The History of Bronzeville
The history of Bronzeville tells a story of astounding momentum carried on the backs of visionaries in search of the American Dream.
This American Dream, previously not afforded to African American citizens, sets the bar for the historical impact of a community banded together under one common objective: opportunity that brings with it a chance at a life one can be proud of.
To understand Bronzeville’s history is to understand what sparked it to become such a historical landmark for Chicago to begin with. It stretches back to the late 19th century, when African Americans started to move north to flee oppression from the South. There was no significant Black population, instead Blacks lived together in small pockets throughout the city, Bronzeville being one of the first in Chicago. According to census, the population increased from 323 in 1850 to over 3,000 by 1870. It was clear in the steady growth pattern with each passing decade that the community had something to offer and was beginning to attract other Blacks to become a part. In a time where the country was plagued with racism and discrimination, what many outsiders felt for this community was disdain – which would later turn out to be Bronzeville’s saving grace.
Bronzeville was the center of the historic Black Metropolis, famous for its success in a time where Blacks struggled because of segregation and discrimination. From its humble beginnings, Bronzeville saw steady growth and in essence created a silo that thrived on complete independence from the surrounding area that did not wish to integrate with their neighbors. All goods and services were supplied within the community’s barriers. African American businessmen were able to see success opening businesses in their community and the residents benefited by having services provided to them without the hurtful effects of discrimination. By 1885, The Colored Men’s Professional and Business Directory was published which was a complete directory of Black businesses. The community grew tighter, and Blacks were able to gain financial independence through this perfectly balanced arrangement. Evidence of their contribution to society would soon start to expand outward as they gained political leverage by voting for what they wanted to see happen in their community. In 1874, John Jones was elected to the Cook County Board of Commissions. He was the 1st African American to hold elected office in Illinois. It was clear at this point that the Bronzeville community was on a mission to mold their own destiny’s, and by being an active member of society they simply took power out of white politicians’ hands, in favor of politicians who would have their own interest in mind. Now, the center of Black Metropolis seemed nearly indestructible.
By 1900 the area grew to over 30,000 people and was thriving as a city within a city. With the weight of discrimination lifted, African Americans were thriving and expanding their business ventures. In 1905, the Perkin Theatre opened near 27th street. It was the first black owned musical and vaudeville theatre in the U.S. and the beginning of a vivacious night life that eventually attracted popular musicians from around the globe. This nightlife was musically driven and a major contribution to Chicago’s jazz reputation. In 1908, Jesse Binga founded Binga Bank, the first black owned bank in Chicago on 36th and State St. Soon after other businesses opened including insurance companies, and wholesale retailers; it was Black Wall Street.
The biggest boom for Bronzeville’s population came from the Great Migration between 1910-1920. The Great Migration brought 6 million African Americans fleeing oppression in the South in search of a better life in the North. Academic powerhouse Nicholas Lemann described the migration as “one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements in history—perhaps the greatest not caused by the immediate threat of execution or starvation.” The migration caused the Black population in Chicago to grow by 148% and Black Metropolis grew to over 109,000 by 1920 and placed a flag in the ground as a self-contained metropolitan development. Local churches in the Black Metropolis worked with the YMCA to help those who moved from the south with job training and placement and housing.
Political influence continued on its upward trajectory and Oscar DePreist was elected as the first Black alderman in Chicago in 1915. DePreist later went on to become the 1st African American from the north to be elected to a seat in the US House of Representatives.
In 1916, musician Joe Jordan commissioned the Jordan building and it was the first black owned combination store and apartment building. A new door had been opened and soon after other Black businessmen opened more multi-use buildings in the area. In 1929 Anthony Overton, owner of one of the nation’s largest producers of African American cosmetics, opened the Overton Hygienic Building. This was a combination store, office and manufacturing building that held an office for one of the 1st African American architects. Overton also opened the Bee Building which housed a black owned newspaper, the Chicago Bee, a bank, and Overton’s Overton Hygienic company. These two buildings still stand today.
Black Metropolis was almost the perfect example of Black excellence and achievement relatively unheard of in its time. Unfortunately, the community would see the first signs of distress in the late 1920s as it struggled to keep up with the growing population. There were not enough jobs to support growing numbers and unemployment negatively affected Black Metropolis’ economy. The most significant negative impact came from the great depression that forced all the banks and insurance companies to close their doors, essentially dimming the light on Black Wall Street.
The Illinois Institute of Technology, acting as a separate entity from the rapidly deteriorating Black Metropolis was founded in Bronzeville in 1940. It was a result of the merger of Armour Institute and Lewis Institute. Close by and some years later, government assisted housing projects were built in the 1950s and 1960s and Bronzeville, once considered mecca for African Americans, remained in disarray until the projects were torn down in the late 1990s.
Bronzeville has since then remained a quiet middle class neighborhood on Chicago’s Southside. In 1998, the Overton Hygienic Building and Chicago Bee Building became Chicago Landmarks thus protecting them from demolition because of their historical significance. A trickle effect from Hyde Park’s recent expansion has brought Bronzeville back to life. Today most of the neighborhood has been restored and it is a popular housing community for Chicago’s middle class.