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Planning on the promise of jobs then and now

Wed, Mar 5, 2014

The work of Bronzeville historic preservationists paid off after Chicago lost its bid for the 2016 Olympics, because they realized that 2016 was also the centennial of the “Great Migration,” when African-Americans started moving from the rural South to the urban North in search of economic opportunity.

“Our little group had a ‘Plan B,’ on what to do if we don’t get the Olympics,” said Black Metropolis National Heritage Area Project President Paula Robinson of efforts begun in 2004 to bring federal money and cultural tourism to the South Side community.

Great Migration CentennialRobinson said they realized that historians like Chicago’s Dr. Christopher Reed (see related story on Page 12) and Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, agreed about 1916 as the start of the first wave of the Great Migration. That’s because the start of World War I in Europe two years earlier had cut off the supply of immigrant labor to American businesses. Simultaneously, these businesses had to replace men who had gone off to become soldiers. Still more people were needed to turn out war materiel.

Before 1916, African-Americans comprised just two percent of Chicago’s population, but by 1970, they were 33 percent. Chicago drew more than 500,000 of the seven million blacks who moved North in search of better-paying industrial jobs, the right to vote and an escape from the Jim Crow segregation laws of the South.

Robinson said that State Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago) is one of several state legislators whose family history includes the Great Migration. Hunter, the majority whip, sponsored a resolution last May that authorized the Illinois Great Migration Centennial Commission. The commission will bring together legislators, historians, authors and celebrities to develop a curriculum and events for 2016 that promote deeper understanding about the African-American migration experience. The 25-member commission, which will be paid expenses only, has yet to be appointed but will report to the General Assembly by December 31.

The Great Migration curriculum will be inspiring, Robinson said, because Hunter had specified that “‘I don’t want the education to just be about history that young people cannot translate, but about people finding a better life.’ ” The theme, “Creating A New Promise,” speaks on a number of levels, Robinson said.

“This is the promised land. What we are committed to doing is making sure young people in particular relate to this history and see it as a way to feel empowered, engaged, recognizing this is where there are jobs and a wonderful history.”

“The African-American population has grown because our ancestors made the brave move from the South into Northern communities,” Hunter said in prepared material. “In our not too distant past, our ancestors were facing prejudice both socially and economically. Our parents and grandparents uprooted their families to seek opportunities, jobs, and relief from injustice in the South so that we could have a better life. This Commission will help to honor one of the most important eras in our history.”

Besides a K-12 curriculum, the educational component of the Great Migration Centennial will include public workshops and exhibits; a speakers’ bureau; an oral history project and symposia with higher education partners.

Other components include:
• marketing and promotional opportunities such as a website, commemorative anthology and souvenir booklets
• tourism and economic development through the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area designation; partnership with the Choose Chicago convention bureau; heritage entertainment zones; travel and promotion packages and retail/hotel workforce development
• programming such as a signature opening and closing event; a major sporting event; a homecoming concert; a culinary event; a revisiting of the “American Negro Exposition” of 1940, which celebrated 75 years of achievement since the Civil War; and annual events sponsored by the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) such as the Jazz, Blues and Gospel festivals

“I think the Great Migration in many ways added to the soul of the city,” DCASE Commissioner Michelle Boone said in a telephone interview. “As people moved and migrated, particularly African-Americans from the South carried a lot of cultural traditions and styles and a lot of that was wrapped around music.”

Boone said that the Great Migration will provide a starting point for themes at city music festivals in 2016, much like last year’s Blues Festival, when listeners were transported up the Mississippi River from the Louisiana bayou past Memphis to Chicago. She referred to Chicagoans such as Blues musician Muddy Waters, to “the father of Gospel music, Thomas Dorsey” and to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

“The church played such a role in the way we communicate: one safe place. These songs told a story of what it meant to move from the life of the farm to urban life in the city. The Blues is the genesis of it all; you hear it in gospel and jazz is a direct descendant. Contemporary artists talk about how they got their start from the church, hearing these rhythms carried over into new forms.”

The Great Migration will also provide the opportunity for dynamic neighborhood outreach, such as the move of the Gospel Festival to Ellis Park at 37th and Cottage Grove in Bronzeville, she said. “The African-American artist Jacob Lawrence did a series of panels to document the Great Migration, so we might be showcasing artists from that period,” she said.

This area represents an assemblage of natural, historic, educational, and recreational resources. It is a cohesive, nationally distinctive landscape that is worthy of preservation through the heritage area designation. The area includes a number of Chicago community areas, including the following: Armour Square, Douglas, Fuller Park, Grand Boulevard, Greater Grand Crossing, Kenwood, Near South Side, Oakland, Washington Park, and Woodlawn.

This area represents an assemblage of natural, historic, educational, and recreational resources. It is a cohesive, nationally distinctive landscape that is worthy of preservation through the heritage area designation. The area includes a number of Chicago community areas, including the following: Armour Square, Douglas, Fuller Park, Grand Boulevard, Greater Grand Crossing, Kenwood, Near South Side, Oakland, Washington Park, and Woodlawn.

The commemoration is also a chance to engage the whole city in conversation, she said. “We’re a city of immigrants and a migrant population, so the Great Migration Centennial provides us with an opportunity for great conversations about a lot of different populations making Chicago home.”

However, segregation during those times meant that African-Americans were forced into creating their own, crowded “black metropolis,” Robinson said. Its boundaries were roughly 18th Street on the north and 71st Street on the south, which includes Oak Wood Cemetery. This is the final resting place of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington; Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens; and ironically, 6,000 Confederate Civil War soldiers who had been prisoners of war at Camp Douglas, located east of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive between 31st and 33rd Streets.

It is because of this segregation that Robinson’s heroes are not musicians so much but entrepreneurs, “people who were not allowed to go downtown, who say, ‘we will create businesses for ourselves.’” In particular she refers to Anthony Overton, who was born in 1865 to newly freed slaves, who earned a law degree and came to Chicago in 1911 to found a bank, an insurance company, a cosmetic company and the Chicago Bee newspaper, a competitor of the Defender.

Robinson acknowledges the work that has been done to preserve Black Metropolis landmarks, but her major focus is jobs and economic development. In particular, she sees how making an historic site come alive in an authentic way can lead to “heritage tourism” that benefits local businesses. One example is a trolley tour of Bronzeville churches during Gospel Fest; another is youths trained as historic docents who can also staff pedicabs around sites near the Bronzeville Information Center, located in the old Supreme Life Insurance Company at 3501 S. King Drive.
When Chicago seemed likely to get the 2016 Olympics, Robinson was reminded over and over that international tourism will generate still more jobs in hotels and restaurants. She looks forward to marketing Bronzeville when the U.S. Travel Association hosts its international marketplace here in April.

While she was leading Italians on a Blues tour with Harold Lucas, president/CEO of the Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council, Robinson said she had a “light bulb moment.” The Italians simply could not understand the Civil War and so she and Lucas detoured to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield on their way to Memphis.

Robinson realized that yes, the Confederate POWs buried in Oak Wood Cemetery provided more Civil War context. And the Great Migration story of African-Americans coming North for jobs 50 years after the war fulfilled some of its purpose.

The crowning achievement for her, however, would be if the former Michael Reese Hospital site at 2900 S. Ellis were chosen from among six sites in Chicago alone for construction of the Obama presidential library. City officials have said they could realize more revenue from a casino. But Robinson says the site links downtown to Hyde Park, with added support from the Millennium Reserve (MR). Funded by Obama’s America Great Outdoors Initiative and the State of Illinois, MR will provide 15,000 acres of open space and 53 miles of trails between Millennium Park and Calumet.

Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief


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