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The Chicago Southland: An African American Perspective
by Phil Britt for the Chicago Southland Convention & Visitors Bureau
A tour through Chicago's southern and southwestern suburbs reveals significant portions of African-American History. The area carries significance from the time of slavery through the first Supreme Court-ordered school district desegregation.
For example, sites throughout the Chicago Southland were used as "stations" of the Underground Railroad, which brought African-Americans from slavery in the south to freedom in Canada in the period prior to the Civil War. Once on Canadian soil, the former slaves were considered free.
The Underground Railroad itself had no one single route, but had several different routes from the south through the north to bring slaves to freedom. Its history is difficult to trace because, for several years, African-Americans wanted to forget about that ugly part of history. However, the television series, "Roots" renewed interest in the Underground Railroad as well as in other significant portions of African-American history.
African-American historians have discovered that one of the most significant routes of the Underground Railroad went through south suburban Chicago, with some important contributors to the effort living in the area.
Harriet Tubman, a major conductor of the Underground Railroad made some 30 trips to the south and rescued approximately 300 slaves without losing any of her passengers. Tubman lived for a while in the southern suburbs. Tubman's historical significance doesn't stop with her involvement in the Underground Railroad. She also was an important agent in the Union Army during the Civil War. She ran several undercover missions for the Union Army behind enemy lines, helping smuggle food, clothing and medical supplies to the North. Again, without losing a single life.
When Tubman and others traveled the Railroad, one of their frequent stops was the former Fireside Chalet in Glenwood. The former restaurant was a convenience and important stop for passengers because of the train from the South ran behind the restaurant. Those who decided their freedom was worth risking their lives for would quickly move from the train to a back door of the Fireside where they would then continue on their quest for freedom.
Lemont is another suburb that offered a number of Underground Railroad stations including the Lemont Historical Society Building (306 Lemont Street), the Brown Family Estate (40 Timberline Dr.), and Cass Community Church (north Frontage and I-55).
Unfortunately, another known Underground Railroad stop is no more because the owner demolished the property. The building, though gone, is by no means forgotten. The owner of the property on east Lincoln Highway in New Lenox has agreed to put a marker where the property once stood.
Home to Memorials
The Chicago Southland is home to several memorials to famous, now deceased African Americans. Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Glenwood, 183rd St. and Glenwood-Thornton Road, is the burial site of several prominent African Americans. Elijah Muhammed, founder of the Nation of Islam; Fred "Duke" Slater, the first African-American inducted into the National Football Hall of Fame; Dr. Charles Gavin, the first African-American to be admitted to the National College of Orthopedic Surgeons and Njan Taylor, one of the fastest cyclists of the day are all buried in Mount Glenwood.
The Chicago Southland and African American Arts
The Annie Lee and Friends Art Gallery in Glenwood, 37 E. Main Street, features the works of Annie Lee and other significant African American artists. Lee has several important paintings on display in the Gallery. One, "Six No Trump Uptown," shows card-playing adults, a hobby that was the essence of African-American life during a certain period of history. Other Lee works include, "Sixty Pounds," "Blue Monday," and "6-1/2 Narrow."
The Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governors State University in University Park, one of only three sculpture parks in the nation, includes "Large Planar Hybrid", a work by African-American sculptor Richard Hunt. This steel sculpture is full of surprises, displaying animals, vegetables and minerals in a variety of settings and from different perspectives. One view reveals an eagle at attention, looking at the university's American Flag in the imagist tradition of Chicago art, one of the strongest regional developments in art history. Another sculpture by Hunt, "Outgrown Pyramid II" also is on display at the park. Phoenix is the one-time home to Mario Van Peeples, an African-American actor/director and son of Melvin Van Peeples, another African-American actor/director. Melvin acted, directed and produced films in the 1960s and 1970s. Mario's works are of a more recent vintage. Phoenix also is the former home of Quinn Buckner, a former National Basketball Association player who now is a basketball analyst with NBC television. Buckner played at Thornridge High School in Dolton, leading his team to undefeated seasons and back-to-back Class AA state titles in 1971 and 1972. Those teams are regarded as the best in Illinois state high school basketball history.
From Thornridge, Buckner went on to play at Indiana University, helping the team achieve an undefeated record (32-0) and NCAA tournament title. After IU, Buckner went to the NBA, where he played for the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks before moving to NBC.
Go due south from Phoenix into Harvey and you'll be in the city where African-American evangelist Rev. Amanda Berry Smith established the first orphanage in Illinois dedicated to African-Americans.
In Robbins, to the north and west of Harvey, you'll find several significant historical sites. The S.B. Fuller Mansion was built by S.B. Fuller in 1954. Fuller rose from poverty to millionaire status in the early 1900's by selling soap and cosmetics door-to-door for Fuller Products (not the same as Fuller Brush.) Fuller not only sold these products himself, but built the business and did all this with only a third grade education.
Fuller would entrust those working for him with products and cash to make their initial sales on the theory -- which later proved to be correct -- that he would be repaid when these salespeople returned for more products to sell. Fuller established his business at 47th and King Drive in Chicago. His business helped to stabilize the community, giving work to people who otherwise would have been unemployed.
Close to the Fuller mansion is the Richard Flowers residence at 3234 W. 139th St., which is considered to be the birthplace of Robbins. Flowers opened his home for the signing of the Robbins incorporation papers.
Calvary Hall at 3349 W. 139th St., was the site where Marcus Garvey held his Chicago-area rallies. Garvey, who was born in Jamaica, felt racism was a permanent fixture in the American society and that African-Americans would never get truly equal rights in the United States. So he led a back-to-Africa movement in the 1920's.
Bessie Coleman trained African-American pilots at an air strip at 139th and Lawndale in the 1930s. Her work with pilots predates the advent of the Tuskeegee airmen, an all-African-American squadron that became famous for their deeds in World War II.
Some years later, Robbins became the home of aspiring actress Nichelle Nichols. She gained her greatest fame playing Lt. Uhara in the original Star Trek television series and a handful of Star Trek movies. Nichelle wasn't the only famous member of her family. Her father, Samuel, was the mayor of the town during the days of Al Capone and prohibition. Mayor Nichols ordered closed a Capone distillery at 13938 S. Claire St. For that, Capone took out a contract on the mayor's life, but the contract was never fulfilled.
In nearby Crestwood, you'll find the horse stables for Thyrl Latting Rodeo, the largest in the Midwest. The stables are often empty, used primarily when the rodeo travels through this part of the state in late summer.
While the stables may be empty most of the year, the classrooms of School District 151 are usually full. The district, which includes students from kindergarten through eighth grade in northern South Holland, Phoenix and Dixmoor, was the nation's first district ordered to desegregate by the Supreme Court.
The Chicago Southland Convention and Visitors Bureau offers a "Black History Tour" and can refer you to members who specialize in these tours. Call toll-free 1-888-895-8233 for more information on the Chicago Southland area and Bureau services including assisting with meeting and reunion needs.