February 10, 2010

City Council approves "Black Renaissance" literary landmarks

Structures played key roles during mid-century cultural movement

Peter Strazzabosco    312.744.9267

The Chicago homes of African-American writers Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks and Lorraine Hansberry were approved for landmark designations today by the Chicago City Council, along with the George Cleveland Hall Branch Library, which fostered the city's "Black Renaissance" literary movement, and another home that served as the original location of the DuSable Museum of African-American History.

"These structures represent an era when Chicago became a national center for African-American-inspired music, fiction, and performance. Their status as landmarks will preserve their legacies for decades to come," said Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Chicago's Black Renaissance period involved artists, writers, scholars, and activists in the mid-20th century who promoted the study of black history, art and politics. Its inception started with the onset of the Great Depression and its primary accomplishments took place within a 40-block corridor within the Bronzeville neighborhood, according to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, which proposed the structures to City Council following a series of public meetings last year.

The structures include:

Richard Wright House, 4831 S. Vincennes Ave.

Famed African-American author Richard Wright lived on the second floor of the traditional brick two-flat from 1929 to 1932. Wright effectively began his professional career by penning his first novel, "Lawd Today!", while residing in the four-room unit with his family before financial difficulties forced them to leave. Wright's most famous and influential books, "Native Son" and "Black Boy," drew in part from his life in the apartment during his 10 years living in Chicago, and his subsequent close association with the city. Characterized by honey-colored brick and classical details, the building was built in 1893.

Gwendolyn Brooks House, 7428 S. Evans Ave.

Built in 1890 and home to Pulitzer prize-winning poet, author and professor Gwendolyn Brooks for more than four decades starting in 1953, the one-and-one-half story, wood frame cottage reflects the African-American author's modest and unassuming lifestyle. While living in the building, Brooks published poetry collections such as "The Bean Eaters" and garnered numerous honors, including her appointment to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as the National Endowment for the Humanities' Jefferson Lecturer, and as Illinois Poet Laureate.

Lorraine Hansberry House, 6140 S. Rhodes Ave.

African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry adapted the racially motivated housing restrictions that her family endured at 6140 S. Rhodes for her noted play "A Raisin in the Sun." Following her father's purchase of the three-unit building in 1937, a neighborhood association filed suit, citing an existing real estate covenant that prevented area homes from being sold or rented to African Americans. The suit produced a lower court decision finding that Hansberry's father had no legal title to the home due to his race. The Supreme Court overturned the decision three years later, which helped end the formal use of racially restrictive housing covenants in Chicago. Hansberry's play about the experience appeared on Broadway in 1959, the first by an African-American woman. She subsequently became the youngest American and first black playwright to receive the New York Critics' "Circle" award for best new play. The building was built in 1909.

Griffiths-Burroughs House, 3806 S. Michigan Ave.

The two-and-a-half story limestone house in 1937 became headquarters for the Quincy Club, an important clubhouse for African-American railroad workers and their families and, in 1959, it became the first home of the DuSable Museum of African-American History, considered the nation's oldest and one of its most important museums dedicated to African-American culture. The building today remains the home of Dr. Margaret Burroughs, a distinguished educator and artist who founded the museum with her late husband Charles. The house was designed by noted architect Solon S. Beman and built in 1892 as the residence of building contractor John W. Griffiths, whose company constructed many of Chicago’s most iconic structures, including Union Station, the Merchandise Mart, and the Civic Opera House Building.

George Cleveland Hall Branch Library, 4801 S. Michigan Ave.

Opened in 1932 through the effort of Dr. George Cleveland Hall, a prominent African-American surgeon and social activist, the two-story, Moderne branch library served as an important intellectual center that cultivated an appreciation for the arts and fostered the work of many local writers. The library's nationally known research collections on African-American history and literature were organized by the city’s first black branch librarian, Vivian Gordon Harsh, and the facility hosted unprecedented book reviews and lectures by leading authors including Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Existing landmarks associated with Chicago's "Black Literary Renaissance" include the Parkway Community House and the South Side Community Arts Center. Other designations associated with African-American history include the Black Metropolis Historic District, Quinn Chapel, First Church of Deliverance, Pilgrim Baptist Church, Chicago Defender Building, Ida B. Wells-Barnett House, and Elam House. For more information, visit egov.cityofchicago.org/landmarks.

Landmarks designated by the Chicago City Council are protected from significant alternations and are eligible for a variety of preservation incentives.

 I Want To