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The Rich Legacy of Chicago’s South Side

Jennifer P. Gardner, M. A. (Writer, Pleasure Africologist, and Assistant Director of the Center for Black Diaspora)

There’s something about the South Side of Chicago that draws thousands of visitors in and retains millions of families for generations. From the many soul food restaurants that have fed families for decades to the abundance of cultural pride canvassed across neighborhoods, the South Side of Chicago offers a revelatory peek into Black abundance, heritage, and pride. I am a proud South Side native. Like many of my neighbors, I am happy to represent in any space I enter! In fact, as I left the city for a short period for graduate studies, my spirit told me to leave this place and return with greater knowledge to help. When others ask, “How does it feel to grow up in Chicago?,” I often wonder which part should I mention first: the powerful history, the legends that have commuted through the streets, the politics that drive our City’s Council to action?! We have notable figures such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Mahalia Jackson, Fred Hampton, Sam Cooke, Muddy Water, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Kanye West, Derrick Rose, Chaka Khan, Minnie Riperton, John H. Johnson, and more! We have notable industries like Pullman Porters, Jays Potato Chip Factory, and the homeplace of Ebony and Jet Magazine. It’s truly hard to say–especially with a history as intermixed as the South Side’s story. When a great friend and historian, Dr. Lindsay Gary, asked that I write this story I couldn’t help but share my perspective. In this post, I want to draw a road map to the South Side that I’ve cherished my entire life.

1. Morgan Park High School

This high school has a notable history that tracks influencers from the Far South Side to the global stage. My alma mater is top on the list, because the school has had tremendous triumphs, transformations, and turbulence wrapped in green and orange. MPHS was opened in 1916 in the predominantly white neighborhood of Morgan Park. In 1934, over 2,000 Morgan Park students went on strike, protesting overcrowded conditions and the presence of Black students in school classes. The strike was settled, however, students protested segregation again in 1945 when students at the school circulated a petition to have a separate building built for black students. [1]

MPHS is most notable for our expansive list of professional athletes, scholars (like myself), influencers, and entertainers: Dr. Mae Jemison (psychian and astronomer), Michael Colyar (entertainer and comedian), Jeremih (entertainer and singer), Jacqueline B. Vaughn (organizer and pioneer in Chicago Teachers Union), and Aja Evans (Olympic athlete). The high school is a prominence in the community and continues its focus on producing scholars as a wall-to-wall International Baccalaureate accelerated institution.

[1] Source: “Morgan Park.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. Retrieved: 2023. Link.

2. Rainbow Beach

If you have grown up on the South Side, chances are that at some point, you’ve visited Rainbow Beach. This 5 block-long beach is notorious in Black Chicago history. For South Side residents, this beach is accessible using the 79th East CTA bus. I remember the spring and summer days, riding to the lake with friends; smelling the Jerk Taco Man’s van; and hearing several radios blaring different sub-genres of Hip-Hop. It has an amazing view of Chicago’s skyline and reminds many of us of the beauty that is just around the corner. Source: Chicago Public Library [Link]

My experience at Rainbow Beach is one that would not have been possible until the 1980s. In fact, the particular South Side enclave was a space for racial tensions between white and Black residents for year. As history reveals, on Saturday and Sunday, July 7 and 8 in 1961, an interracial coalition of demonstrators, many of them members of the NAACP Youth Council, staged a “freedom wade-in” at Rainbow Beach to heighten public awareness and challenge de facto segregationist policies in Chicago. On Sunday, despite the presence of the police, gangs of white youth armed with stones attacked the demonstrators. [1] Today, you will find a diverse crowd utilizing the space and just as much nostalgia as ever before. [1] Source: “Rainbow Beach” The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Retrieved: 2023. Link

3. South Side Community Art Center

If you are a visual artist, then you have likely heard of this art haven located on 38th and Michigan in Chicago’s Bronzeville Neighborhood. It is the first Black art museum in the United States and is the only remaining community art center funded during the Great Depression. In 1938 the Federal Art Project reached out to Metz Lochard, an editor at the Chicago Defender, about having the Art Project sponsor exhibitions of African American artists, who often had trouble securing space to display their work. The Federal Art Project made it possible for artists to be employed and make art available to neighborhoods through classes and exhibitions. The founding Committee Members Dr. Margaret Taylor-Burroughs, Eldzier Cortor, Bernard Goss, Charles White, William Carter, Joseph Kersey, and Archibald Motley, advocated profusely for the success and prominence of artists during their exhibitions. Most notably from this initiative and drive for Black excellence, Dr. Margaret T. Burroughs continued on to found the DuSable Museum of African American History. The arts center is still in operation and has exhibits from Chicago’s leading artists. This space truly signifies a cove of Chicago’s beautiful Black culture in various art forms.

Source: “About Us.” South Side Community Art Center. Retrieved: 2023. Link.

4. Home of the Hoagy

This is a South Side delicacy that I hope many of neighbor’s won’t be mad at me for sharing our secret. This restaurant is known for their special hoagy sandwiches–particularly the sweet steak sandwich. What’s in this sandwich is unknown to the five decades of patrons that visit the location daily. However, one thing that can be promised after the extended wait is that you will enjoy every single bite. I can attest that after the many years I’ve lived in Chicago and have eaten here, the recipe has (satisfactorily) never changed. It is cash only and a true Black establishment. Trust me that the sandwich is so good, it makes you forget about how long it took.

Since 1969, the small-business family operations have filled our cravings with their delicately made sandwiches. One of the primary reasons for it’s legendary status on the South Side is protection of its reputation and brand image of the original business. By having only one location, the business has invested significant time, effort, and resources into creating a distinct identity and relationship with their customers. In fact, when the building suffered from a catastrophic fire in 2018, the community’s support helped the business re-open and re-launch with a parking lot next door! Their dedication to serving the residents in the community is why Home of the Hoagy is a South Side legend. Source: “About.” Home of the Hoagy (webpage). Retrieved: 2023. Link.

5. Martin Luther King Drive

It may seem broad to name an entire street as legendary to a large metropolitan city such as Chicago. However, if you read into Chicago’s history, you would immediately understand why Martin Luther King Jr. Drive is important to the South Side. Growing up, I always traveled East and found business on King Dr. Whether it was visiting a family member on 33rd Street, attending the Bud Biliken parade, or attending tutoring at an education center on 48th Street, King Drive has always been a historic and scenic route.

Source: Bud Billiken Parade [Link] Nearly every urban city in the United States has a street dedicated to the late-Civil Rights organizer, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In Chicago, the street spans 14 miles and begins just south of East Cermak Road and four blocks east of South Michigan Avenue before ending at 115th Street. Known as King Drive, the road travels through predominantly black, South Side

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