The Bronzeville neighborhood means so much to me because much of my family’s history has been entwined in this area. My family started migrating from Mississippi during the 1930s. My Uncle Joseph was the first Allen to make the trek to the Promised Land and for him, the journey was bountiful. He started a Ma and Pa grocery store on 45th and Wabash with the help of his wife, my Aunt Edna, who worked as a laundress. With the proceeds of both their earnings, they purchased two buildings, including the one where his store was located. After that, the rest of my family, including my grandmother, with hope high in their hearts came to Chicago to make their fortunes. Some succeeded and some did not. However, that was not really important. What was important is that they had the opportunity to succeed, an opportunity that had been denied to them in their hometown of Itta Bena, Mississippi because of the rampant racism that existed. My own experiences with Bronzeville started in 1989, when my mother, my daughter and I moved to 49th and Prairie. We lived there until 1992, and despite of what anyone says about that area, I had a ball. I never knew such colorful characters actually existed outside of the many books I had read.
Bronzeville got its name because of the mass influx of African-Americans who came to Chicago that settled in the areas between 29th and 51st Street, during the Great Migration from 1915 to the 70s. Bronzeville was once a city within a city, with its own stores, several newspapers and strong churches. This neighborhood was dubbed the Black Metropolis because of the many opportunities offered to blacks. It became a magnet for African Americans, who migrated from the South in droves. Jobs were plentiful and there were many black-owned businesses such as banks, insurance companies and funeral homes. There were many social institutions to help the disadvantaged and activities for people to immerse themselves in. The nightlife was fantastic. Musicians came from all over America to play at the Regal Theater and The Savoy. There were several famous blacks who lived in Bronzeville and they include: Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Ferdinand Barnett, Robert Abbott, Lionel Hampton, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, George Cleveland Hall, T. K. Lawless, Jesse Binga, Anthony Overton, and Richard R. Wright. These African-Americans contributed many gifts that would stand the test of time.
However, despite of its rich history, Bronzeville has faced a severe reversal of fortune. The losses of the stockyards and steel mills to different cities have pushed thousands of people out of the job market. Public housing projects – Stateway Gardens, Robert Taylor homes and the Ida B. Wells homes, created to give people better housing, trapped people in poverty and fear. The middle classed has moved to the suburbs. Retail businesses and lending capital have fled to safer pastures. This once proud Black Metropolis is now one of the poorest in the entire nation. The majority of its young people drop out of high school. Joblessness is the norm. Drugs and violence are rampant.
Even with all the adversity Bronzeville has faced in recent years, this community still has several strengths – beautiful old mansions, a great location near public transportation and the Loop, many churches, and a history so thick that you can feel it. This blog will discuss two things that were very important to the Bronzeville area during its heyday: housing and religion. It will discuss the hard time black migrants had getting decent housing due to overcrowding, segregation and what solution was taken to correct it, but ultimately caused a bigger problem. It will also discuss the religious wars that took place between the old guard blacks that had already settled in Chicago and the new immigrant blacks. There has been a great deal of renewed interest in the Bronzeville area because of its rich history, so hopefully, some of the money spent on other areas in the city of Chicago will be spent on this beautiful city within a city, the city called Bronzeville.
The Great Migration forced the established African American community in Chicago to make major adjustments and accommodations for its new inhabitants. Historically, black churches had, like their counterparts in the South, resisted any involvement in social issues. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants, however, simply could not be ignored and churches, being the black community’s richest and most influential institution, were quickly called to action in the effort to help migrants properly adjust themselves to life in Chicago.
African Americans already living in Chicago were known as the Old Settlers and they were aware of the major implications the Great Migration would have on their lifestyle. The Old Settlers had striven to establish respect from whites and a sense of equality within the city’s socioeconomic system. With the arrival of the Southern blacks, most of whom unfamiliar to city life, the Old Settlers feared that the progress they had achieved would be dashed. White people would probably equate them with the thousands of uneducated, fresh from the country migrants. Most importantly, the Old Settlers realized the enormous strain placed on many of the migrants who, having fled the South for better opportunities arrived in Chicago lacking housing or a sense of direction. From the migration’s outset, African American Chicago area churches bore the brunt of the responsibility for helping guide the migrants.
The Old Settlers also worried that the temptations of Chicago’s nightlife would be too much for the green as grass migrants. Down South, the church was the center of social life. Chicago, on the other hand, provided numerous outlets for entertainment (bars, nightclubs, taverns, gambling halls), many of them deemed by the ministry as deviant and destructive. African American social activist Richard Wright, Jr. emphasized the importance the church played in welcoming migrants to Chicago. He said, “Get these Negroes in your churches; make them welcome; don’t turn your nose and let the saloon man and the gambler do all the welcoming. Help them buy homes, encourage them to send for their families and to put their children in school” (Sernett, Promised Land).
One of the first churches to help the immigrants was Olivet Baptist Church which is located on 31st and King Drive. This church assumed a major role in the process of aiding migrants. The Rev. Lacey Kirk Williams, the minister at that time, sent members of his church to several Chicago train terminals to meet incoming passengers. Church members greeted the newcomers and immediately directed them to places of assistance. Olivet quickly transformed itself into a social service center for migrants, providing them with food and clothing, while assisting them in the obtainment of housing and employment. They also hosted a wide variety of social, educational, and recreational activities, and soon gained a reputation throughout the South “as an oasis of mercy in the urban desert” (Sernett, Promised Land).
There would be major clashes between the migrants and the established Old Settlers, some of which concerned religion but most of which had to do with class status. The new migrants did not like the Northern churches. They felt that these churches were cold and impersonal. They were used to the expressiveness of the churches down South and to them; the Northern church services were restrained. The established Northern blacks felt that the new migrants were countrified and embarrassing. They liked the calmness of their church services and did not want change. They were also concerned about their own hierarchy in Chicago.
Some churches compromised their traditional religious practices in order to accommodate their new members. They incorporated gospel choirs, and added new, more vibrant songs to their traditional church hymns. Ministers livened up their sermons by interjecting “shouts” and encouraging emotional responses from the congregation. Still, the migrants still found themselves set apart by their class status, appearance and demeanor. The condescending attitudes toward the migrants by the predominately upper-class church congregations did not help the situation. They made fun of the migrants’ clothes, accents, and lack of education. It always amazes me that in spite of all the racism and contempt we have endured from other cultures that we would treat each other so shabbily.
Some of these migrants eventually left these churches and started their own denominations. The churches came to be known as Storefront Churches. These churches tried to recreate the Southern rural churches that the majority of the migrants were used to. E. Franklin Franzier explained that the storefront churches “represented an attempt on the part of migrants, especially from the rural areas of the South, to re-establish a type of church to which they were accustomed” (Sernett, Promised Land).
Of course, the established black churches felt that these churches were a slap in their faces. They felt that these churches were a disgrace to the African American race and nothing more than a minstrel show. The preachers from these churches were derided for their lack of formal training and were subjected to accusations including defrauding their flock of money, being agents in the numbers racket, and of immoral sexual behavior (Sernett, Promised Land). However, despite the criticisms, storefront churches persisted, and exist to this very day, their presence a testament to the strength of the Southern migrants willingness to keep their heritage and an unwillingness not to bow down to those who looked down their noses upon them.
Decent Housing but At What Cost?
The new migrants having settled the issue of religion now had to deal with housing. The majority of people lived in tenement housing and there were many horror stories about overcrowding, rats and insects. However, living conditions in Chicago, though overcrowded, were similar to housing conditions in the South. Down South, most migrants lived in three or four room cabins. It was not uncommon for as many as five people to sleep in one room.
But this was The Promised Land, and things were supposed to be better. As soon as they were able to get themselves together, they moved. Living conditions were used as a measure of the success or failure of migration. A family succeeded when they secured a place of their own.
One of the most popular living spaces for migrants were kitchenette apartments. These apartments were called that because everything was enclosed in one room, including the kitchen and are similar to what is called an efficiency apartment today, except a bit smaller and housing more people. Families of four and up lived in these small spaces. Many families took an apartment like this, dreaming of the day when a better life would come along. I came to know this type of apartment very well. My mother, my then-baby daughter and I lived in a kitchenette apartment from 1989 to 1992. We had been burned out of our previous apartment and lost everything we owned. We needed to start off from scratch and save some money in the process.
Unlike the migrants, we did have two separate rooms. The kitchen was actually pretty large and so was the bedroom/living space but we had to share a bathroom with the other tenants. It was a unique experience living in that building. There was a pimp and his two ladies of night living down the hall, and they would fight everyday. Sometimes, the girls would fight each other and on other days, would join forces and beat up the pimp. A lady named Dorise lived across the hall and she would get drunk everyday. Her boyfriend was a drunk too, and one time when he was laid out across the lawn in a drunken stupor, someone stole his brand new Reebok gym shoes off his feet. When the first of the month came (check time), the tenants of 4949 South Prairie would party like it was New Year’s Eve. It was truly an experience I will never forget.
By the 1940s, as more migrants flooded Bronzeville, there was less and less space for them to move into. Already decrepit apartments became overcrowded and the living conditions became worse. To alleviate this overcrowding, many blacks attempted to move to into neighboring areas and out to the newly emerging suburbs. However, they were met with massive white resistance, both political and violent, forcing them to stay confined in the overcrowded and dilapidated slums of the South Side. The City of Chicago needed to do something about these conditions; there was a serious housing shortage and the migrants either did not have the money to move elsewhere, or could not because of white resistance. The Chicago Housing Authority, a government agency, attempted to solve the housing problems of the South Side by building affordable housing projects.
The first of these housing projects to finished were the Ida B. Wells Homes, and they were completed in 1941. The next to be finished were The Dearborn Homes, which are located from 27th to 30th streets and from State Street to the Rock Island Railroad tracks. They were completed in 1950. They were designed by Loebl, Schlossman and Bennet and represented the CHA’s first “high-rise” public housing project. They ranged from 6 to 9 stories. The most notorious of the housing projects built by the CHA were The Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago’s (and the country’s) largest housing project. They were completed in 1962. They were named after Robert R. Taylor, the commissioner of the CHA from 1938-1950. Robert Taylor resigned from the CHA in 1950 after realizing that the political forces in Chicago would prevent the CHA from building unsegregated public housing. These political forces wanted blacks isolated and segregated from the rest of Chicago. And it worked.
The Robert Taylor Homes, consisting of 28 identical sixteen-story buildings practically guaranteed segregation because it was built in the middle of the slums of Bronzeville, keeping its over 28,000 residents isolated. By stacking people literally on top of each other, the CHA was able to house many people on this two-mile piece of land. The architects, who designed this madness, had hoped the open space surrounding the Robert Taylor Homes would give its residents a sense of closeness to the outdoors, making The Robert Taylor Homes a suburbia within the city. However, the land surrounding the buildings served more as an isolating factor Because of its isolation, these projects became a hot seat of criminal activity, which included drug trafficking, gang wars and murder. Public housing, instead of giving the poor an outlet of hope, continued the vicious cycle of poverty and turned Bronzeville into a ghetto.
Bronzeville was once a bustling center of activity for African-Americans who wanted to better their lives. Once the jobs left the community, it took the heart out of Bronzeville. The projects took its soul. What is left now is an empty shell of broken beer bottles and shattered dreams. There has been a great deal of renewed interest in Bronzeville, and some of the old, abandoned buildings have been rehabbed. New businesses have come back and put money in the community. If this interest continues, this neighborhood can be great again, but two key ingredients are needed to make this dream come true. The churches of Bronzeville have to take a more active role in the lives of its inhabitants, like they did in when the Migration first started. The ministers cannot turn a blind eye to the gang violence and drug activity that still plagues this area. The residents of Bronzeville also have to take a stand and not allow their neighborhood to continue its descent into the gutter. The residents have to teach their children about Bronzeville’s rich history. Bronzeville was built on the blood, sweat and tears of black migrants who came to Chicago with nothing in their pockets but dreams and a hope for the future. The children of Bronzeville should never be allowed to forget this. Bronzeville is the proverbial diamond in the rough. Let’s hope its shine will come through.