Bronzeville Memorialized


In the fall of 2009, two marble obelisks were placed at 35th and South State streets to commemorate the African American migrants who gave an identity to Bronzeville and attract tourists to the area.

The obelisks will give people information concerning the rich heritage of the Black Americans who migrated to Chicago from the South in 1900 and the following years.

The first waves of migrants were instrumental in creating a viable, welcoming community for the thousands of others who relocated from the South to Chicago’s South Side during what came to be called the Great Migration.

The first two obelisks were strategically placed to mark one area called the Gateway, which was the entry point into the part of the city known alternately as the Black Belt and Bronzeville. The boundaries were Federal Street on the west, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on the east, 29th Street to the north and 39th Street on the south.

On this occasion, the Bronzeville Merchants Association placed into concrete the first of 10 monuments known as the Obelisk Project.

The project was founded in 2001 by William and Esther Barnett, members of the association.

It was funded by a $100,000 state grant sponsored by two deceased state legislators, Sen. Margaret Smith and Rep. Lovana “Lou” Jones. The Bronzeville Merchants Association was founded in 1976 and was once known as the 35th Street Business Organization.

They changed their name to the Bronzeville Merchants Association in 1999.

The obelisks describe those who created the city within a city, the inventors, professionals, doctors, lawyers, nurses, clergymen, teachers, musicians, singers, comedians, club owners and even the bell hops, shop keepers and publishers.

“Everything happened within the walls of the Black Belt because it could not happen for us anywhere else,” said Esther Barnett.

“The knowledge of this time and the Obelisk Project is something our youth need to know about their ancestry and heritage, because these people lived through the Great Depression and they not only sacrificed, but also used their skills and education and abilities so that we have a community and can live like we do today.

“The project is not finished,” she continued. “However, we are working hard to secure the needed funding so that it can all come together.”

What They Brought

“THE GREAT MIGRATION … And What They Brought With Them” was the title of an opening exhibit in 2009 at the Hotel Florence, 11111 S. Cottage Grove Ave. on the Pullman State Historic Site. This historical exhibition shed light on hidden facts about the African American community.

In recent years, there has been little effort to gauge the full impact the Great Migration had on Northern cities. The artifacts and household utensils provided an interesting view on how these things got here to Chicago.

Potbelly stoves, hand-cranked ice cream freezers, hand-made quilts, filigreed glass dishes and handmade clay cookie jars were all on display as well as an old rocking chair like the one grandpop sat in and told stories from. Other authentic, life-supporting items on display took me back to visits to grandmother’s house and Sunday dinner.

A most important part of the exhibit was a hand-made quilt with images that are based on photos of many ex-slaves who traveled north. The quilt was made by one of their descendents and is on loan to the museum. Copies of documents at the exhibit showed just how difficult the conditions must have been for the migrants.

One of the highlights of the day took place in the assembly room as we listened to noted historian Christopher Reed spell out a vast array of information on topics not generally known.

Who knew that the former slaves and their families had cash money to bring with them?

This astonishing bit of history has been on the down-low.

Reed also revealed some of the reasons why former slaves and families came north. Millions of African Americans decided that their hopes for full citizenship lay in the Northern cities, Reed said.

Traditionally, they sought freedom from white control through land ownership, moving anywhere that whites did not restrict their actions and rights.

However, African American farmers who were at the mercy of white-owned banks and businesses were already on the edge of subsistence and found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

Many were forced to sell their farms at discounted prices in order to pay their debts. This is where some of their money came from.

“And even then, many travelers who had cash money on them when they traveled by train were robbed by whites right at the train stations,” Reed said.

It happened so often, he added, that those who would travel with a lot of money started to get on the trains after they left the stations or before they arrived at the station in order to avoid being robbed.

It was soon after Reconstruction ended that whites created their own segregated social order determined by a strict set of racial protocols based on the subservience of African Americans to whites at all times.

If one over-stepped social boundaries, they often faced a violent backlash. Whites used lynching to “punish” African Americans, a practice which made millions leave the South, according to Reed.

Despite all of the above, the migrants brought with them BINGA, an African term that means ‘go-getters,’ people with the spirit of getting the job done.

They also brought a desire to reconnect with relatives who were already here. Church members re-connected with other migrants in Northern churches, and they formed many generational links in developing businesses and state-hood clubs to welcome and greet new arrivals.

Many of the clubs are still in existence today.

The Great Migration brought with it blues, jazz, art, crafts and Binga. The Northern radio gave national access to the migrants’ music, making a huge impact on American culture.

At the end of the session, historian Patricia Beardon described the individuals in the images on the one-of-a-kind Black Migration Heritage Quilt. Reed and Bearden were joined by Sherry Williams of the Black Chicago Historical Society.

Reed stirred up images of the Great Migration as it happened, from the horrors of robbery and lynching to the beauty of Binga, jazz, blues, art and reconnected families.

The whole event left their guests feeling that the opening had gone well and that everyone had taken part in a piece of the historical action.

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