Black History Tour Marks Historical Undertaking


On Tuesday, Feb. 17, the Bronzeville Merchants Association, formerly known as the 35th Street Merchants Association, held a press conference and tour to which this reporter was invited. In welcoming the invitation and attending the event, which started at the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center, 411 E 35th Street, I discovered news of truly monumental proportions.

On this date, the Bronzeville Merchants Association, a not-for-profit group of merchants who live and work in and around Chicago’s historic Bronzeville community, announced the upcoming installation of four of ten obelisks. These monuments will be located at two community gateways – two at 35th and State streets and two at 35th and Martin Luther King Drive – to celebrate the rich past and present of Bronzeville.

It is not commonly known that there were racially restrictive covenants on Chicago’s South Side as late as 1947. From 1916 until 1948, these covenants were used to keep many of Chicago’s neighborhoods white.

In language suggested by the Chicago Real Estate Board, legally binding covenants were attached to parcels of land varying in size from city blocks to large subdivisions.
The covenants prohibited African Americans from using, occupying, buying, leasing or receiving property in those areas. There is a photo of a map in the Electronic Encyclopedia of the Chicago Historical Society used in a 1948 lawsuit, Tovey v. Levy, that dealt with covenants.

It shows that in 1947, covenants, in combination with zones of non residential use, had almost wholly surrounded the African American residential districts of the period, cutting off corridors of extension. Many of the neighborhoods encumbered by racial covenants were subsequently settled by African Americans once the covenants had been declared unconstitutional. The end of restrictive covenants made way for more freedom for African Americans to develop and establish businesses and buy or rent homes for their families.

The individuals who became successful in this era include a who’s who list of African American millionaires: Madame C. J. Walker, Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, Nat “King” Cole, Joe Louis, Etta Moten, John Johnson and many others.

John Woodson, one of the tour’s ‘History Consultants,’ made certain that we were aware of the contributions to our history made by Anthony Overton. Woodson said Overton’s story is not well known and his original building still stands at 36th and State streets.
Overton, a former slave turned business man, founded the Overton Hygenic Company at that location in 1898. He was also the founder of the Douglas National Bank and publisher and editor of the Chicago Bee newspaper from 1925 to 1946.

During World War II, it was run by women due to the shortage of men. Overton’s cosmetic products, the most famous of which were the Hi Brown and Nut Brown face powders, made him the first African American to sell products in a mainstream store, specifically Woolworth’s Five and Ten cents stores.

Overton originated and coined the well-known term “Bronzeville.”

Bronzeville is the neighborhood east of the Dan Ryan, west of Cottage Grove Avenue, north to 22nd Street to South to 40th Street. It was to this area that hundreds of thousands of African Americans came during the Great Migration from the South during the 1920s. In 2008, the City of Chicago put two Gateways into the Bronzeville area located above and across the southbound traffic lanes of King Drive at 24th Street. During the tour, it was mentioned that Margaret Burroughs, a long-time resident of Bronzeville and historic human treasure, noted artist and founder of the Chicago DuSable Museum of African American History, believes that the term “Bronzeville” should be applied to all areas in American cities where African Americans live collectively. I agree.

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