By Erick Johnson
Bronzeville’s Victory Monument, an enduring tribute to American Black soldiers who served their country at the height of racial segregation in the military and in America, is getting a polish.
For the past several weeks, workers have been working on the 92-year old sculpture at the center of 35th Street and South Martin Luther King Drive. It’s the first restoration job on the historic monument in two decades.
Towards the end of World War 1, movements to honor the achievements of the Eighth Regiment of the United States National Guard within Chicago’s Black community began. Chicago’s Black community was enraged by the state’s failure to recognize the soldiers, and the lack of employment and decent housing they failed to receive upon returning from war.
Four years after the Eighth Regiment was temporarily disbanded, the state created the Victory Monument. It was dedicated on November 11, 1928. The structure was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 30, 1986.
Fifty years ago, the Victory Monument was the site of the historic dedication that officially renamed South Park Way as Martin Luther King Drive. On September 9, 1998, the Victory Monument was designated a Chicago landmark.
Christine Carrino, communications director for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, said during the restoration project the bronze panels will be cleaned and treated with a hot wax to protect it from corrosion. Carrino said there are also plans to reinforce small pieces of loose stones with an adhesive.
According to Carrino the project will cost $62,000. She said the funds are in the department’s annual budget for conservation and maintenance. She added the project will take several more weeks to complete. The last time restoration work was done on the Victory Monument was in 1998, Carrino said.
In 2017 Landmarks Illinois, a Chicago-based group, conducted a survey that found the Victory Monument to be among 230 World War I memorials throughout Illinois, including 50 in Chicago. But the Victory Monument is known to be the only structure that honors Black soldiers.
Created by sculptor Leonard Crunelle, the monument was built to honor the Eighth Regiment of the Illinois National Guard, the predominately Black unit of soldiers who fought under France against the Germans during World War I. While they served as the 370th Infantry abroad, President Woodrow Wilson was busy segregating parks, schools, libraries and other public places around the country. In Chicago, thousands of free Blacks were moving to the city at the start of the first wave of the Great Migration.
Black citizens in Chicago organized to fight for America during the war. They, like many Black soldiers, believed that serving their country in the war would bring about democracy, equality and respect in America. The Eighth Regiment was awarded more citations than any regiment that fought in Europe according to the DuSable Museum, which has a special exhibit on the group. The Eighth Regiment was the last regiment pursuing the retreating German forces in the Aisne-Marne region of France, just before the November 11, 1918 Armistice.
Some 137 Black men lost their lives in World War I. Their names are inscribed on a bronze panel that is in the hand of a classically draped female figure with a helmet on her head. Another panel honors Colonel Franklin A. Denison, who led the Eighth Regiment and whose daughter, Edna Rose Denison Abbott, was married to Chicago Defender founder Robert S. Abbott. The name of America’s first Black astronaut, Chicago’s Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr., is inscribed on a panel on the Victory Monument.
The Victory Monument is one of nine structures that make up Bronzeville’s historic Black Metropolis District. The nine structures are what remain of the “Metropolis,” one of the nation’s most significant landmarks of African-Americans, home to many nationally prominent, African-American-owned and operated businesses and cultural institutions.