Skip to main content

Tracing Muhammad Ali's Memory in Chicago - A Photo Essay

Lee Bey
William Walker's "Wall of Daydreaming and Man's Inhumanity to Man" at the corner of 47th and Calumet in Chicago. Photo: Lee Bey
William Walker's "Wall of Daydreaming and Man's Inhumanity to Man" has marked a South Side corner where Muhammad Ali supposedly lost his virginity since 1975. Photo: Lee Bey

Muhammad Ali was born in Louisville and attained global fame, but Chicago played an important role in the boxing legend’s life. 

Ali found love and a new religion here—and suffered a rare and early loss in the ring.

Most notably, Ali found refuge in Chicago—particularly on the South Side—after he was stripped of his heavyweight title and suspended from boxing in 1967 for refusing military induction on religious grounds.

Many of the locations Ali frequented are long gone, such as former bantamweight champ Johnny Coulon’s famed gym at 63rd Street and Woodlawn Avenue where the boxer trained, or the stone-faced Chicago Coliseum at 15th Street and Wabash Avenue where he attended Saviour’s Day in the 1960s as a Nation of Islam member.

But many of the locales and sites are still standing, a testament to Chicago’s place in the remarkable life Ali lived.

The site of the former Chicago Stadium, 1800 W. Madison St.

A 16-year-old Muhammad Ali—then Cassius Clay—fought in a 1958 Golden Gloves tournament here. "The huge Chicago Stadium, with three boxing matches going on simultaneously under those hot white lights, with screaming, cheering, booing crowds, was the most awesome spectacle I'd ever participated in," Ali wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest. In his third match in the competition, young Ali lost by technical knockout to Chicagoan Kent Green in the second round of the semifinals, but the two men became lifelong friends afterward. Meanwhile, the old Chicago Stadium—the “Madhouse on Madison,” built in 1929—was demolished in 1994. Its former site (foreground) is part of the ocean of surface parking lots that surround the United Center.

The site of the former Chicago Stadium at 1800 W. Madison St., in front of the United Center

47th Street and Calumet Avenue

While in town for the 1958 Golden Gloves tournament, the teenaged Ali asked a cab driver to help him find a streetwalker, according to writer Jonathan Eig’s 2017 book, Ali: A Life. The driver took him to the corner of 47th and Calumet, where, for $9, Ali received a “trip around the world,” and lost his virginity, according to Eig. Ali lost the Golden Gloves semifinals a day later.

The intersection was memorialized in 1960 with “47th and Calumet,” a moody, rainy-day number by Chicago jazz pianist John Wright. Like Ali, Wright was born in Louisville before moving to Chicago.

Since 1975, the corner has been marked by the late muralist William Walker’s stunning Wall of Daydreaming and Man’s Inhumanity to Man. The simultaneously beautiful and nightmarish work painted on the side of a retail store on the northeast side of the intersection depicts a range of urban ills, including drug use, sexual exploitation, and racism. But the mural, restored in 2003, also features Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy.

The intersection of 47th and Calumet in ChicagoWilliam Walker's mural

Site of the International Amphitheatre, 4220 S. Halsted St.

Ali was supposed to fight Chicago boxer Ernie Terrell at this cavernous exhibition hall in 1966, but the bout was cancelled after Ali refused to be inducted into the military. He did appear at the venue that year at a national meeting of the Nation of Islam.

Opened in 1934, the Amphitheatre was part of the massive Union Stockyards complex. The structure was originally designed to host the International Livestock Exhibition before becoming the city’s main event and convention center before McCormick Place.

The stockyards were closed and demolished in 1971, but the Amphitheatre hung on almost 30 more years before getting wrecked in 1999. A vacant parcel and Aramark Uniform Services sit on the great hall’s old site. Nearby vestiges of the stockyards remain, such as the vacant Stock Yards National Bank, 4150 S. Halsted Street, built in 1925, and the original Union Stockyards gate from 1875, located about a block west at Exchange Avenue and Peoria Street.

The vacant Stock Yards National Bank at 4150 S. Halsted St. in ChicagoThe spire atop the vacant Stock Yards National Bank at 4150 S. Halsted St. in ChicagoThe original Union Stockyards gate from 1875 in Chicago at Exchange Avenue and Peoria Street

7036 S. Cregier Ave.

Ali lived in this 1920s courtyard apartment building in the Jackson Park Highlands section of South Shore with his first wife, Sonji Roi, whom he married in 1964. A mysterious nighttime fire broke out in the apartment on February 21, 1965, hours after Ali’s friend and former fellow Nation of Islam member Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City’s Audubon Ballroom.

The 1920s courtyard apartment building in Chicago's South Shore that Muhammad Ali lived in with his first wife, Sonji Roi

8500 S. Jeffery Blvd.

Ali, then 25, married his second wife, Khalilah Camacho-Ali, in a ceremony inside their humble one-story postwar brick home in the Avalon Park neighborhood on August, 1967. The house was a gift to the couple from the Nation of Islam, and came fully furnished.

An Avalon Park home that Muhammad Ali lived in with his second wife, Khalilah Camacho-Ali

Former Shabazz Restaurant, 616 E. 71st St.

Khalilah Camacho-Ali was working at this one-time Nation of Islam restaurant frequented by Muhammad Ali when she met—and then married—the boxer in the late 1960s. The Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood restaurant was part of a vast network of Nation of Islam-owned businesses centered in Chicago, including bakeries, grocery stores, publishing facilities, and a bank.

The site of the former Shabazz Restaurant on 71st Street in Chicago

Muhammad Ali House, 4944 S. Woodlawn Ave.

Fewer than five years after living in the Cregier Avenue apartment he shared with his first wife, Sonji, Ali bought this massive, 28-room 1917 Tudor Revival home in the Kenwood neighborhood. After Ali’s death in 2016, a former neighbor told a Chicago television station the boxer was “a very friendly person,” during his time in the home. “He often would stand out at the gates and just stand there until people came to talk to him, and he would carry on conversations for a long time. He was very friendly. He was a great neighbor.”

Muhammad Ali's Kenwood homeMuhammad Ali's Kenwood home

Elijah Muhammad House 1, 4847 S. Woodlawn Ave.

Nation of Islam leader the Hon. Elijah Muhammad lived in this 1902 Arts & Crafts-style beauty—one block north of Ali’s house on Woodlawn—from 1952 to 1972. Ali frequented the 23-room house, as did other luminaries such as Malcolm X, Kwame Toure, and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Businesswoman Wendy L. Muhammad is currently restoring the home to turn it into a house museum honoring Elijah Muhammad.

Elija Muhammad's first Kenwood home

Elijah Muhammad House 2, 4855 S. Woodlawn Ave.

When the Nation of Islam’s Elijah Muhammad moved from his 1902 Kenwood mansion into a new custom-built home in 1972, he only had to relocate one door south. The residence is the largest of five North African-inspired Modernist homes built along 49th Street by the Nation of Islam, originally for Muhammad and his family members. The houses were designed by Momen Architects & Consulting Engineers, based in Cairo, Egypt. Muhammad died in 1975. Current Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan now owns the home.

Elija Muhammad's second Kenwood home

Mosque Maryam, 7351 S. Stony Island Ave.

With its design inspired by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, this golden-domed limestone edifice looks as if it could have been built centuries ago, but it was actually constructed in 1952 as Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church. The Nation of Islam bought the Moorish Revival-styled building in 1972. The campus includes the Modernist and glassy University of Islam building, wedded nicely to the neo-classical mosque.

Chicago's Mosque MaryamThe facade of Chicago's Mosque Maryam

Masjid Al-Faatir, 1200 E. 47th St.

Ali invested in the establishment and construction of this mosque, which opened in 1987 in the Kenwood community. Built by Jabir Herbert Muhammad, Ali’s former boxing manager who was also a son of Elijah Muhammad, the Masjid Al-Faatir was one of only a few freestanding mosques in the city when it opened. The building is clad in light-colored brick, and features traditional Middle Eastern design details such as Moorish arch windows and a soaring minaret that is lit dramatically at night.

Chicago's Masjid Al-Faatir in Kenwood

Salaam Restaurant, 700 W. 79th St.

This Nation of Islam restaurant and bakery opened in the mid-1990s in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. It’s a revival of the popular Salaam Restaurant, a white tablecloth eatery operated by the Nation of Islam at 83rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue in the 1960s and 1970s. Ali was among the first Salaam’s well-known clientele. “In Chicago, the Salaam Restaurant … became a place not only where one consumed Muslim cuisine, but also where one went to see and be seen,” Edward E. Curtis IV wrote in his book Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960-1975.

Chicago's Salaam Restaurant, in Auburn Gresham