Remembering ‘Mama Gerri’ Oliver & Chicago’s legendary Palm Tavern

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CHICAGO — There’s an empty lot near the corner of Martin Luther King Drive and 47th Street in Chicago’s historic Bronzeville neighborhood. It’s been vacant for nearly two decades since the culturally significant Palm Tavern was torn down in the name of progress and urban renewal.  

Longtime owner Gerri Oliver, a Bronzeville icon, died last December at the age of 101.  

“I felt it was just such a travesty the way the Palm Tavern was closed, and she left without any commemoration, without any celebration — the Palm Tavern should have had monumental status,” said Grammy-nominated blues musician Billy Branch, who wrote a song to commemorate the longtime owner and legendary nightspot, “Going to see Miss Gerri one more time.”

The Palm Tavern opened in 1933. Prohibition had just ended.

“It was the first tavern on the street, first place on the street that could legitimately sell liquor,” said Timuel Black, a prominent Chicago historian.  

“Genial” Jim Knight — the honorary mayor of Bronzeville — was the first owner. He named the spot after the palm trees of an African desert oasis.  Oliver took over for Knight and ran the Palm Tavern for nearly 50 years.  

The famed Regal Theatre was right across the street, and after shows there, the likes of Miles Davis, Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn and Duke Ellington all would visit.   

“Dizzy Gillespie was just like my buddy, yeah, we were very good friends when he would appear in Chicago, this is where he would go to hang out,” Oliver told WGN’s Mike Lowe back in 2001.  “I would go to wherever he was selling his records. Dizzy Gillespie, and I were buddies.” 

To performers and patrons alike, Oliver became known as “Mama Gerri” — a nickname of both authority and affection.  

Musician and playwright Fernando Jones staged his play “I was there when the blues was red hot,” and through almost 300 performances – kept the doors open at the Palm Tavern for its last three years.   

“I asked, ‘how did you survive down here so long?” She looked me in the eye and said — and this is her exact quote — ‘I got my bluff in first,’” Jones said.  

Her tough reputation allowed her to survive — as a single woman — running a business in what became a tough part of town.  

Her words from 2001 sound like a warning about what happens when we don’t actively protect cultural landmarks: “The Palm Tavern is the last of the era, up until now. If they destroy this, there will be no connection to what used to be, because there will be nothing for you to connect it with. Out of sight, out of mind,” Oliver said.  

Now it’s just an empty lot.  

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