2002.017: Bronzeville Collection

Institution: Illinois Institute of Technology Archives
35 W. 33rd St.
Chicago, IL 60616
Phone: 312-567-6840
Fax: 312-567-5318
Date: 1950-2010
Extent: .8 Linear Feet
Finding Aid

Biographical/Historical Note:
“Bronzeville” is the name used to identify the historically African American community in which Illinois Institute of Technology is located on the south side of Chicago. The area roughly encompasses the three neighborhoods officially identified as Douglas, Grand Boulevard, and Kenwood.

Beginning around 1910, thousands of blacks began moving to Chicago from the southern states as the Great Migration began. Black businessmen and businesswomen, professionals, and middle class families settled into Bronzeville as Chicago’s wealthy white residents moved to the North Shore. Through the years of the Great Depression and World War II, Bronzeville residents continued to welcome relatives, friends, and new families to the area. Extended family members and boarders who could help pay the rent came to share apartments originally planned for small families, primarily in a building known as Mecca Flats. Single family homes originally built as mansions for wealthy Chicagoans in the 1890s were divided up to create apartments for multiple families. The area became increasingly overpopulated as (illegal) restrictive covenants severely limited the geographical area where blacks were allowed to live.

Through the first half of the 20th century, Bronzeville became a rich milieu of African American culture, particularly in the areas of business, religion, and music. African American-owned businesses supplied commercial goods to neighborhood residents; black professionals set up banks, insurance companies, newspapers, real estate offices, and legal and medical practices; movies theaters and a production company provided “race films” (quality films created for black viewers) for local audiences; churches (where Gospel music began) and social service organizations fostered community support and cultural identity; and jazz musicians played in neighborhood clubs, apartments, restaurants, and on the street twenty-four hours a day. In 1928 Oscar De Priest, representing the citizens of Bronzeville, became the first African American to be elected to the U. S. House of Representatives since Reconstruction.

Black-owned businesses in the Bronzeville area included the Jesse Binga Bank, The Chicago Defender newspaper founded by Robert S. Abbott, the Supreme Life Insurance Company of America, and the Overton Hygienic Company (a black cosmetics firm). Blues music was played in “black and tan” clubs in Bronzeville with the blocks along State Street between 31st and 35th Streets becoming known as “The Stroll.” The area was populated by numerous small clubs and theaters where live music was performed by people like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith. Additionally, Thomas A. Dorsey created “gospel music” as we know it today at Pilgrim Baptist Church (a former Jewish Synagogue) which still stands at 33rd and Indiana Streets. (A fire on Jan. 6, 2006 destroyed the interior and upper stories of the building.)

In the post-World War II era, Bronzeville became subject to re-development as part of the nation-wide attempt to address the problems of racial discrimination and the housing shortage associated with it. Subsidized housing was built to accommodate thousands of residents who, by this time, were under-educated and under-employed. Much of the historic housing stock was severely deteriorated, and the Chicago Land Clearance Commission used powers of eminent domain to condemn properties and raze the buildings, replacing them with large public housing projects. Two private entities with long-term historical presence in the area, Michael Reese Hospital and Illinois Institute of Technology, in cooperation with the City of Chicago and New York Life Insurance Co. formed the South Side Planning Board in an attempt to redevelop the area, an effort that met with only limited success.

By the 1950s, the commercial center of Bronzeville had relocated further south and east along Prairie Ave. (later Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.). IIT eventually purchased all parcels along State St. and Michigan Ave. between 31st and 35th Sts. as businesses left the area and housing was found for residents in other locations. By 1971, IIT had acquired 120 acres and constructed 50 buildings to complete its campus.

Through the decade of the Civil Rights Movement, roughly 1955-1965, the mostly black neighborhood around IIT continued to deteriorate as poverty and prejudice brought the campus and community to odds even as the Moment was embraced by college youth. Concomitantly, the 1970s and 1980s were a time a deferred maintenance for IIT making the last decade of the 20th century a time of bleak physical appearance to both the campus and the community.

By the year 2000, the rich history of Bronzeville’s heyday in the 1910s and 1920s was being re-discovered and attempts to restore the historic character of the former neighborhood were underway under the auspices of the Mid-South Planning and Development Commission and the Gap Community Organization. Historic commercial buildings were renovated, and new housing was constructed to fill empty lots between many remaining historic homes, some of which were being refurbished. As of 2010, the large-scale public housing projects have been razed, and Illinois Institute of Technology continues its commitment to the Bronzeville neighborhood, its residents, and businesses. The IIT campus has been relandscaped and two new campus buildings constructed along State Street have replaced long stretches of unattractive parking lots.

The City of Chicago built a new police administration facility at Michigan Ave. and 35th Street. Along with the City, IIT has also been an active partner in the development of commercial businesses, mixed income housing development, and public space which has replaced the failed Stateway Gardens housing project at 35th and State Sts. IIT was also instrumental in bringing a new Metra stop, the Lovana S. “Lou” Jones/Bronzeville Station, to the area in 2011.

The historic Bronzeville neighborhood, now centered at 35th and King Dr., continues as a vital area which links past and present through efforts in historic preservation, with programs that celebrate long-standing traditions, and by institutions which promote current African American cultural identity.

©Researched and written by Catherine Bruck, IIT University Archivist, 2002; additions 2005 and 2011.

Source: IIT Archives (Chicago) Please cite source when quoting this information. Please send corrections or additional information about this topic to bruck@iit.edu.

Scope and Content Note:
Materials from a variety of sources and dates documenting the past and present of the African-American neighborhood of Bronzeville, historically known as the Black Metropolis, located on the South Side of Chicago. This collection serve as a drop file of materials not otherwise accessioned and catalogued in the IIT Archives. Contains loose papers and soft cover books.

Related Material: None