Introducing Student Researcher Nakia Robinson: My Journey to the Bronzeville Neighborhood Research Project

My name is Nakia Robinson, I am a graduate student in the Master’s Degree Program in Inner City Studies at Northeastern Illinois University. I was born in Washington Park; reared in Burnside; lived in Marquette Park, Englewood, Woodlawn, South Shore, and Logan Square. I currently reside in Beverly and am preparing to move to Chatham.

In 1999, I graduated from Olive-Harvey College and after five years of exploring different educational programs, I enrolled as an undergrad at the Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies. I must say, it was magic! After leaving Olive Harvey, I found what I had been looking for in my mind and soul. From the staff to the faculty to my classmates I was able to fully experience a welcoming family environment of learning. I entered into grad school this past Fall happy and ready for the challenge. I am so pleased that I am experiencing this now.  I am not only ready academically but I am mature enough to appreciate the experience and to receive not only the instruction but the lessons from this program.

So here I am, a graduate student in the Jacob Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies and now a part of the Bronzeville Neighborhood Research Project. Although I have never lived in Bronzeville, I do have family that lived in Bronzeville during the  1920s, not to mention my monthly trips to the One Stop grocery store growing up.

My contribution to this exciting project will entail exploring the Hansberry v. Lee case about restrictive covenants in Chicago housing–the Hansberry in the case is Lorraine Hansberry’s father Carl Hansberry, who enlisted Earl Dickerson, the famed Black lawyer and future president of the Supreme Life Insurance Company (the Af-Am insurance comp on 35th and King Drive) to fight all the way to the Supreme Court to end the restrictive covenants in Chicago that denied Black people a right to purchase property.  Analyzing this case is important because it centers around the historic Bronzeville community in Chicago.

It is my intent while a part of this project, to present any information found on this great community as exciting and moving as other great Black Meccas such as Harlem. I want to show that this community was the land of Oz to Black southerners leaving the south. Once here my fore-parents literally made lemonade out of lemons, or in many instances, from lemon seeds. If you want to understand Black American culture, studying this incredible great northern metropolis is definitely a place to start. I plan to use my position in this group to entertain, instruct and inspire, which I have learned on my educational journey to being a member of the Bronzeville Neighborhood Research Project.

Nakia D. Robinson                                                                                       CCICS Graduate Student                                                                             Class of 2013

Coming Next Week: A brief history on my research topic………stay tuned……BE INSPIRED!

Martin Luther King Jr. In Bronzeville/Chicago

We’ve all probably heard of  Martin Luther King Jr’s historic visit to Chicago, but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge his legacy and contribution to our local history during our celebrations of what would be his 84th birthday.  In 1965, King was invited by local civil rights activists in Chicago to assist in the campaign against the city’s segregated public school system. Segregationist redlining in Chicago gave rise to overcrowded African-American schools (in some cases 40 and 50 to a classroom) which prompted local activists like Al Raby to lead the charge against CPS school superintendent Benjamin Willis. The movement of local residents against the injustices of the public school system would become known as the Chicago Freedom Movement, which featured a collective of local and national civil rights figures, including King. In addition to joining the effort to end school segregation in Chicago, King also joined local efforts to stand up against housing segregation. As part of his 1966 campaign to bring attention to the racial disparity that existed in Chicago housing, King resided in North Lawndale (1550 S. Hamlin). The violent opposition from whites during King’s marches in the city would lead  to one of his most famous local quotes that Chicago was one of the most hostile segregated cities in the North (my mother still quotes King on this today).

During each of his visits to the city, King made Bronzeville’s  Liberty Baptist Church (4849 S. King Drive) his headquarters for meetings and rallies. According to David Garrow in Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Liberty Baptist Church would also be the place where the differences between King and the local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) would come to a head. During his August 1966 speech at Liberty, King was confronted by SNCC members for calling off a scheduled march on Chicago’s infamously racist  Cicero neighborhood in exchange for an agreement from Mayor Richard J. Daley to make the city’s housing more equitable for African-American residents. After being heckled with cries from the audience for “Black Power”, King allowed SNCC Chicago chapter president Monore Sharp to speak. Sharp proceeded to take the podium, openly criticizing King’s agreement with Daley as well as his overall leadership in the movement. King responded to Sharp’s criticisms with an impassioned speech that warned the audience “Whenever Pharaoh wanted to keep the slaves in slavery, he kept them fighting among themselves”. Despite his efforts to quell the growing apathy of young movement participants, the confrontation between King and SNCC at Bronzeville’s Liberty Baptist Church would reflect a rising youth consciousness that would later be known as the Black Power Movement.

As time would quickly tell, Daley did not honor his agreement of open housing in the city which prompted King to return to Liberty Baptist Church in March of 1967 to lambaste the Daley Administration. King was also scheduled to speak at Liberty in April 1968, but his assassination that same month in Memphis, Tennessee will leave us all wondering what he would have said when he returned to Chicago.

On a personal note, I took the time this past January to ask my mother and older sister about their memories of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Chicago. During the 1960s my grandparents owned and operated a neighborhood bar on 51st and Indiana called The Club Alabam. My Mom managed the bar and told me that one day she saw a car stop out in front of H&H’s Soul Food Restaurant across the street and as the men exited the car onto the sidewalk she spotted Martin Luther King Jr. “The whole bar filed out onto 51st street to meet him.” she recalled,  “He was very nice to everyone, shaking hands and holding conversations”. My mother also recalled being at the Club Alabam when she first heard about King’s assassination: “One of our regulars came running in the door hollering ‘Helen, turn to the news, they shot Martin Luther King'”. She told me that the family stayed in the bar all night to make sure the angry masses of the city wouldn’t bust out the bar’s windows, or burn it down.

Along the same lines, my sister (who would have been 8 or 9  years old at the time) remembers a day when she noticed a distinguished looking man come into my grandfather’s barber shop (next to the Club Alabam on 51st) and chat with both my grandparents before going over to H&H’s. When she asked who he was my grandmother told her  “That was Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., he’s visiting Chicago to help the black people up here”. My grandmother’s love for Martin Luther King Jr. would prove true to her very last day. After an evening of watching the news footage and celebrations of Martin Luther King’s legacy, my grandmother passed on the 2010 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. “He was always one of my favorites” was one of the last things she said.

As I watched the local programming of this year’s Martin Luther King holiday, I was a bit baffled as I recalled that I never learned the history of King in Chicago in any classroom of any school I attended. I even sat in the choir rows of Liberty Baptist Church during my 8th grade graduation and never knew that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there until I was a young adult. Our local histories are so critical to help us understand who we are in the larger context of things. For that reason, I am calling for all readers who have memories of King’s visit to Chicago to please share them with us in the comments section. I am also calling for our young readers to interview the elders in your family and community and write about their memories of King in Chicago. Our local memories are too important to let fade away.

Coming This Week: Meet Our Student Researchers…Stay Tuned!


Becker, Lynn “Modern Struggles, Modern Design: Dr. King and the Story of Liberty Babpist Church”

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Harper Perennial Press, 1999.

Sutherland History recounted…

When the Sutherland Community Arts Initiative (SCAI) was incorporated it’s purpose was exclusively for cultural and educational purposes.  The mission of SCAI was to preserve, propagate and advance African-American Art forms and culture through the performance, education and exhibition.  SCAI’s mission was forwarded through the following objectives:

  • To Create educational opportunities for students, artists/teachers via workshops and residences.
  • To offer to the youth of our community positive role models and lifestyles through mentoring and internship experiences
  • To network with other community and arts organizations.
  • To identify and research positive cultural and behavioral patterns based on historical parameters.

The Sutherland, located on the corner of 47th & Drexel in Bronzeville, has a history of service to its community.  Built in 1917, its first function was as a military hospital for veterans of World War I.  A few years later, when it was converted to the elegant Hotel Sutherland, it was known as a popular gathering place for neighborhood residents and the home of Jazz great, Louis Armstrong.

The most notable era in the Sutherland’s history was during the early 1950’s and 60’s when the Sutherland Show Lounge operated in the space adjacent to the hotel.  The Show Lounge was made famous by its grandeur and its ability to attact national talent.  The club was further distinguished by its status as a “black and tan” establishment, where black and white folks sat together, enjoying some great Jazz.  According to experts, any black musician of importance in the modern era lived or played at the Sutherland.  Jazz greats such as Dizzy, Miles, Coltrane and Nancy Wilson played or hung out at the Sutherland.

Zora Neale Hurston in Bronzeville/Chicago


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Zora Neale Hurston: anthropologist, folklorist, author: Dear Ms. Hurston, can I have that hat?

In honor of Zora Neale Hurston’s birthday (January 7, 1891), I thought I would share a little information about her connection to Chicago. In October 1935, just after her success with her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Zora Neale Hurston was invited to Chicago to do a two-day production of the African-American work song performances that she had been organizing in New York. Hurston drove to Chicago, stopping in Tenneseee to visit Fisk University where she was offered a faculty position by the school’s president, Thomas Jones. When she arrived to Chicago, Hurston stayed at the South Parkway YWCA in Bronzeville (4559 S. Parkway, today’s 45th and King Drive) and began searching for local performers to be in her production. During her stay, she made the acquaintance of another young black woman anthropologist and dancer, Katherine Dunham, who loaned Hurston her dance studio as a rehersal space for the production. Not long after Hurston arrived to Chicago,she ran into writer Carl Van Vechten who asked her to be part of a photoraphy project he was working on that documented contemporary artists and intellectuals. These photographs would go on to be the iconic images of Hurston that we are familiar with today (including the one that accompanies this post).

In late November of 1935, Hurston presented her two-day performance of African-American work songs entitled Singing Steel, which was a combination of the Great Day and From Sun to Sun productions she did in New York. The production received mainly positive reviews and sparked the attention of officials from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation. After the success of her production, the Rosenwald Foundation offered Hurston funding to pursue her doctoral studies at Columbia University in Harlem, New York. For a moment, she was torn between pursuing a PhD in New York or staying in the Chicago area to attend Northwestern University and work with anthropologist Melville Herskovitz. She eventually chose to return to New York, however Hurston wouldn’t complete her doctoral studies (according to her biographers, this was due to the fickle nature of her funding). Instead she continued her pursuits as a novelist and went on to write Their Eyes Were Watching God, her most famous work. Zora Neale Hurston’s contributions to African-American literary arts and folklore have laid the groundwork for much of the research on African-American culture that we still study today. Just imagine, in 1935 you could have seen a live performance of her ethnographic research in Chicago. Or better yet, you could have been strolling the streets of Bronzeville and ran into her and that fabulous hat!

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner Press. 2004.

Video of Zora Neale Hurston singing a work song she collected during her ethnographic field work.


Introducing Professor Arlene Crawford: The Sutherland Community Arts Initiative

As a member of this research project I want to share a little of my part in Bronzeville’s hidden history. I was a founding member of the Sutherland Community Arts Initiative. SCAI was the brain child of 4 creative residents of the Sutherland Apartments, located on the corner of 47th & Drexel.  Malachi Thompson (musician, composer, band leader, writer) Esete Ray (photographer), Rita Warford (jazz vocalist and musician) and myself, Arlene Turner-Crawford (visual artist) were the initial crew.  SCAI’s mission was to preserve, propagate and advance African American art forms and culture through performance, education and exhibition.

The founding members of SCAI believed that there existed a strong link between education, arts and culture. That the sounds, images and ideas that African-American artists create are concerned with preserving a heritage and tradition, while at the same time these creative efforts reflect and project our everyday realities. We  also believed that when a people feel good about the contributions they make to society, they feel good about themselves.  SCAI proposed to use the Arts to establish an ethical attitude towards human existence grounded in time-honored tradition, not just limited to the art world, but to be utilized by the greater community to help develop community pride, cultural tourism and economic growth.

I hope to expand further on this history with this project as well as, assist the participants in creating some more Bronzeville cultural history.

What’s Your Bronzeville Story?

Above: Aaron Johnson and Virginia Franklin Johnson, my grandparents, in their shoe shop in Bronzeville. (The image is from my poetry chapbook, mississippi revolutions)

I was born and raised in Bronzeville. I came of age during  the time when it was still referred to as the Low End for being located in the lower numbers of streets on the South Side. I grew up on 36th and Calumet in the house my grandparents bought when they migrated to Chicago from Aberdeen, Mississippi (thanks to my folks’ strong belief in keeping up family property, I  live in that same house today). My grandparents arrived to Chicago in 1946 by way of my grandmother’s uncle, Uncle Bliney, who told them fantastic stories of opportunity for black people in Chicago. On the night they arrived, my grandparents parked in front of the DuSable Hotel on Oakwood and Cottage Grove (ironically just a few steps from where I teach today at the Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies) and rented a room, leaving all of their belongings and wedding gifts locked in the trunk. The next morning they came out to the car and everything was gone. My grandfather was a wreck because he had also left an envelope filled with their entire savings in the trunk. As he was working up the nerve to tell my grandmother that they were penniless, she took the envelope out of her dress pocket and wryly asked “Now aren’t you glad you have a smart wife?”. “That was our welcome to Chicago.” my grandmother would always say, “I learned that Chicago was a den of lock-picking city slickers and your grandfather learned there’s nothing like having a smart wife!”.

Growing up in Bronzeville, I spent many a morning running for the 3 King Drive bus and many an evening looking up at the clock on the Supreme Life Insurance Building praying that I could make it by the time my Mama told me to be home. Each day after school I would spend a few hours at the Martin Luther King Branch Library (if my Mom didn’t take me to the Cleveland Hall Branch on 48th and Michigan) and then pick up a few Blow Pops and Chick-o-Sticks  from the infamous Alco Drug Store on 35th. My most treasured memories of growing up in Bronzeville revolve around the historic Bud Billiken Day Parade which started then at 35th and King Drive and ended in Washington Park. I spent my first parade on my Uncle Lee’s shoulders amid a sea of glistening Afros and Black Power picks. As I got older, I wasn’t satisfied at the parade until I saw the Marshall Lindsey Dance Troupe strut down King Drive (Mr. Lindsey really knew how to make pure magic with dance steps and batons) and the glorious South Shore Drill Team (which I still enjoy today at the parade). My favorite part of the parade has also been watching my Uncle Stoney Burke ride as a Buffalo Soldier with the Buffalo Soldiers 9th and 10th Calvaries’ Chicago Chapter.

It wasn’t until college that I began to learn about the rich history of the Bronzeville neighborhood. Even though I spent all of my life in Bronzeville, the topic of its history never came up in any of my classes in elementary or high school. In 1996, I returned to Bronzeville after completing a joint BA/MA degree in anthropology and social science at the University of Chicago. The neighborhood was undergoing a revival of sorts, with new public art being installed along King Drive and a beautiful bronze map placed on 35th. As a young teacher of both high school and college students, I made it my business then to teach the history of Bronzeville and continue to do so today. I developed the idea of the Bronzeville Neighborhood Research Project at the Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies to introduce the fascinating history of Bronzeville to my students and to share our research with communities throughout the city (and cyberspace).

Zada Johnson, PhD
Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies
Northeastern Illinois University

That’s My Bronzeville Story…Leave a Message in Comments and Tell Us Yours!

Coming Next Week: Meet Our Researchers-The Who’s Who of The Bronzeville Neighborhood Research Project (Sign Up for an Email Alert by clicking Follow Blog Via Email on the lower left hand side of this page)

2012 is the Year of Learning More about Bronzeville and Black Chicago!

Nearly 100 years ago, African-American women and men across the United States South migrated to Northern cities in search of a better life and opportunities for themselves and their families. Many were fleeing the oppression and terror of Southern white supremacy. Many had to sneak away from their sharecropping lives and arrived to the North with little more than the clothes on their backs. When they arrived to Chicago, African-American migrants erected a bustling black city within the city known as Bronzeville. In its heyday, Bronzeville was the cornerstone of African-American entrepreneurship, literature, culture and entertainment.The historic neighborhood hosted scores of African-American owned businesses: banks, insurance companies, newspapers, night clubs  and specialty shops. The social and political consciousness of historic Bronzeville helped to establish the groundwork for the ideologies that would fuel the Civil Rights/Black Power Movements. With its great history and culture it is difficult to understand why much of the history of Bronzeville remains unknown and largely untaught in Chicago’s schools.

To raise the awareness and consciousness of Bronzeville history and culture, the Bronzeville Neighborhood Research Project at the Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies declares 2012 the year of learning about Bronzeville and Black Chicago. The student and faculty researchers of the Bronzeville Neighborhood Research Project will spend this year collecting and documenting the rich history and culture of Bronzeville and Black Chicago. Our activities will include research seminars, family history  workshops, cultural events, neighborhood tours with the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center and visits to the DuSable Museum, the Bronzeville Historical Society and the African-American History Foundation in Springfield, Illinois. We will also visit our local libraries and archives including the Vivian Harsh Collection at the Carter G. Woodson Library. Follow us through this blog as we embark on an adventure of discovering and documenting the great hidden histories of the Bronzeville community. 2012 is the year of learning more about Bronzeville and Black Chicago. Learn your history…you owe it to yourself!

Welcome to the Bronzeville Neighborhood Research Project Blog

The Bronzeville Neighborhood Research Project is a community of student and faculty researchers at Northeastern Illinois University’s Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies. Our blog will chronicle our research, experiences and thoughts as we explore the fascinating people, places and cultural institutions of Black Chicago. Join us as we embark on an adventure of discovering the hidden histories of the Bronzeville community. (pictured at left:Northeastern Illinois University’s Jacob Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies located in Bronzeville at 700 E. Oawood Boulevard)