A look at the Black history that fills Chicago

Black History Month

CHICAGO — If the walls of Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church could talk, they would tell you of the stories of Ida B. Wells Barnett, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others who’ve spoken here.

The Rev. James Moody said Quinn Chapel was a protest from the very beginning, which dates back to the 1840s.

Quinn Chapel became the first Black church established in Chicago. At one of its former locations, what’s now the site of the Monadnock building downtown, the church served as a stop on the Underground Railroad — guiding the enslaved to freedom.

Members like Emma Atkinson helped launch the abolitionist movement in Illinois.

“Quinn Chapel was not only a stop. It was a place for food, gathering, information, as people were passed on to the next stop,” Moody said.

In 1891, the building went up at 24th Street and Wabash Avenue. The Rev. John T. Jenifer passed as white to buy the land and deeded it over to the church.

Moody is now leading a multi-million dollar restoration project.

“The existence of Quinn Chapel is a statement of the independence, ingenuity, faith, the hard work and commitment of African Americans in the City of Chicago,” he said.

The same year the church was built, Provident hospital was established by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams in the Douglas neighborhood. He performed the world’s first successful open heart surgery and the hospital was a much-needed training ground for Black doctors and nurses.

“He opened Provident hospital because he saw a need that patients could not get admitted were turned away from other hospitals and our doctors could not get privileges to take care of patients in the hospital,” Dr. Claudia Fegan, chief medical officer at Cook County Health, said.

The hospital was later taken over by Cook County Health when it moved to 51st Street in the 1930s.

Dr. Carol Adams president and CEO of Urban Prescriptives said the history surrounds us.

“Chicago is the centerpiece of Black America and some say the centerpiece of the Black world,” Adams said.

Black writers, artists, musicians, and politicians were all drawn to Bronzeville — a magnet for Black culture.

Just heading down what’s now King Drive at 36th Street, the home of courageous journalist Ida B Wells. She led a crusade against lynching.

She felt that the work she was doing was important enough to put her fear aside.

Near 41st Street once lived trailblazing pilot Bessie Coleman.

“She couldn’t get into any flight school in the City of Chicago and so she went to France. How’s that for claiming your destiny,” Adams said.

A few blocks south of there  was home to Chicago’s first Black alderman. Oscar Stanton De Priest went on to serve in Congress.

Legendary musician Louis Armstrong lived right off King Drive on 44th Street.

In Lawndale, the site where Dr. Martin Luther King stayed with his family in 1966 is now the King Legacy Apartments.

Civil rights activist Andrew Young remembers his time living with King at 16th and Hamlin.

Also on the West Side near Monroe and Western avenues is where police murdered a sleeping Fred Hampton in a hail of bullets. His family is working to save the house in Maywood where he grew up. 

“The things the Black Panther party addressed back in the 1960s, it’s still relevant now,” Fred Hampton Jr. said.

Last summer, protests erupted across the nation after the death of George Floyd.

In the summer of 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched while visiting relatives in Mississippi.

His home was on 64th Street and St. Lawrence in Woodlawn.

“I woke up one day and realized that just a few blocks down the street from where i was sleeping there was a story. that was my story. (emotional long pause) that was my story. and the story of millions of us that have passed through,” Naomi Davis, founder and CEO of Blacks in Green, said.

Davis’ non-profit Blacks in Green bought the building that was just designated a Chicago landmark, and they’re making no little plans.

They are raising money for a museum, community theater and garden dedicated to Emmett and his mother and the legacy of the great migration.

“It’s our duty and it’s our joy to share the story forward of the courage and the destiny,” Davis said.

Past and present. The city alive with reminders of shared heartbreak and triumph and ongoing struggle.

“It’s overcoming in spite of, its knowing you have obstacles and still moving forward,” Adams said.

Honoring Black History Month this month and beyond.

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