On She Goes

Beyond Chiraq: Visit Chicago and Explore Black History

Dip into these South Side neighborhoods for more about the city.

Rosalind Cummings-Yeates
Rosalind Cummings-Yeates
March 14, 2018
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If you are to believe the stereotypical media images of Chicago, you’d think it was a “violent city” with deep-dish pizza and just a place to snap a selfie at “The Bean.” Don’t get it twisted, though. A lot of that imagery is created to further segregate the predominantly Black South Side of the city and overshadows the area’s significant Black history, from blues heritage to Barack and Michelle’s home. If you visit Chicago and never go farther south than Grant Park, you are seriously missing out on the soul of the city—literally and figuratively. Dip into a few South Side neighborhoods and check out these highlights if you want to explore the essence of Black Chicago.

Monument to the Great Northern Migration
2600 S Dr Martin Luther King Jr Dr

Chicago’s Black history officially kicked off when Haitian pioneer Jean Baptiste Point du Sable founded the city as a trading post in 1779. By the early 20th century, waves of African Americans fleeing the brutality of the Jim Crow South poured into Chicago. They created a culture and landmarks all their own, starting with the historic Bronzeville neighborhood, which is marked by the 15-foot Great Migration sculpture at the entrance. Facing north with one hand raised in greeting and a battered suitcase in the other, the bronze statue represents the hope and dreams that Chicago symbolized for these travelers and new residents.

A cityscape bench in Bronzeville.
photo by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

South Side Community Art Center
3831 S Michigan Ave

In Bronzeville just a couple of miles away from the Great Migration monument, the South Side Community Art Center stands as a testament to the creativity and independence of those travelers. A historic Chicago landmark, the center was opened by African American artists who resolved to have a showcase for their art. The SSCAC regularly hosts gallery shows, artists talks, and community events. A memorable show from 2017, “Celebrating Our Cultural Giants & Ancestors,” honored Black luminaries—such as boxer and inventor Jack Johnson,  jazz giant Sun Ra, and artist and museum founder Margaret Burroughs—with an inventive array of photos, mixed media, and oils on linen and acrylics. Every year, art fans flock to the center for the Annual Art Auction Fundraiser, which always features innovative pieces and a sophisticated scene.

Pearl’s Place
3901 S Michigan Ave

Just down the street from the art center, Pearl’s Place serves up the classic soul food that those Southern pioneers brought with them to Bronzeville a century ago. With tables decked in white tablecloths and a dress code that doesn’t allow tank tops, sagging jeans, or foul language, Pearl’s is as close to eating at Big Mama’s house as you can get. The extensive menu features shrimp and grits, smoked ham hocks, and even chitterlings, as well as a legendary soul food buffet. The salmon croquettes with remoulade sauce are a personal fave, and the unusual jerk turkey dinner, piled with spices and sage-scented dressing, is a low-key showstopper. Expect long waits on Sunday afternoons after church, but you can usually grab a table during weekday afternoons.

 

Blues Heaven Foundation
2120 S Michigan Ave

A Chicago landmark and former location of the fabled Chess Records, Blues Heaven Foundation oozes with music history. Blues legends including Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, and Chuck Berry recorded at this site, as well as the Rolling Stones. A musician’s resource and museum, the foundation sprung from the legal triumph that prolific songwriter Willie Dixon secured against cultural appropriators such as Led Zeppelin, which stole riffs, lyrics, and melodies from Dixon’s blues originals. After Willie Dixon’s death in 1992, his widow, Marie, purchased the Chess building and set up a foundation to help musicians protect their rights and preserve Chicago blues history. Visitors can roam through the studio’s hallowed halls and displays or go on a guided tour that’s usually given by Willie’s grandson, Alex, if you’ve got about 40 minutes to spare. It’s a small museum, but it’s packed with history and fascinating stories. Be sure to call ahead to make sure that it’s open and tours are available on that day.

The Velvet Lounge
67 E Cermak Rd

The South Side was once filled with jazz and blues clubs, and the Velvet Lounge is one of the only ones left. It flaunts an impeccable pedigree as an informal showcase for members of the free jazz collective Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and noted saxophonist Fred Anderson ran the club with an innovative lineup of avant-garde musicians until his death in 2010. The music now featured leans more towards DJ music, but the venue occasionally features contemporary jazz. Every Tuesday night, the lounge hosts a live band, and there’s a mix of monthly events like ladies nights and Caribbean dance parties.

Bartender Antwan at Vice District Brewing.
photo by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

Vice District Brewing
1454 S Michigan Ave

With a name that gives a nod to this South Side neighborhood’s historic location as a former red-light district, Vice District is Chicago’s first African American–owned microbrewery. Metal beer vats produce 14 brews on tap, and communal tables, and big-screen TVs supply a chill, no-frills vibe. There’s always an eclectic mix of professionals hanging out after work, from lawyers winding down to ad execs yelling at the Cubs on the screen. What really makes this taproom special is that the Aurelio’s Pizza a few blocks north will deliver, and the bartender will guide you to the perfect pairing. (The blonde ale was the pick for my spinach and mushroom slices.)

The DuSable Museum of African American History
740 E 56th Pl

Head farther south to the Hyde Park neighborhood and browse the exhibits of one of the oldest African American museums in the country. The DuSable Museum holds more than 15,000 paintings, sculptures, print works, and pieces of historic memorabilia that reflect the achievements and experiences of people of African descent. The museum also hosts art fairs, film presentations, and community award ceremonies. A highlight includes the permanent exhibit “Freedom, Resistance, and the Journey Toward Equality,” which opens with an eerie recreation of a slave ship and continues through Reconstruction, the Black Panther movement, and Barack Obama’s election.

Barack and Michelle Obama’s House
5046 S Greenwood Ave

Wrap up your South Side tour by viewing one of Kenwood’s most famous homes. The stately Georgian Revival mansion owned by the Obamas was where the family lived when Barack served as U.S. Senator and when he came home while serving as the 44th president. Visitors aren’t allowed inside, but photos outside are permitted. Use the opportunity to snap an authentic South Side selfie.