The History of Bronzeville
Bronzeville is an historic neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side which runs from 31st St. on the north to 51st St. on the south and from S. LaSalle St. or the Dan Ryan Expressway on the west to S. Cottage Grove Ave. and S. Drexel Blvd. on the east. The area is famous as an early-20th-century African-American business and cultural hub.
According to nearby IIT or Illinois Institute of Technology, “residents included musicians Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole, Sam Cook, Dinah Washington, Quincy Jones, and Herbie Hancock; gospel music pioneers Mahalia Jackson and Thomas A. Dorsey; choreographer Catherine Dunham; women’s aviation pioneer Bessie Coleman; author Richard Wright; activist and writer Ida B. Wells; Olympic legends Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalf; Negro League Baseball founder Andrew Rube Foster; boxer Joe Louis; and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks.”
The neighborhood was, from the 1920s to the 1940s, fairly affluent and middle class. “Founded by Jesse Binga, Binga Bank was Chicago’s first Black-owned life insurance, realty, and financial institution. Daniel Hale Williams, an African American, pioneered open-heart surgery in Bronzeville’s Provident Hospital. The Chicago Defender and Chicago Bee were African-American daily newspapers of national influence and distribution. The Wabash Avenue YMCA established the first Black History Month. Venues like the Savoy Ballroom-Regal Theater complex and the Sunset Cafe rivaled Harlem’s Apollo Theater in importance in music, film, and live performance.”
“1916 marked the beginning of the Great Migration when African Americans left the American South for Chicago with the promise of better jobs and reduced oppression. The reality, however, fell far short of this promise as conditions were still repressive and segregated. African Americans were restricted to live in the Black Belt in white-owned housing that was largely dilapidated and densely populated yet more expensive than housing in white areas. Forced to live in this isolated area, Bronzeville’s residents toiled hard and cooperatively to establish a full-fledged community with business, culture, and community institutions that did not have the racial restrictions enforced in most parts of the city. Bronzeville’s institutions grew to have national influence rivaling and even exceeding those of New York’s Harlem.”
One of the most famous sites was The Sunset Cafe. Countless jazz legends played at this legendary jazz club, including Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong. Unfortunately, it no longer exists and the building currently houses a beauty supply store.
Also closed is the iconic Palm Tavern at 446 East 47th Street. It was known for its restaurant and blues and jazz club from 1933 to 2001. It attracted artists from music to writers and was popular with performers like Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, the Ink Spots, Josephine Baker, and other notable musicians. It was also frequented by Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.
Unfortunately, Bronzeville experienced hard times during the Great Depression and went into great disrepair. Many businesses were forced into bankruptcy. It experienced segregation and overcrowding while crime and urban blight expanded throughout the neighborhood.
Today, the neighborhood is seeing major community-driven revitalization efforts. Many of the historic homes have been restored as have many of the architectural landmarks such as the original Chicago Defender Building, Unity Hall, the Chicago Bee Building, Overton Hygienic Building, Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments, The Forum, the Wabash Avenue YMCA, and the Supreme Life Building.
The area is also embracing its legacy as a mecca for civil rights, jazz, blues, and gospel music. You will find an array of coffee shops, retailers, boutiques, bistros, galleries, libraries, monuments, and restaurants, alongside spectacular Victorian-era architecture, and 19th-century mansions. Make sure to drive through the side streets to see the beautiful homes.
You must also drive by 3500 S. Martin Luther King Dr. to view the Victory Monument which honors the Eighth Regiment of the Illinois National Guard, an African American unit that served in Europe in World War I. You can also view the Eighth Regiment Armory, the first armory in the United States built for an African-American military regiment, known as the “Fighting 8th” It is located at 3533 S. Giles Ave. and now houses the Chicago Military Academy, a public 4- year military high school that opened in August, 1999.
Also make sure to see the Ida B. Wells Monument at 3724 S. Vincennes. It was dedicated in July, 2021 and pays tribute to the anti-lynching and suffrage activist Ida B. Wells, making it the city’s first sculpture honoring a Black woman. Officially known as The Light of Truth Ida B. Wells National Monument, the contemporary commemoration, was created by Black sculptor Richard Hunt. It stands on the land of the former Ida B. Wells Housing Project. Wells, born enslaved in 1862 in Mississippi, became a newspaper editor and was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer in 2020 for her reporting on the lynchings of African Americans.
Where to Eat and Drink in Bronzeville
The Great Migration mentioned above has had a lasting impact on the food traditions and culture of the neighborhood. I feel that while visiting we should support local Black-owned businesses as well as members of the Shop Local Bronzeville. Some of my favorite restaurants in the area include:
After seeing it featured on a local TV program, I tried Peach’s Restaurant at 4652 S. King Drive, just west of Hyde Park. It features biscuits, pancakes, waffles, omelets and Southern specialties. It is a great place for breakfast or brunch.
North of Peach’s in Bronzeville is a great new find Pearl’s Place at 3901 S. Michigan Ave. This is a classic white-tablecloth restaurant serving Southern/soul food classics such as fried chicken & catfish. I went with my assistant who is originally from Memphis, TN. She loved the fried catfish! I really enjoyed the shrimp and grits along with collard greens. In addition to their menu, they also have buffets featuring breakfast, lunch and dinner items. I highly recommend the experience.
Also in Bronzville is Chicago’s Home of Chicken & Waffles at 3947 S. King Dr. After hearing about it on Check Please on WTTW in Chicago a few years ago, I enjoyed my visit to this popular soul food restaurant. I am looking forward to going back again soon.
Eméché Cakery & Cafe: At 3435 S. Prairie, this is a fun bakeshop and cafe that opened in late 2019. The name means tipsy in French. It originally started as a bakery featuring alcohol-infused cupcakes. It has grown into a cafe featuring coffee and tea drinks, dessert jars, cakes, pastries and a breakfast and lunch menu of sandwiches and salads. The owner, Janell Richmond, is really delightful and gave me some great suggestions of what else to explore in the neighborhood.
Shawn Michelle’s Homemade Ice Cream: This popular Black-owned shop is located at 46 E. 47th in the historic Rosenwald Building on the corner of 47th and Wabash. It has some great flavors including the bourbon butter pecan which I really enjoyed.
With two Bronzeville locations, Sip & Savor is a local coffee shop started in 2005. There is one near Shawn Michelle’s Homemade Ice Cream in the same building at 78 E. 47th St. I went to the location at 528 E. 43rd where I enjoyed a latte on the outside back patio.
Next door to Sip Savor is Ain’t She Sweet Café at 526 E. 43rd. It is known for its savory meals and sweet desserts from brownies, cakes, and pies (including sweet potato) plus milkshakes from more than 12 ice-cream flavors. They also have a second location in the Beverly neighborhood at 9920 S. Western Ave.
Coming soon is the Turner Haus Brewery, a Black-owned microbrewery. It is partnering with Sip & Savor and will be located at their 78 E. 47th Street location. The Black-owned Bronzeville Winery, will sit in a first-floor storefront of a new mixed-income residential building at 4420 S. Cottage Grove Ave. This restaurant, wine bar and cultural space will focus on wine and comfort food such as lobster macaroni and cheese, and shrimp and grits. The wine list will be curated by Anika Ellison, “one of the few Black women sommeliers” per their website. It will also have a cultural space, patio and live music.
Art and Culture in Bronzeville
Little Black Pearl: This is a large, 40,000 cultural arts center at 1060 E 47th St . According to Eater.com it was “founded in 1994 with an emphasis on serving Black communities in the South Side, Little Black Pearl provides visual arts, science and technology, and entrepreneurship education opportunities to youth in Kenwood/Oakland, Hyde Park, Woodlawn, and Bronzeville. The center offers classes and training ranging from painting and photography to technology and digital media. It also houses a high school, Little Black Pearl Art and Design Academy.”
Also part of Little Black Pearl, is Carver 47 Food & Wellness Market. It is a juice and experiment bar with coffee drinks, juices, smoothies and an all day breakfast menu plus salads, sandwiches and flatbreads. It has a mission of providing nourishing and accessible food to the diverse people of the city.
Gallery Guichard: This is a local art gallery at 436 E 47th, located on the first floor of the Bronzeville Artist Lofts that was formerly a Borden dairy building. It features a rotating collection of modern and contemporary works from numerous global artists. According to their website, “owners Andre Guichard, Frances Guichard and Stephen Mitchell, opened the gallery in 2005 with the mission to expose patrons to multicultural artists specializing in the art of the African Diaspora thus creating platforms for artists and collectors to meet.” They also have the colorful Great Migration Sculpture Garden on site.
You can also visit the artist lofts which includes 16 artists’ live-work spaces. The 1922 building was renovated with the assistance of the City of Chicago. The Bronzeville Arts District features a number of events and art walks throughout the year. There is also the Southside Community Art Center featuring events and exhibitions. 3831 S. Michigan Ave.
Harold Washington Cultural Center: This is a neighborhood performance space that was named after Chicago’s first African-American Mayor Harold Washington and opened in August 2004. 4701 S. Martin Luther King Dr.
You can also see a number of murals throughout the area.
Mies van der Rohe Architecture at IIT
Not to be missed is the campus of IIT or Ilinois Institute of Technology in the northwest part of the neighborhood. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the last director of the Bauhaus in Germany, came to Chicago and became head of architecture at IIT in 1938 . He designed many buildings on the campus.
Widely regarded as one of Mies van der Rohe’s masterpieces, Crown Hall, completed in 1956, is one of the most architecturally significant buildings of the 20th century Modernist movement. “It features his basic steel and glass construction style, beautifully capturing simplicity and openness.” It embodies his signature style in his famous quote “less is more”. The building houses IIT’s school of architecture.
In addition to Crown Hall, the campus encompasses 20 of his buildings, the greatest concentration of Mies-designed buildings in the world.