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Black Whole: African-American history gets its days in the sun

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Chicago has been synonymous with landmark events in black history almost since Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable became the first non-American Indian permanent settler in 1772. Now the city’s most prominent museum of African-American history bears DuSable’s name; but black history also lives outside museum walls, in less-familiar spots throughout Chicago. This summer provides a chance to explore black history still in the making.

Jesse Owens outraced the field at the 1936 Olympic Games, giving a slap to Hitler in the process. But even Owens couldn’t outrun Father Time, and he now lies in a plot at Oak Woods Cemetery, Greenwood Avenue and 67th, (773)288-3800. Due south of Hyde Park, Oak Woods’ 280 acres of trees and lawns can seem more like a park than a cemetery to visitors coming to pay their respects to Owens, Ida B. Wells and other famous permanent residents (including Illinois Senator Charles Chew and physicist Enrico Fermi). Oak Woods is the final resting place of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor; a free brochure offers directions to notable grave sites.

Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church, the oldest African-American church in Chicago, celebrates its 151st anniversary this July, but the church has only occupied its present location, 2401 South Wabash, (773)791-1846, for 106. According to church historiographer Welton Smith, the congregation assembled at more than ten locations, including the sites now occupied by City Hall and the Monadnock Building. The Monadnock structure, which served as an underground railroad stop, burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Church members ultimately built the stone structure, with its cathedral ceiling (which now bears a painting of Christ and several cherubs by congregation member Proctor Chilsolm). The original floor and pews remain, and the working organ (currently in the shop for repairs) dates to 1893. Presidents Taft and McKinley, Dr. King and his wife all spoke at Quinn Chapel, constituting a small slice of the chapel history available from forty-five-year congregation member Smith, 81 years old but still giving free tours (donations accepted), Monday-Friday, by appointment.

Quinn Chapel is soon to launch a fundraising tour aiming to amass $1 million to shore up the centenarian structure. The Black Metropolis Trail also aims at revitalization of once-thriving black neighborhoods that now, in many cases, are abandoned or blighted. The ten-mile urban trail wends its way from 12th Street and Michigan Avenue down to North Pullman, through what was dubbed the “Black Metropolis.” Bus tours tell the tale of The Great Migration–two waves actually, one between World War I and the Great Depression, one covering a decade or so after World War II—–hich brought upwards of 600,000 people to Chicago. Highlights along the way include the “Walk of Fame” on King Drive; the “Soles of Black Folk,” a sculpture made out of shoes in honor of W.E.B. DuBois on 26th Street; the Black Wall Street area on South State, a manufacturing mecca in the twenties; Bronzeville, numerous churches and more. Tour prices range from $25-$75, depending on size. Call the Historic North Pullman Foundation, (773)928-3925, or the Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council, (773)548-2579. (Sam Jemielity)

For a free brochure on African-American heritage sites in Illinois, contact the Illinois Bureau of Tourism at 1-800-2Connect, or at enjoyillinois.com

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