WGN Radio’s Your Hometown series shines the spotlight on the Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville on Thursday, December 15. Your Hometown is sponsored by Illinois Lottery – Anything is possible in Your Hometown. And by McDonald’s.
Located south of the Loop, accessible via the CTA Green and Red Lines and home to Illinois Institute of Technology, the Bronzeville neighborhood is an historic Black American business, arts, and culture epicenter.
The Great Migration saw millions of African Americans leave the rural South for Northern cities and, in Chicago, many settled in Bronzeville. The 15-foot tall bronze Monument to the Great Northern Migration (King Drive and 26th Place) stands as a tribute.
Known as the “Black Metropolis”, Bronzeville was home to many influential Black writers, musicians, activists and pioneers from the early 19th century through the mid-20th century. A few of those notable individuals include Louis Armstrong, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ida B. Wells, Bessie Coleman, Richard Wright, Minnie Riperton, Lou Rawls, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, and Muddy Waters.
State Street, between 26th and 29th Streets, was called “The Stroll” and was a hub for activity and nightlife. The community flocked to places like The Pekin Theatre, the first Black-owned musical and vaudeville theater, and the Regal Theater which hosted Black entertainers like Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Today the Harold Washington Cultural Center (4701 S. Martin Luther King Dr.) stands on the site of where the Regal Theater once stood.
The music genres of blues, jazz, and gospel evolved and flourished in Bronzeville. Pilgrim Baptist Church (3301 S. Indiana Ave.) is the birthplace of gospel and its music director Thomas A. Dorsey known as the “Father of Gospel Music.” It’s the place where Aretha Franklin, The Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson, and others sang and where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached during the Civil Rights movement. The church was designed as a synagogue in 1890 and home to a Baptist congregation beginning in 1922. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s, the building was destroyed by fire in 2006. With funding received in 2022, plans are to rebuild Pilgrim Baptist Church and transform it into a national museum of gospel music. Chess Records, known worldwide for producing blues music in the 1950s and 60s, was first located at 4750 Cottage Grove in the heart of the Bronzeville neighborhood.
The neighborhood also grew two Black newspapers: Chicago Defender (1905) and Chicago Bee (1926). The Chicago Bee ceased production in 1946, but the paper’s headquarters in the Art Deco style Chicago Bee Building at 36th and State still stands and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Chicago Defender continues today as a digital content platform. Robert S. Abbott, the paper’s founder and publisher, also created the Bud Billiken Parade in 1929 to honor the work of the newsboys. Still held today on the second Saturday in August, it is the largest African American parade in the U.S.
The Wabash Y (3763 S. Wabash Ave.) was the first Black YMCA in the country and birthplace of the now nationwide Black History Month recognition. The Renaissance Collaborative (TRC) was founded in 1992 to preserve the Wabash Y which is on the National Register of Historic Places and offers guided tours of the building every month.
The unique architecture found in Bronzeville, from Queen Anne to Classical Revival, also includes the Robert W. Roloson Houses (3213-3219 S. Calumet Ave.), the only rowhomes Frank Lloyd Wright built. Other landmark structures within the Black Metropolis-Bronzeville District include the Chicago Defender Building, Unity Hall, Supreme Life Building, The Forum and Overton Hygienic Building.
Today, 31st Street Beach (Margaret T. Burroughs Beach) with its view of the city skyline is a popular destination for many as are neighborhood parks including Ellis Park, one of the city’s oldest green spaces.
The Bronzeville Walk of Fame, located on King Drive between 25th and 35th Streets, celebrates the impact of African American icons through more than 90 bronze plaques embedded in the neighborhood’s sidewalks over the ten blocks.