Phyllis Wheatley Home

Phyllis Wheatley Home, Photo Credit: Serhii Chrucky

Overview

As the City of Chicago works across all levels to become a more equitable place, we need to honor and elevate African American sites of significance like the Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home. 

A stalwart and resolute group of Black women in early 1900s Chicago joined together to create the Phyllis Wheatley Home, a program to house and educate other Black women and girls who either traveled to Chicago during the Great Migration or found themselves without stable housing. Recognizing the great risk that young women encountered when moving to an unfamiliar city, the founders of the Phyllis Wheatley Club created a safe haven for the flourishing development and protection of the young women they supported.

The third and final Phyllis Wheatley Home was built at 5128 S. Michigan Avenue. At its peak, it could house over 22 women and girls. It functioned as the Phyllis Wheatley Home for 50 years and has been in private ownership since the 1970s. In recent years, the 125-year-old home has suffered from deferred maintenance and significant water infiltration. A hearing is scheduled for March 16, 2021 in demolition court to address code violations. A plan for immediate action to stabilize and restore the home is essential to avoid a possible demolition order. The need is urgent to find a preservation solution to save this building which is a testament to the power of Black women and their role in addressing societal needs in 1900s Chicago.

We at Preservation Chicago continue to uncover additional stories of the extraordinary women in the Phyllis Wheatley Club and their work to improve the lives of African American women, girls, and the community at large.

Phyllis Wheatley frontispiece by Scipio Moorhead, Courtesy Chicago History Museum

History

Phillis Wheatley was a poet who lived from approximately 1753 to 1784, becoming the first English-speaking person of African descent to publish a book. She was also the second woman and author to be published in America.

Wheatley was kidnapped from West Africa, transported by slave ship to Boston, Massachusetts and sold into slavery in 1761. John and Susanna Wheatley, who purchased the young girl, named her after the slave ship she arrived in—the Phillis.

It is said that the Wheatley family was progressive for their time, allowing Wheatley to receive an “unprecedented education” for an enslaved person, learning to read both Greek and Latin.

While enslaved, she traveled to England, meeting with royalty and dignitaries there. She also had connections with George Washington, John Paul Jones, Benjamin Franklin, and John Hancock. After her emancipation in 1773, she lived the remainder of her years as a free woman, later marrying John Peters, a free Black man. Her remarkable accomplishments are surprisingly well-documented, but it’s heartbreaking to imagine what works and stories of her experiences have been lost since she died.

She and her accomplishments have been memorialized many times in the years since her death, demonstrated by the fact that many schools across America today bear her name. Surely her greatest posthumous legacy, however, is the Phyllis Wheatley Home. 

Inspired by Wheatley’s strength and talents, Phyllis Wheatley Clubs were formed in multiple cities throughout the United States. While the spelling of Wheatley’s name is acknowledged as “Phillis,” the clubs were formed under the spelling of “Phyllis”. The club’s focus was on improving the lives of young women through education, job training, sewing classes, and economics classes, or, as noted by the organization, “housing, health, vocational guidance, recreation and religious education”.

The Chicago branch of the Phyllis Wheatley Club was formed in 1896 by a group of Black women led by Elizabeth Lindsay Davis who, via connections to strong social networks and philanthropic efforts throughout the city, had the means to address impoverished living conditions for women and young girls, especially single women arriving during the Great Migration. This movement saw Southern Blacks heading north to find great opportunity and fill industrial jobs. As Davis wrote: “The burden of caring for this newly transplanted population was left entirely to the colored citizens of the city, who are, in the mass, already overburdened, hard-working people with little accumulated surplus among them.”

Phyllis Wheatley Home, Photo Credit: Mary Lu Seidel

It was one of the oldest such Black women’s clubs formed in Chicago and was part of a vast network of programs organized under the National Association of Colored Women’s (NACW) Clubs. Davis was the Illinois delegate to this national organization along with journalist and anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells Barnett. Ms. Davis also authored a book, “The Story of the Illinois Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs covering 1900-1922.” The book outlines the various clubs throughout the state, and the women who helped found them.

The Phyllis Wheatley Home also provided opportunities for Black women entering the newly professionalized field of social work. Many African American women graduates of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy found positions as lead workers and residents at Black settlement houses. The Phyllis Wheatley Home hired Jennie Lawrence, a graduate of the program, to oversee its operations, and Lawrence introduced modern social work methods to the Home.

The first Phyllis Wheatley Home at 3530 S. Rhodes was purchased for $3,400 in 1906-07. The nine-room home was opened to women as a settlement house in 1908. The Wheatley Home then moved to 3256 S. Giles, originally known as Forest Avenue, where it operated until acquiring the home at 5128 S. Michigan Avenue in 1925-26. Sadly, the first two Wheatley Homes have been demolished.

Originally constructed in 1896 for William H. Ebbert, the 6,600 square foot home at 5128 S. Michigan Avenue was designed by architect Frederick B. Townsend. Townsend, a prominent Chicago architect, is also credited with designing the “Five Houses on Avers Avenue”, now a Chicago Landmark District, along with 4808 S. Kimbark Avenue, all of which are noted in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. 

Preservation Chicago has been able to connect with the relatives of one woman who used to live in the Phyllis Wheatley Home, and they were able to share with us stories of what life was like there. Charlotte Pearson Weaver lived in the Wheatley Home on Michigan Avenue until she married her husband George Weaver in 1928. In the late 1960s, she returned to the home to serve as a house mother for three years. Charlotte was born in 1902, and she migrated to Chicago from Demopolis, Alabama, moving into the Wheatley Home. Her daughter Georgetta Cooper recalls her mother’s stories about the rules of the home. Guests, especially men, could only be entertained on restricted days and times to visits on the first floor of the home. The second and third floors were where the women’s bedrooms were. Women were screened and interviewed by the Home’s Board of Directors. The women on the Board ran the home, according to Ms. Cooper, and they were correct, “cultured” women — active in their churches and civic organizations. The women who resided in the home had strict curfews, and there was no smoking or drinking of alcohol allowed. The women had to arrive well-dressed for dinner, which was formal every day.

The house rules were significantly loosened by the time Ms. Weaver returned to serve as a house mother in the late 1960s. Her granddaughters, Kathy Scott and Maria Scott recall visiting their grandmother at the Wheatley Home. They remembered all the wood finishes and paneling in the house, and they were especially fond of the old-time pop machine in the kitchen where they would buy 5-cent bottles of Mountain Dew and Orange Crush.

Phyllis Wheatley Home, 5128 S. Michigan Ave. Photo Credit: Serhii Chrucky

Other African-American Settlement Homes in Chicago:

The Phyllis Wheatley Home was part of a larger legacy of Black settlement homes in Chicago which included:

  • The Melissa Elam Home for Working Women and Girls, 4555 S. Champlain
  • The Melissa Elam Home for Working Women and Girls, 4726 S. King Drive
  • The Frederick Douglass Center, 2032 S. Wabash Avenue
  • The Fannie Emanuel Settlement House, 2732 Armour Avenue
  • The Abraham Lincoln Center, 700 E. Oakwood Boulevard
  • The Volunteer Workers Charity Club Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People, 610 W. Garfield Boulevard
  • The Volunteer Workers Charity Club Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People, 4430 S. Vincennes Avenue

Besides the Phyllis Wheatley Home, the Melissa Elam Home for Working Women and Girls at 4726 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive is the only other known remaining Black settlement home in Chicago. It is also currently vacant and boarded up like the Phyllis Wheatley Home. Dr. Margaret Burroughs and Loretta Peyton (Ms. Elam’s niece) worked to save and restore this settlement home through a group they formed called the Friends of the Elam House Foundation. The Foundation’s work included pursuing a Chicago Landmark designation to ensure the home could not be demolished. It was designated a Chicago Landmark on March 21, 1979. The home was restored impeccably, with the wood-paneled walls stripped of paint, hand-oiled, and revitalized. The third-floor ballroom, with its small seating areas, was next on its restoration list. Sadly, in 1992 a fire destroyed the interior of the home. It is owned by the Fitz Corporation, which acquired the building in 1997 through a tax sale.

African-American Women Leaders in the Social Club and Settlement House movement

  • Ida B. Wells Barnett was involved in the establishment and support of many African-American women’s clubs and settlement houses.
  • Dr. Fannie Emanuel, who graduated as a medical doctor from the Chicago College of Medicine in 1915, served as a Board member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club
  • Louis Solomon Waller, one-time president of the Frederick Douglass Center.
  • Sadie Pritchard Hart, who worked with the Phyllis Wheatley Home. She was also a prominent member of the Order of the Eastern Stars, the Freemasons division for women (see the Chicago 7 Most Endangered 2021 list for the South Chicago Masonic Temple).
  • Fannie Barrier Williams, who helped to secure recognition of the “American Negro” in the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, served on the Phyllis Wheatley Board of Directors. 
  • Fannie Mason was among the founders of the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People in Chicago.
  • Minnie A. Collins worked for decades with the Phyllis Wheatley Club, and was chairwoman of the Board of Managers of the Phyllis Wheatley Home.
  • Ella Johnson served as the Phyllis Wheatley Club treasurer.
  • Clara Johnson served as President of the Phyllis Wheatley Home. 
  • Mattie Johnson Young served on the Phyllis Wheatley Association Board of Directors.
  • Ethel McCracken Cleaves was a Chicago public school teacher who helped raise money for the Phyllis Wheatley Home and the Old Folks’ Home.

The work of women’s organizations and clubs, like the Phyllis Wheatley Home, to support and advance women’s lives was critical in this time period. They functioned as job and leadership training centers and their advocacy for increasing and protecting women’s rights, including suffrage, was critical when those rights were nonexistent or emerging. Preserving historic buildings like the Wheatley Home makes the stories of this work real and present in a way that books, websites, and other media do not. Saving the places in our landscape where such important work happened makes it possible for us to understand the past and use it to continue the work today. The Phyllis Wheatley Home holds the memories of the countless Black women who left behind the Jim Crow South for a new life in Chicago.

Phyllis Wheatley Home, Photo Credit: Mary Lu Seidel

Threat

Water infiltration and temperature fluctuations are always significant threats to historic buildings across the country. These same elements have harmed the Phyllis Wheatley Home. The roof is in need of full replacement as it is highly compromised. The home’s rear wall has greatly deteriorated and requires major repairs or perhaps complete reconstruction. Water damage and other failures have also wreaked havoc on the Wheatley Home’s interiors. However, the home’s basement, foundation, and remaining elevations appear to be in stable condition. Despite these many issues throughout the property, original wood cabinetry, decorative trim mouldings, doors, historic light fixtures, and the original wood staircases are all intact.

The current homeowners, Dr. Ariajo “JoAnn” Cobb Tate and Martin Tate, are committed to restoring the property and its important history, although they are struggling to secure the resources needed for a complete restoration and renovation of the building.

Without an immediate and viable plan for restoration, along with funding, the home could be potentially ordered demolished at its March 2021 hearing before the City of Chicago’s Buildings Division Court.

Phyllis Wheatley Home, Photo Credit: Mary Lu Seidel

Recommendations

Chicago has an unfortunate record of demolishing settlement house buildings. Even the Hull-House, the most renowned settlement house in the city, suffered this fate—during the 1960s, all but two of its thirteen buildings were destroyed to make way for the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. As few sites of Black social settlements remain in Chicago or across the nation, preserving the Phyllis Wheatley Home is essential. Preservation advocates and the City of Chicago should prioritize elevating this history as we strive to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion in everything we do.

The Phyllis Wheatley Home is one of few surviving testaments to the power of Black women who were committed to being part of the solution toward housing and living conditions that were especially hard on Chicago’s Black residents. It is imperative that all divisions in the City of Chicago (especially the Building and Planning Departments) work with the current owners, the Alderwoman, the Washington Park community, and the preservation community to find a solution that will ensure its protection from demolition and a solid plan for its restoration.

The building’s estimated rehabilitation costs are roughly $700,000 for the necessary exterior repairs and range from $1 million to $1.5 million for the entire structure. These costs may exceed the post-rehabilitation value of the home, so public subsidies or philanthropic contributions will be required to make these substantial repairs.

Preservation Chicago is committed to working with all stakeholders to achieve a preservation outcome of restoring this place that tells the important story of Black women’s clubs, suffrage efforts, and settlement houses in Chicago. In a full circle moment of great synergy, a group of professional Black women has organized to find solutions to save the Wheatley Home. Preservation Chicago would be honored to support their work in every way we can.

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