A black-owned newspaper called the Chicago Defender helped to inspire many of them. In a series of articles over several years, the Defender and its publisher, Robert Abbott – who had himself come to Chicago from Georgia – championed the North as a “land of hope” where African Americans could pursue a better life.
By 1920, 50,000 black migrants had arrived in Chicago. But while Chicago did offer opportunity, the American dream remained segregated here in 1920. African Americans were limited to living, shopping, and attending church in a small area of the South Side called “the Black Belt” that initially stretched along South State Street from 22nd Street to 31st Street.
The growing black population needed goods and services denied to them in other parts of the city, and from this need emerged a great “Black Metropolis” – a thriving center of black art, culture, and commerce that was ultimately called “Bronzeville” to reflect the color of its inhabitants’ skin.
With retail stores, restaurants, theaters, nightclubs, and the first black-owned insurance company in the North, Bronzeville reigned as the place to be for black Chicago.
At the Regal Theater on 47th Street, notable entertainers such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington performed frequently, and Nat “King” Cole got his start. Other notable Bronzeville residents included boxer Jack Johnson, gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, the writer Gwendolyn Brooks, and many others.
Just as the need for goods and services helped spur a thriving retail and arts district, the need for access to medical care (and a place for black physicians and nurses to practice) inspired black surgeon Dr. Daniel Hale Williams to open Provident Hospital on 51st Street in 1891. A few years later, Williams performed the nation’s first successful open heart surgery at Provident.
Before the Great Migration and the nickname Bronzeville, the area was known simply as Douglas, named for U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who had developed the area (and famously debated Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln-Douglas debates).
During the Civil war, Camp Douglas, a Union training and prison camp on the site of Douglas’ former estate, once held 10,000 Confederate prisoners at a time (up to 26,000 were held there over the course of the war). Many died there; an estimated 4,200 Confederate soldiers are buried in a mass grave at nearby Oak Woods Cemetery, the largest known mass grave in the Western Hemisphere.
Today, Bronzeville is experiencing renewed energy and development, with an emphasis on the arts and a respect for the rich cultural legacy that Bronzeville has brought to Chicago as a whole.