“In Chicago and the suburbs right now, there are seven homes of historical Black figures that are in some stage of being turned into a museum or cultural center that honors the former residents. It’s an unprecedented number, and an eighth may be in the wings.
“While they are mostly in early, even embryonic, stages and some may not advance beyond being an idea, it’s clear this is a singular moment, amid the nationwide reckoning over race.
“‘It’s time for us to tell our stories to our children in our voices,’ says Angela Ford, the executive director of the Obsidian Collection, a not-for-profit archive of Black cultural materials. In April, the group paid $1 million for the former home of activists Lu and Jorja Palmer on King Drive. Obsidian has a $4 million plan to rehab the 12,000-square-foot colossus into a Black-centered museum, library and meeting hall.
“Ford cites a favorite African proverb: ‘Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.’
“The city’s commissioner of planning and development, Maurice Cox, put that sentiment another way at a recent public meeting about the potential landmarking of the North Kenwood home of blues great Muddy Waters.
“‘So often the brilliance that African Americans have given to this country is wrapped up in the everyday and ordinary,’ Cox said. ‘Most people wouldn’t know it if we didn’t preserve that everyday context that helped this man make this extraordinary music that really changed the world.’
“A MOVEMENT OR A MOMENT?
“After George Floyd’s death, corporate Chicago made a raft of diversity pledges. A year later, which companies delivered—and which fell short?
“Exhibits in the DuSable Museum of African American History or a downtown institution could memorialize any of these homeowners, but ‘there’s something different and important about moving through the spaces that they moved through when they spent their time thinking and creating and living,’ says Regina Bain, the executive director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, N.Y. The former home of the musical giant opened for tours in 2003.
“On top of walking where great ones walked, the mere fact of homeownership, ‘is especially important for many Black people who came from impoverished circumstances where a home is not guaranteed,’ Bain says. ‘It’s a point of joy to see that these working-class folks bought and owned their homes. There’s nothing ordinary about that.’
“Along with the Palmer and Waters sites, the other homes where efforts have been launched to create a museum or similar space are:
• The West Woodlawn two-flat where Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, lived before he was murdered by white racists in Mississippi in 1955.
• The Kenwood house where longtime Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad lived.
• A dilapidated Washington Park greystone that served as a Phyllis Wheatley Home, providing a home and support for Black women coming up from the South during the Great Migration.
• In south suburban Robbins, the former home of S.B. Fuller, an entrepreneur who in the middle of the 20th century was one of the most successful Black men in America.
• In Maywood, the brick two-flat that was the childhood home of Fred Hampton, the Black Panthers leader who was killed by law enforcement agencies in a 1969 pre-dawn raid on his East Garfield Park apartment.
“Crain’s hasn’t found as many Black house museum plans in other cities as the seven floating in and around Chicago this year. An eighth attempt may soon surface. The family members who own the former home of John W. E. Thomas, who in 1876 became the first African American elected to Illinois Legislature, are exploring the process of landmarking, Mary Lu Seidel, the director of community engagement at Preservation Chicago, confirms. A future use of the building has not been announced.” (Rodkin, Crain’s Chicago Business, 6/11/21)
An unprecedented push to save historic Black homes is on; From Muddy Waters to Emmett Till, historians and activists want to memorialize the places where noteworthy Black people lived. The headwinds, however, are strong, Dennis Rodkin, Crain’s Chicago Business, 6/11/21
Can we do a better job of preserving Chicago’s Black history? What we as a city choose to venerate speaks volumes about who we are and what we value, Crain’s Editorial Board, Crain’s Chicago Business, 6/11/21
South Side home of blues legend Muddy Waters a step closer to city landmark status; The home in North Kenwood where blues legend Muddy Waters lived was granted preliminary landmark status by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks on Thursday. A great-granddaughter is converting the property at 4339 S. Lake Park Ave. into The MOJO Muddy Waters House Museum, Maudlyne Ihejirika, Chicago Sun-Times, 6/3/21
Muddy Waters’ Kenwood Home On Its Way To Being Named A Chicago Landmark; Waters’ family is working to turn the “epicenter” of Chicago blues into a museum, with space for a new generation of local musicians to jam, Maxwell Evans, Block Club Chicago, 6/3/21
Muddy Waters house gets unanimous boost from landmarks commission; The effort to get landmark designation for the North Kenwood two-flat next goes to the full City Council, Dennis Rodkin, Crain’s Chicago Business, 6/3/21
Muddy Waters landmark talk is about to shift into high gear; An official effort launches in early June to get the two-flat on South Lake Park Avenue declared a city landmark, Dennis Rodkin, Crain’s Chicago Business, 5/24/21