The story of Jesse Binga, an early black entrepreneur with social motives

February 28, 2012

Listen to John Schmidt discuss Jesse Binga on Eight Forty-Eight

Today the street where Jesse Binga lived is named for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That's appropriate. When the street was called South Park Avenue and Binga lived at number 5922, the house became a symbol of the civil rights struggle.

Jesse Binga was a go-getter. Born in Detroit in 1865, he started out to be a barber like his father. He moved through a number of jobs before settling in Chicago at the time of the 1893 World's Fair. A few years later he entered the real estate business.

Chicago's African-American population was small at the turn of the 20th Century, but that was about to change. Here Binga saw his opportunity.

During the first decades of the new century, Southern blacks began moving north. Chicago's neighborhoods were segregated, like most northern cities. The newcomers settled into a narrow section of the South Side. but as more people arrived, they began to burst the boundaries of the "Black Belt."

Jesse Binga became the main agent of racial succession. He bought property from whites who wanted to move out, fixed it up, then resold to blacks who needed a place to live. He helped his people--and he got rich.

From real estate he moved into banking. He took over a failed bank at State and 36th and reopened it as the Binga Bank, the city's first black-owned financial institution. In 1910 he ran for the County Board as a Republican, but lost. After that he steered clear of politics.

Binga moved to South Park Avenue in 1917. The Washington Park neighborhood was then all-white. He received death threats and the house was repeatedly bombed. He had to hire 24-hour security guards.

Binga defiantly refused to move. He was an American citizen and could live where he pleased. Years passed before the violence finally stopped.

The Binga business empire reached its peak during the 1920s. He rechartered the bank as the Binga State Bank and erected a new building at the northwest corner of State and 35th. Next to it he constructed a five-story office building called the Binga Arcade. He announced plans to open another, federally-chartered bank.

Then the stock market crashed. The Depression followed, the Binga State Bank failed and thousands of African-American depositors were wiped out.

Binga was wiped out, too. He served a prison sentence for embezzlement, though many thought the charges were trumped up and he was later pardoned by the governor. He spent his last years working as a janitor at St. Anselm Church, for $15 a week.

Jesse Binga died in 1950. His home is a registered Chicago Landmark, and is privately owned.