Haters and headlines have a lot to say about the South Side of Chicago, but they don’t tell the whole story. The South Side is one of the most culturally rich African-American enclaves in the United States: a place that has molded cultural icons like Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, and Common, as well as movers and shakers like the country’s first black president and First Lady, where residents have manifested black excellence in the faces of racism, neglect, and vice for generations. If you don’t know the story of the South Side, then you don’t know true the story of Chicago — or black America.
Chicago is one of the most notoriously segregated cities in the U.S., which makes its roots pretty ironic. Black pioneer Jean Pointe Du Sable, a handsome and enterprising man historical documents indicate had extraordinary swag, is recognized as the founder of Chicago. His role as city founder was downplayed for decades, like the achievements of countless other black folk. The site where he set up a trading post and farm helped put Chicago on the map — but today, the area is mostly white and affluent.
There wasn’t much of a black community in Chicago until Freedmen and fugitive slaves established one in the 1840s. They were interspersed among the white population in and around Downtown but tended to live south of the Chicago River and would eventually move (or be pushed) further and further South. The Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church in Bronzeville on the South Side, founded in 1844, is the oldest African American congregation in Chicago and was active in the anti-slavery movement.
Chicago is the home of many firsts when it comes to black people excelling in politics. That legacy starts in 1871 with a wealthy Downtown tailor named John Jones. He became the first black person to hold elected office in Illinois, serving on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Jones and his wife Mary were both active in the abolitionist movement, and before emancipation, their home doubled as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed Quinn Chapel’s South Loop church. Another devastating Chicago fire would impact the small black community just south of the Loop. The area had been home to the biggest segment of the city’s black population; many moved further south to less populated regions. There, black institutions and trailblazers continued to thrive.
John W.E. Thomas was elected as the first black Illinois state representative in 1876. In 1878, attorney Ferdinand L. Barnett founded Chicago’s first black newspaper, the Conservator, a radical journal focused on civil rights and justice. (Barack and Michelle may be the most well-known power couple to link up on the South Side — but Barnett and Ida B. Wells were an activist tour de force in the late 19th century. The house where the couple lived still stands along a grassy boulevard in Bronzeville, fittingly on King Drive.) Surgeon and cardiac surgery pioneer Daniel Hale Williams founded Provident Hospital on the South Side at 29th Street and Dearborn, in Bronzeville. It was the first hospital in America owned and operated by African Americans. The same year that Provident was born, Quinn Chapel AME Church was reborn at its current location in Bronzeville.
By 1910, nearly 80 percent of black people in Chicago lived in a chain of South Side neighborhoods known as the Black Belt. But as more black people migrated to the city from the south, the Black Belt would expand, and black people, though met with racist violence and discrimination, began to spill over into nearby white neighborhoods (which quickly became black neighborhoods as whites fled).
The Great Migration transformed the South Side for years to come: Between 1915 and 1970, more than 500,000 African Americans left the South and settled in Chicago. to escape Jim Crow, lynchings, and for industrial jobs.
The black-owned Chicago Defender newspaper, founded in 1905 by Robert Sengstacke Abbott, was influential in luring black southern migrants to Chicago. In fact, according to the Chicago Historical society: “Most southern migrants got their first glimpse of life in Chicago in the pages of the Defender, glimpses that made the city a striking symbol of the migration even for those moving elsewhere.” As the city’s black population increased, churches, businesses, and community organizations sprang up to accommodate the new Chicagoans. The Great Migration contributed to a boom in the Bronzeville neighborhood, which earned the moniker, “The Black Metropolis.” In 1908. Entrepreneur Jesse Binga founded the first black owned bank, transforming the area around 35th and State Streets into the South Side’s “Wall Street.”
With the southern exodus came the tunes and rhythms that made Chicago a powerhouse of American music at the height of the Jazz age and beyond. Louise Armstrong had followed his mentor King Oliver to the Windy City in 1922, where he played with Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and emerged as one of Jazz’s biggest legends.
The influx of black people also shifted the political landscape. In 1929, Oscar DePriest was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the first black congressman out of Illinois. One of his proteges was politician William L. Dawson, who was elected to Congress in 1942.
Most people know of the Harlem Renaissance. But the Black Chicago Renaissance deserves serious props as well. From the 1930s to 1950s, there was an explosion of black arts coming out of the South Side.
In 1940, writer Richard Wright published Native Son. Wright was also the founder of the South Side Writers Group, whose membership included Arna Bontemps and Margaret Walker. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks is another icon to emerge from the movement. She wasted no time claiming her greatness: In 1941 she attended a poetry class at the South Side Community Art Center; by 1950 she had won the Pulitzer Prize for her book Annie Allen.
Chicagoan Thomas Dorsey was known as the “Father of Gospel Music.” He wrote more than 400 songs that the Chicago Historical Society says “revitalized black religious music” with a distinctly urban sound. But those songs wouldn’t have reached as many ears — or sounded so sweet — without the voice of Mahalia Jackson, a contralto who came to Chicago in 1927 and had sold millions of records by 1945.
In 1945, one of the most iconic black brands ever, Ebony, was founded in Chicago by black publisher John Johnson. Johnson then launched newsweekly magazine Jet in 1951. The murder of 14-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till in 1955 is seen as one of the catalysts for the Civil Rights Movement. Jet’s photos of Till’s brutalized body at his open-casket funeral helped bring attention and outrage to the perils of the Jim Crow South.
Chicago was very active during the Civil Rights Movement, and was the base for one of the last campaigns led by Martin Luther King Jr, the Chicago Freedom Movement (also known as the Chicago Open Housing Movement). King’s organizing was focused on the West Side, but King led a march through the Marquette neighborhood on the Southwest Side, and South Side residents and institutions were active in the movement.
The Coordinating Council of Community Organizations that partnered with King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council to start the Chicago Freedom Movement was headquartered at 366 E. 47th St. The council was first convened by South Side native Al Raby, a teacher who grew up in the Woodlawn neighborhood and served as co-chairman of the movement. The Chicago Urban League, based at 4500 S. Michigan Ave., hosted many important strategy sessions. New Friendship Baptist Church in the Englewood neighborhood became the South Side Action Center of the Chicago Freedom Movement, and its Reverend William Lambert was the leader of the Clergy Alliance of Chicago, which supported selective buying campaigns for black people.
Lambert also supported the development of Operation Breadbasket in Chicago, an organization focused on improving employment opportunities and economic prospects for black Americans. Operation Breadbasket had meetings at Fellowship Baptist Church, whose associate pastor was none other than a young Jesse Jackson, then a top aide of King’s charged with overseeing the organization, who rose to prominence and ran (unsuccessfully) for president in the 1980s.
Former door-to-door cosmetics salesman George Johnson founded Johnson Products Company in 1954 and made hair products for African Americans out of a South Side plant. His business would become one of the biggest black-owned manufacturing companies and was behind the “Afro Sheen” line of products, which Johnson created in response the newfound popularity of Afros during the Civil Rights Movement.
On April 12, 1983, Harold Washington became the first black mayor of Chicago. He left a powerful legacy and example for other black politicians. On November 3, 1992, another South Side native, Carol Moseley Braun became the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. Barack Obama, who came to Chicago as a young community organizer on the South Side in the 1980s, credited Moseley-Braun’s historic win for providing an example that helped him chart a path so he could eventually win her former senate seat.
In 2008, Obama, who still calls the South Side home, became the nation’s first black president. In 2016, the Barack Obama Foundation announced the Obama Presidential Center would be coming to Woodlawn’s Jackson Park. The news has spurred pride and hope among the black citizens of the South Side, just as Obama’s presidency did.
It would be smart to bet on the South Side continuing to churn out trailblazing black political leaders — maybe even the next black president. (Yes, we’re looking at you, Michelle.)
Today, the South Side faces serious issues like many other black urban communities around America. But the community is still steeped in a rich history. And it’s full of people set on continuing a tradition of excellence against all odds, just like the city’s first ambitious black settlers.
The real heroes are the people and families who fight for survival and excellence on the South Side day in and day out. That’s why The Chi is such an important story to tell. It’s a slice of reality — sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly — in a world full of misconceptions and distortions about the black community. Tune in to The Chi, Sundays at 10 PM ET/PT, on SHOWTIME to see their truth. And watch what you say about the South Side.
Adeshina Emmanuel is a Chicago-based writer. Follow him @public_ade