Bronzeville-Black Metropolis National Heritage Area on the Cusp of Receiving Federal Recognition
Bronzeville and a Large Portion of Chicago’s South Side May Be Getting Closer to Receiving a National Park Service National Heritage Area Designation, Which Would Provide Federal Funding for Historic Preservation Efforts and Spur Economic Development
The Bronzeville-Black Metropolis National Heritage Area Act bills were filed in Congress earlier this year by Illinois House Representative Bobby Rush, and Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth. The national heritage area would tell the story of the Great Migration and provide $10 million in federal funding over a 15-year period for conservation, management, and development of the area.
Bernard Turner, the executive director of the Bronzeville-Black Metropolis National Heritage Area Commission, says that the designation would be a formal recognition of the history and cultural significance of the area. The rise of Black culture and the arts in particular have a strong connection to the city’s Black Metropolis, which became known as a city within a city.
“A lot of people talk about the Harlem Renaissance. We had the same thing here in Chicago,” he says. “When you think of dance, music, arts and literature, all of that, even some of the same people (in Chicago) were part of that renaissance.”
The area would encompass 18th Street to the north, 71st Street to the south, Lake Michigan to the east, and Canal Street to the west. A portion of it is already recognized by the City of Chicago as a historic district and dozens of buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Within these boundaries are landmarks such as Pilgrim Baptist Church, the birthplace of gospel music; Supreme Life Insurance, the first northern Black-owned insurance company; the homes of blues and jazz legends Muddy Waters and Louis Armstong; and the Wabash YMCA, where the first Black History Month was celebrated.
The first community meetings to discuss the national heritage area took place more than a decade ago. Turner says the commission did extensive research for a feasibility study, and that volunteers have written letters, emails, and made numerous phone calls to congressional leaders to get their support. Although the Bronzeville-Black Metropolis National Heritage Area Act has been introduced in previous congressional sessions, Turner says the commission is hopeful that it will pass it this year because of the Democratic majorities in Congress, and the current national social justice and cultural momentum behind recognizing Black history.
The Great Migration
The Great Migration lasted from 1915 through the 1970s when millions of Blacks left the southern U.S. to move to the North and West. When World War I started and white men left for military service, there was a demand for workers in the north. Turner says Black men working as Pullman porters brought newspapers back to their communities in the South, including The Chicago Defender. The Defender—whose founder Robert S. Abbott was a graduate of Illinois Tech’s Chicago-Kent College of Law—published stories encouraging Black migration to the city along with the names of churches and other organizations that could help with relocation and finding jobs.
Between 1900 and 1920, Chicago’s Black population grew from roughly 30,000 people to nearly 110,000. Turner says restrictive housing policies and discrimination limited where Blacks could rent housing and own property, which created heavily segregated communities in Chicago. Because they were not welcome in other parts of the city, Black community organizations, churches, entrepreneurs, and artists built their own thriving community on the city’s South Side that became known as the Black Metropolis.
“Chicago had its own Black Wall Street,” Turner says. “The money stayed in the neighborhood because people could go downtown and buy things, but [because they were Black] they couldn’t try on shoes. They couldn’t try on clothing. So the money pretty much stayed in the neighborhood.”
Mecca Flats, which stood on 34th and State streets on land that is now part of Illinois Tech’s campus, was originally built as a hotel for the World’s Fair in 1893 and later converted into apartments for middle-class Black families. Gwendolyn Brooks worked for one of its residents, and her 1968 poem, In the Mecca, was inspired by her experiences there. Jesse Binga, real estate inventor and founder of the first Black-owned bank in Chicago, owned property on 35th Street on the current Illinois Tech campus. Binga Bank, along with other Black-owned banks, provided the financial backbone for the growth of commercial and business interests in the Black Metropolis, including new construction.
Bronzeville was known for its nightclubs and dance halls, particularly as jazz became more popular. Musicians such as Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Nat King Cole, and Dizzy Gillespie performed at The Sunset Café, also known as the Grand Terrace Café on 35th Street, which was one of the most famous jazz clubs in the country. Bronzeville was also home to many prominent Black Americans, including journalist and social activist Ida B. Wells, and Andrew “Rube” Foster, founder of the Negro National Baseball League.
The Black Metropolis reached its peak in the mid-1920s, but the population explosion led to overcrowding, Turner says. The Great Depression dealt a heavy blow to Black businesses in Bronzeville, and after racially restrictive housing laws were lifted years later, many middle- and upper-class families moved out of the neighborhood.
The Metropolis Rises Again
Despite years of disinvestment, Turner says Bronzeville is still home to many businesses, and that a national heritage designation will provide more jobs through businesses that support both the neighborhood and tourism industry. The Chicago City Council recently approved a $3.8 billion dollar residential, retail and museum redevelopment project for the former Michael Reese Hospital site. The SHOWTIME television network is donating $500,000 for art and beautification projects in Bronzeville and Lawndale. Construction on The Obama Presidential Center is beginning this fall in Jackson Park, which the Obama Foundation estimates will bring nearly 700,000 people to the area annually.
A historian and author of the book, A New View of Bronzeville, Turner says there is material for dozens of thematic tours focused on music, literature, arts, entrepreneurship, and Black history that would bring domestic and international visitors to the South Side. Ultimately, Turner says a critical part of the commission’s work will be education.
“Schools teach American history, but what kind of American history do they teach? They teach what I would call whitewashed American history. They don’t really tell the story of Asians and Hispanics, and they don’t tell the real story of Black people. So this is the type of thing that we need to be doing as an organization,” he says. “It’s important. Kids need to know this history.”
Photo: A painting of Bronzeville