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Remembering 47th Street

Ella Fitzgerald played there often. So did Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong and countless others. They played in legendary clubs like Chez Paree, the Parkway Ballroom, Gerri's Palm Tavern, and the Regal Theatre located on or around 47th Street, during the heyday of Chicago's Bronzeville community on the South Side. By day, 47th Street was a vibrant commercial district; at sundown it was transformed into a throbbing center of nightlife.

By 1920, more than 50,000 rural Southern blacks had migrated to Chicago to escape the cotton fields and the threat of lynchings, but they soon found that segregation left people without some simple comforts, such as places to shop and eat. Gerri Oliver, owner of The Palm Tavern, remembers, "You couldn't try on shoes downtown. You couldn't try on hats and coats downtown." Dempsey Travis concurs: "There was a five and ten cent store at Washington and State where they'd give you a glass of Coca-Cola with a red bottom, to make sure no white folks would ever drink after a Negro." Thus, out of necessity, 47th Street, or Bronzeville, began to prosper, and became a source of pride and a haven for Chicago's blacks. After all, "[there was no point in] going down to Henry C. Litton's to be insulted when you could buy the same Hart, Shaffner & Marx suit from 47th Street," recalls historian Timuel Black. Ironically, the majority of Bronzeville's businesses were managed by blacks, but owned by whites.

Among the many exclusive shops, upscale restaurants and other businesses flourishing in the community was a large department store, South Center, which catered almost exclusively to blacks. One entire floor became the training ground for Madame C. J. Walker, whose school became a fixture in the community, helping many men and women become independent business owners. No longer were educated blacks limited to jobs at the post office -- doctors and lawyers could set up their practices on 47th Street. The first twelve black certified public accountants in America had their offices in South Center. A small but vibrant black leisure class was emerging, and 47th Street offered black Chicagoans a sense of freedom they couldn't find anywhere else in America at that time.
By the mid-1950s, the civil rights movement and racial integration were bringing a new lifestyle to blacks. And life along 47th Street would change, too. Gerri Oliver recalls, "The neighborhood declined because the people started moving out once they were allowed to." Once the residents began to migrate, many upscale businesses followed suit. Tastes in music and entertainment changed, and high-rise public housing began to replace the community's most beloved institutions. The Regal was demolished. The Savoy became a welfare office. The street that had once been the center of the universe for black Chicago became a blighted area.

But the face of 47th Street may be changing again. Its proximity to downtown has led to a rush of real estate development. There's a cultural center going up on the site of the old Regal Theater and several upscale housing units are planned. But how much will redevelopment compromise the integrity of the street's rich heritage? Will the character of the neighborhood be preserved or reduced to a museum-like imitation of its former glory? For the once proud 47th Street, many questions remain.

Chicago Stories: Remembering 47th Street was written and produced by Rita Coburn Whack, and narrated by television personality (and Bronzeville native) Merri Dee, with an original musical score composed and performed by internationally-known jazz trumpeter Malachi Thompson and his Africa Brass.

Links of Interest
Bronzeville Conversation: 47th Street and South Park Boulevard – Bronzeville's Downtown

Bronzeville Cultural Traditions

Short History of the Mayor of Bronzeville

Gerri's Palm Tavern is one of the stops in...
National Geographic: Traveling the Blues Highway

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