The Story of Bronzeville
With bustling nightlife, dining, dancing, music, shopping, and a community of revered thought leaders, Bronzeville was the center of “The Black Metropolis” from the 1920s to the 1950s.
The neighborhood, located on the South Side within the Grand Boulevard and Douglas community areas, was the core of what was once called the “Black Belt” –– originally a narrow stretch of State Street. By 1920, 50,000 black migrants had come to Chicago in search of opportunity and to escape the Jim Crow South. Though the city largely denied them goods and services, the residents created their own epicenter of business and culture. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, James Gentry, a theater editor at the black newspaper The Chicago Bee, suggested that the community be called Bronzeville to reflect the skin tone of the neighborhood’s residents.
Art was and remains part of what gives Bronzeville its identity. The depth of its influence did not stop at popular nightlife; Bronzeville inspired a host of great artists and jazz, blues, and gospel musicians. Black entertainers such as Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and more had a space to call their own at the Regal Theater. Forty-seventh Street, in particular, was a lively center of music and nightlife.
Among the influential African Americans who called Bronzeville home are dancer Katherine Dunham, sociologist Horace Clayton, journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, writer Richard Wright, and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Bronzeville was also home to the first black hospital in Chicago, Provident Hospital. Dr. Daniel Hale Williams performed the country’s first successful open-heart surgery there.
By the mid-twentieth century, the Chicago Housing Authority began constructing an increasing number of public housing projects, including the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens, near Bronzeville. As restrictive housing covenants were lifted, many of the more affluent African American families decided to move, while others chose to leave as overpopulation and poverty increased in the area. Unemployment and blight soon followed in what was previously a mixed-income community.
Today, Bronzeville has no shortage of good restaurants, and many organizations are working to reinvest in the community and preserve the history and culture of Bronzeville, with some groups even offering heritage tours.
The Green Line makes stops at 35th-Bronzeville-IIT, Indiana, 47th, and 51st.
Neighborhood Spotlight: Boxville Market
Right down the stairs from the Green Line stop on 51st Street is a small but colorful collection of shipping containers. Known as “Boxville” and organized by Urban Juncture, this open-air market gives local entrepreneurs an affordable starting point to launch their businesses.
Vendors in Boxville sell everything from beauty products to food and clothing. According to its website, Boxville was once a blighted lot. Over the past few years, the businessowners in the marketplace has been working to revitalize 51st Street. The goal is to continue to expand the market and provide economic opportunities to reengage the surrounding community.
Things to Do
Grab some comfort food at Chicago’s Home of Chicken & Waffles. There are plenty of historical sights to see, such as the Ida B. Wells-Barnette House, where the famous journalist and civil rights activist lived, or the Victory Monument at 35th Street and King Drive, which honors the African American regiment of the U.S. Infantry that fought in France during World War I. Or take in the skyline at Oakwood Beach.