The Chicago Humanities Festival sponsored a bus tour of Chicago’s South Side, the “Black Belt,” for the spring Public-themed series. Hosted by “TikTok historian” Shermann “Dilla” Thomas, the two-hour tour began and ended at the DuSable Museum of African American History, and highlighted the history of Chicago’s vital and historic Bronzeville neighborhood, a name coined after James Gentry called Black women’s skin bronze.
Dilla’s dad was a cop, his mom a nurse, and he was a proud CPS student until he was kicked out of Calumet High School for alleged gangbanging. He was transferred to Olive-Harvey Middle College, which was a long walk away and included the Bronzeville Walk of Fame. That commute sparked Dilla’s interest in community history, and his current day job as ComEd electrician keeps him in and out of Chicago landmarks as an adult.
“The electrical vault is the first room constructed during a building project,” he said at the beginning of the tour, and that space starts to tell the story of the structure. That’s how Dilla looks at South Side history, as the foundation and energy behind Chicago’s greatness. “It’s all about perspective,” he repeats throughout the tour.
The first monument pointed out past the Daniel Burnham-designed DuSable edifice (and the park district fields that used to be “mowed” by sheep), is Lorado Taft’s 1922 “Fountain of Time.” Celebrating a century of peace between Great Britain and the US, the Midway Plaisance Park monument was co-constructed by the White Rabbit Sculptors, some of Taft’s female Art Institute students. They had been initially hired to help create art because of their “delicate touch” for pieces at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
Dilla pointed out the places that mark the many “firsts” achieved in Chicago. The University of Chicago was the first to teach the science of sociology, and to address learning disabilities. Nuclear power and the creation of the atomic bomb were also generated at that institution. While the African American-inspired musical form was created in the South, the Chicago Tribune was the first to call it “jazz.” Former enslaved person and Chicago resident Augustus Tolton was America’s first Black Catholic priest. In 1950, Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Lorraine Hansberry is celebrated throughout the neighborhood where she lived and wrote the play A Raisin in the Sun. Provident Hospital on 51st Street was created for and funded by African Americans in 1891, with capital coming from Civil War pensions. The first open-heart surgery was conducted there in 1893 with no gloves, no anesthetics, no x-rays or electricity. That patient lived to be 76.
Chicago’s historic boulevard system led to the creation of large city parks, with Lincoln as the largest, followed by Humboldt, then the South Side’s Washington Park. The CTA Green Line is nearby, the city’s oldest line, originally constructed to ferry folks around the World’s Fair. Nearby on South Prairie Avenue is Boxville, a funky collection of shipping containers that house a variety of Black-owned businesses and services, which also offers community classes.
The tour drives by some lovely mid-century schools closed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and by the site of the former Regal Theater on 79th Street, where the Jackson Five were discovered (it’s now a parking lot). Next is the Chicago Defender newspaper HQ, founded in 1905 and an influential driver of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities, explored in previous CHF programs.
The Black middle class grew in the Windy City due to the availability of jobs in the Chicago stockyards, the largest employer of African Americans into the 1940s. Pullman Porter jobs also allowed BIPOC to work, travel and see the county. The tour drives by a 15-foot-tall bronze statue remembering the Great Migration, located in the middle of King Drive just south of McCormick Place. The African American man carries a suitcase, and is dressed in a suit of worn shoe soles to commemorate the long, hard journey north.
Louis Armstrong’s modest longtime home on 44th Street has a historical marker in front, and is situated across the street from Chicago’s first smart house, which uses solar and collects rainwater. The Blues Club District runs from 43rd to 47th Streets. As is common on the South Side, this neighborhood is a food (as well as banking) desert, with only one Mariano’s grocery story seen on the trip. But the chain wraps archival photos of famous Black Americans around the perimeter, from Armstrong and Brooks, to pioneering aviator Bessie Coleman and Blues legend Ma Rainey, “the Cardi B of her day.”
Speaking of nourishment, Dilla explains how Black WW1 soldiers, primarily from Chicago and Harlem, first combined the chicken that they loved from home with the waffles from France and Belgium. Along with the exchange of jazz, African American military members also exported a love of Hennessy cognac after time spent in France (and they still sponsor Ebony and Jet magazines). Leonard Crunelle’s 1927 Victory Monument on South Martin Luther King Drive honors the African American units that served in France.
Dilla isn’t happy that The Light of Truth Ida B. Wells National Monument is so out-of-the-way of regular foot and driving traffic, but rather hidden on South Langley Avenue. Sculptor Richard Hunt used his signature flames to depict the prominent author and activist’s passion, situated near her former home and the location of the public housing project named for her.
We pass DuSable High School, which graduated Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington. We drive by Dunbar High School, attended by Lou Rawls and Jennifer Hudson. Nearby is Douglas Park, where 5,000 Confederate soldiers were imprisoned. When they died from starvation or from the cold, they were buried in a mass grave that African Americans care for today.
German Jewish immigrants had originally built synagogues in the area, which were turned into churches after Blacks moved in. The Louis Sullivan-designed Pilgrim Baptist Church on South Indiana Avenue will soon be the site of the National Museum of Gospel Music (even though a fire gutted most of the 1890 church in 2006). Longtime music director Thomas A. Dorsey had written “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and many gospel tunes there. The “quintessential Black megachurch” also hosted other gospel luminaries like Mahalia Jackson.
Another historic Black area called The Stroll on State Street is now the campus of Illinois Institute of Technology. DuSable Museum co-founder Margaret Burroughs also created the South Side Community Art Center at her home in 1940, the country’s oldest Black arts organization. Richard Wright wrote Native Son, his novel about South Sider Bigger Thomas, in the architecturally gorgeous George Cleveland Hall branch of the Chicago Public Library on South Michigan Avenue, named for the African American civic leader and surgeon.
News since this tour ran is the announcement that the “Black Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts” has received $26 million in funding. Bronzeville’s 35-seat Lillian Marcie Center on South Cottage Grove Avenue will house a museum, performance spaces, art studios, a restaurant and a jazz club. Actor and neighborhood native Harry Lennix named the space after his mother Lillie and his encouraging high school principal Marcie.
Dilla and his Chicago Mahogany company offer tours of Bronzeville, North Lawndale, Pullman/Roseland, and Bridgeport/Stockyard throughout the summer. He says that the more we visit these areas and commit to learning our history, the more we help to keep these local institutions open, which reduces crime. “If we respect the spaces in our communities,” Dilla says, “then we lift the South Side up.”
The CHF Public-themed spring series continues events with KAINA and Ben LaMar Gay on June 1, plus Marvel franchise actor Simu Liu on superheroes, stardom and writing a memoir on June 2.
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