Chicago Crusader Investigative Report: “Important to Black history, they are unprotected and a new owner can demolish them anytime without any opposition”

“Alderman Sophia King (4th Ward) had a problem in her ward in 2017. Developers were jockeying for some fresh real estate to build skyscrapers in the fast-growing South Loop neighborhood along Michigan Avenue. In the middle of the hustle and bustle was a small, vacant 11 story-building that was once the home of Johnson Publishing Company, which produced the iconic Ebony and Jet magazines. Amid the power point presentations and board room discussions, there were concerns that the house that trailblazer John H. Johnson built would be demolished to make way for Chicago’s next skyscraper.

“With her political influence and connections, King moved quickly to save the Johnson Publishing Company property from hungry developers possibly demolishing a vulnerable, yet significant piece of Black history important to Chicago and the nation. By the end of the year, the Johnson Publishing Company building was an official Chicago Landmark whose future was safe and secured. Today the building at 820 South Michigan remains the same as it was in 1972. The building now houses modern apartments with remnants of its past adorning the halls.

“But many Black historic buildings have not been as fortunate. Since 1972, Black Chicago has lost some of its most important buildings that despite their historical significance were not official Chicago Landmarks. They include the Regal Theater, Metropolitan Theater, the Palm Tavern, the South Center Department Store and the homes of Sam Cooke and pilot Bessie Coleman.

“At a time when downtown and white neighborhoods were off limits, many of these locations provided Blacks pride, culture, entertainment and a taste of the good life in Bronzeville. Today, all of those buildings are gone. In their place are new buildings or vacant lots, and no markers to educate new generations of Blacks on the significance of the properties to their cultural heritage and past.

“More historic buildings and homes that still stand today also are not Chicago Landmarks and remain unprotected from demolition. In an extensive analysis of city records, the Crusader has identified a number of structures among at least 44 properties that are not official Chicago Landmarks. They include the shuttered Griffin Funeral Home, Parkway Ballroom, the Forum, the Swift Mansion, the Lu Palmer Mansion, and the homes of Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Muddy Waters. Without the critical Chicago Landmark status they can be altered anytime or even worse, demolished with no opposition from city officials.

“Of 353 Chicago Landmarks across the city, only 72 represent historical significance to the Black community on Chicago’s South and West Sides, according to data from the Chicago Commission on Landmarks, a group within the city’s Historic Preservation division in the Department of Planning Development.

“While the tomb of slave owner Stephen A. Douglas remains a Chicago Landmark, the Bronzeville home of the doctor who performed the nation’s first heart surgery, Daniel Hale Williams, is not. Not even the Stony Island Trust and Savings Bank Building, which houses the acclaimed Stony Island Arts Bank and Library is a Chicago Landmark.

“The Bronzeville home of the pioneer Dr. Daniel Hale Williams still stands at 445 E 42nd St, Williams made history in 1893 when he performed the first heart surgery at the predominately Black Provident Hospital, then located at 29th and Dearborn. The house remains privately home and is not a Chicago Landmark.

“Of the 72 Black Chicago Landmarks, the Crusader found that Bronzeville, Chicago’s oldest Black neighborhood, is home to 33 of them, more than any community in the city. Seven Chicago Landmarks are on King Drive in Bronzeville alone. South Shore has four, Washington Park has three and Woodlawn has two Chicago Landmarks.

“The home of 14-year-old Emmett Till, brutally murdered by two white men in Mississippi after being accused of whistling at a white woman is one of Woodlawn’s landmarks. Till’s home at 6427 S. St. Lawrence became the newest Chicago Landmark last month after Alderman Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward) threw her support behind a campaign to protect the two story flat after similar campaigns in previous years had failed.

“The actions of Aldermen Taylor and King to save historic Black structures are part of a new wave of activism by Black political officials to salvage important relics of Black history.

“Like residents, urban renewal, a changing racial climate and the plans of developers have awakened political officials to the grim realities of forgotten Black historic sites in a city that for decades has overlooked their significance. Today residents’ involvement remains more critical than ever as development booms in Bronzeville and Woodlawn grow, sparking concerns of gentrification.

“With their rich history and connection to Black Chicago’s past, the two neighborhoods are among dozens of communities whose Black culture and identity are threatened more than ever as home values grow and whites move in, reversing white flight. With an influx of cash, they seek to capitalize on development projects like the impending Obama Presidential Center and Library. Such projects have turned Black historic neighborhoods into potentially attractive locales for whites to live.

“Amid the hustle are decaying Black historic sites that gave Black neighborhoods life, culture and identity. Many are gone. Many are vacant and some have fallen into disrepair. Most important, many are not official Chicago Landmarks, protected from demolition or alteration by hungry developers seeking to plan their next project.”

“Ward Miller, executive director for Preservation Chicago, has been campaigning for years to preserve Black historic sites on the city’s South and West Sides. Miller told the Crusader that in the past 20 years, unprotected Black sites have been threatened with demolition more than ever. He said the support of aldermen is critical to the success of getting a Black historic site designated as a Chicago Landmark.

“Miller also said unlike in the past, the city is more willing to review requests to landmark Black historic sites that have building and code violations. ‘I think we are experiencing a new vision and new day with these Black sites,’ Miller said. ‘We are growing more aware of these places and it’s about time.’ (Johnson, Chicago Crusader, 2/26/21)

Read the full Investigative Report at the Chicago Crusader

The homes of Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Chicago Defender founder Robert S. Abbott, Thomas Dorsey and many other Black historical sites are not official Chicago landmarks. Important to Black history, they are unprotected and a new owner can demolish them anytime without any opposition, Erick Johnson, A Crusader Black History Month Special, 2/26/21

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