“Chicagoans familiar with the local highway system have undoubtedly heard of the Bishop Ford Freeway, a stretch of Interstate 94 from Interstate 57 to 170th street in South Holland. Originally known as the Calumet Expressway, the highway was renamed for Bishop Louis Henry Ford in 1996. Ford was well-known as the presiding bishop of the 8.5 million member Church of God in Christ and eulogist at Emmett Till’s funeral. He was considerably less well-known for being Chicago’s first historic preservationist.
“In 1941, Bishop Ford purchased Chicago’s oldest-surviving building. Built in 1836 and known as the ‘Widow Clarke House,’ it was then at 4526 S. Wabash Ave. in Grand Boulevard. He began a nearly four decade effort to preserve the home, fundraise for its upkeep and advocate for its importance.
“‘The Clarke House was purchased during a period when redlining had not become the ‘banner’ of blocking Black people from owning property,’ said Kevin Anthony Ford, Bishop Ford’s grandson and third-generation pastor at the St. Paul Church of God in Christ. ‘My grandfather made history by buying Chicago’s oldest house in 1941.’
“Birthday teas were held on the property each year, with each generating funds for the upkeep of Clarke House and boasting attendance by senators, congressmen and mayors. Bishop Ford made it a priority to hire Black professionals to complete all skilled and non-skilled labor at the home, from carpenters to masons.
“In August 1955, Bishop Ford and Bishop Isaiah L. Roberts of the Robert’s Temple Church of God in Christ comforted Mamie Till Mobley as she collapsed after viewing the casket containing her son Emmett Till’s body after it arrived at Illinois Central Station from Money, Mississippi. Bishop Ford gave the eulogy at Emmett Till’s funeral at the Robert’s Temple Church of God in Christ.
“As government-funded demolition cleared the way for the Dan Ryan Expressway and the Robert Taylor Homes, a few blocks west of the St. Paul Church of God in Christ, Bishop Ford continued to bring attention to the Clarke house as the neighborhood changed all around it.
“During the 126th anniversary celebration in 1962, he was interviewed in the Chicago Tribune: ‘Chicago has often been referred to as the city which doesn’t have a place for landmarks. We will continue to fight off demands to tear down this building because we feel it deserves a place in Chicago on an equal footing with the Water Tower.’ He looked to the future of the programming and stewardship of the Clarke House. ‘I hope the citizens of Chicago will help us relocate the building to its original site at 16th Street and Michigan Avenue, complete with a park and museum.’
“The work to care and maintain the Clarke House by Bishop Ford and the St. Paul Church of God in Christ with a vision for its preservation occurred decades before any other actions to preserve historic buildings in Chicago, via movement or ordinance. The Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural landmarks was not created until 1957, leading the way to the 1968 Chicago Landmarks Ordinance, which granted the commission the responsibility of recommending to City Council which historic landmarks in Chicago should be protected by law.
“The work to save and maintain Clarke House predates the organized protest to save Louis Sullivan’s Garrick Theatre, demolished in 1961, as well as the effort by architects to save the Glessner House, designed by H.H. Richardson in, 1966. The National Historic Preservation Act, which created official standards for preservation and established the National Register of Historic Places, wasn’t enacted until 1966.
“In October 1970, Clarke House became one of the first buildings to gain local landmark status in Chicago, and conversations began in earnest regarding the future of the house, with Bishop Ford’s vision to move the house closer to Downtown becoming a reality. The Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks was put to task to study how the house could be moved, but also worked to trace members of the Clarke family, who had been obscured after the Great Chicago Fire.
“With the recent designation of the Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley Home as a Chicago Landmark, and the push to establish Robert’s Temple Church of God in Christ as a National Monument, the importance of Bishop Ford’s role in saving Clarke House but also launching the grassroots historic preservation movement in Chicago becomes vital to telling the full story of not only what becomes a landmark, but who worked to keep buildings around long enough for them to get there.” (Blasius, Block Club Chicago, 4/30/21)
Bishop Louis Henry Ford, Namesake Of Freeway And Eulogist At Emmett Till’s Funeral, Was Chicago’s 1st Historic Preservationist; Chicago’s oldest house, the 1836 Henry B. Clarke House, was bought by Bishop Ford in 1941 and cared for by Ford and the St. Paul Church of God in Christ until it became a city-run house museum in 1982, Elizabeth Blasius, Block Club Chicago, 4/30/21