation in Illinois. In 2003, Pastor John Hannah founded the non-denominational New Life Covenant Church by Pastor John Hannah.
New Life attends to the spiritual needs of its more than 12,000 members in its new state-of-the-art, 4,000-seat performing arts center based in the Grand Crossing neighborhood. Called the “Temple,” it opened its doors in September 2021 and hosts three, packed services each Sunday.
Activist Pastors such as Rev. Dr. Marshall Hatch, Rev. Robin Hood, Rev. Ira Acree, Rev. Charlie Dates, Bishop Tavis Grant, Rev. Al Sampson, and others continue in the rich tradition of both liberation theology and meeting the socioeconomic needs of the communities where their churches are based.
But the operational unity and strategic Black partnerships of the ’50s, ’60s, and ”70s have been replaced with an “every man for himself” persona. Local Black organizations and faith-based institutions began to heavily rely on government assistance to help them address problems brought on by violence, addiction, and joblessness. National leadership was repeatedly pulled into national or global issues, and people were left to rely on emerging voices, many of whom were unproven and magically appeared from the mecca’s ashes.
As businesses fell, some Black Chicagoans became apathetic toward the political process and activists and voting advocates struggled to get people to the polls in critical elections. Yet many carry on by promoting hope, helping their neighbors, and appraising the beauty and resilience still found here. People still try to identify other native sons and daughters by what school or church they went to, but even this too is becoming increasingly rare.
Thousands of new Black Chicagoans arrived from other neighboring states in the late 1990s to 2000s and quickly assumed leadership roles in city, county, and state agencies. Some of them then worked with various non-Black power structures to dismantle the very things that comprised the city’s robust Black cultural history. Maybe they didn’t know any better or maybe they didn’t care, but their collective quest for power led to the closures of public schools named for Black heroes and sheroes, which led to disrupted and scattered histories of many predominantly Black neighborhoods. Other welcomed transplants turned over control to some of Black Metropolis’ cultural institutions and their lucrative archives to non-Black not-for-profit groups, various philanthropic groups, and well-endowed universities.
This writer once walked into a Bridgeport thrift store and found a giant portrait of John H. Johnson thrown against a wall, partially hidden by a frayed area rug. Under further inspection, all of the specially designed, orange period furniture once found in his sprawling downtown office, was also scattered about the place like discarded junk. “Why isn’t this in a museum or some HBCU or preserved someplace else like his hometown,” I wondered, feeling something between anger and sadness. “Mr. Johnson meant something to us. His work, his contributions, mattered.”
The ancient landmarks, which should have been remembered and preserved, are being repurposed, reimagined, and given “new life” and a “new meaning” without consideration of the old hands who built and supported those beacons. Even the once-public Vivian Harsh Collection in the Woodson Library at 95th and Halsted has been secured by private donors and its rich archives that tell little-known or forgotten Black stories are locked away unless one finds an “appointment.”
Once dubbed a metropolis for the “Talented Tenth,” Chicago’s Black Belt slowly morphed into divided, dismantled, and disinvested wastelands. Yet, downtown glistens. Today, only one Black-owned bank remains and it is hanging on by a thread. The South and West sides, still represented by capable Black politicians, became sprinkled with stretches of abandoned storefronts, vacant lots, predatory lending companies, and people who were homeless, addicted, and unable to afford stable housing.
If that didn’t hurt enough, after years of government negligence, Mayor Daley II ordered the demolition of public housing in the mid-1990s as part of a HOPE VI program funded by the federal government. More than 25,000 homes were demolished and Cabrini-Green, Henry Horner, Ida B. Wells, and Robert Taylor Homes were gone. Large African American voting blocs also vanished as each “project” fell. Displaced residents were given housing vouchers, and sent to poor, predominantly Black suburbs, or elsewhere.
Once boasting an African American population of 1.2 million people (40 percent of the total population), in 2024 about 800,000 Black residents remain, representing only 29 percent of the city’s 2.7 million people in total. Researchers believe the rapid decline in the city’s Black population is a direct result of a loss of jobs, gentrification, property crimes, and overall violence.
In October 2023, CBS2 reporter Dorothy Tucker reported that 30 percent of all crime victims in Chicago are Black women, though they comprise only 16 percent of the total population. Tucker’s investigative series prompted 16th Ward Alderwoman Stephanie Coleman four months later to launch a task force.
Is it so hard to believe that this former “Black Business Mecca,” has lost its shine? It has been undermined by disinvestment, discrimination, and devaluation so prevalent that its impact has become normalized and those most impacted are desensitized. Local Black residents are denied access to capital, credit, and expanded public services. Its trillion-dollar buying power holds little to no meaning to the countless entrepreneurs and business owners who depend on those dollars to circulate through their hands.
In 2024, despite the hundreds of African Americans elected to political office, the neighborhoods of their constituents remain targeted and trapped by predatory practices such as shadow redlining, subprime lending, and speedy foreclosures which strip them of their assets and equity. The poorest among us face rising rents, unstable schools, and inadequate health care. As a new wave of migration flows into the city, both those who can eat and those who cannot feel ignored and treated like it is they who have just arrived from other nations.
LaSalle Street is not listening.
The city’s rich Black musical heritage is today represented by Drill music, a more graphic, menacing, and lyrically dangerous subgenre of gangster rap. It came to life in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods in 2010. The lyricists tell the world we now live in “Chiraq.” Its rapid spread across the United States has directly or indirectly contributed to the homicides and incarceration of hundreds of rappers and their associates. Credited as conceived by young Black artists, the genre is funded by corporate music conglomerates, white CEOs, and their offspring.
Sympathizers say Chicago’s young people are crying out with bullets and ballads that speak to their pain and internalized rage. If the music makes them rich, they will take the first thing smoking out of here—maybe to the new Black Mecca in Atlanta. Some explain that their eyes have only bore witness to the world the adults have given them and through Drill music they want their voices heard:
I’m from Chiraq, Drillinois, where niggas be drillin s—t/We got more guns that a terrorist. (Chief Keef)
I’m from Chicago, where we don’t play fair/Where we shoot first and ask questions later. (G Herbo)
I’m from Chicago, where we got the most murders/Where niggas get smoked like some f—–g burgers. (King Von)
I’m from Chicago, where we be drillin s–t/We don’t do drive-bys, we do walk-ups and killin s—t. (Lil Durk)
I’m from Chicago, where we got the most bodies/Where we don’t give a f–k about nobody. (FBG Duck)
*Updated on February 1, 2024.
(This report was made possible by the Inland Foundation and the Crusader Newspaper Group. The views expressed do not reflect the grantees or the news gathering staff of the Chicago Crusader. An edited version of this commentary was previously published.)