What’s That Building? The Eighth Regiment Armory

The Eighth Regiment Armory
The main entrance to the original armory, which takes up much of the 3500 block of S. Giles Avenue. Jason Marck / WBEZ
The Eighth Regiment Armory
The main entrance to the original armory, which takes up much of the 3500 block of S. Giles Avenue. Jason Marck / WBEZ

What’s That Building? The Eighth Regiment Armory

Occupying a large swath of the 3500 block of South Giles Avenue, the imposing brick-and-limestone building known as Eighth Regiment Armory once housed the first National Guard unit in the U.S. to have black officers.

The building went on to host the Negro National Congress, which organized around the fight for the rights of black workers during the Great Depression. Since 1999, the armory has been home to the Chicago Military Academy, a public high school that enrolls roughly 300 “cadets.”

In honor of service

Formed in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, the volunteer members of the Eight Regiment believed if they contributed to the U.S. war effort, they would pave the path to greater equality back home.

Eighth Regiment Armory
Exterior view of the armory the year it was built in 1915. This regiment was made up of black National Guard members, and they had problems finding suitable housing. Prior to the construction of this armory, the men had lived in a barn at East 37th and Michigan Avenue. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

As an acknowledgement of the service, the Illinois state legislature approved funds in 1915 to build the nation’s first armory in honor of an all-black regiment unit. Designed by James Dibelka, the fortress-like red brick building was trimmed in limestone trim and graced with arched wooden doors.

Today, although the exterior remains intact, the interior is almost entirely new, now with plaques lining the hallways to commemorate members of the Fighting Eighth.

The Fighting Eighth

Sent to Cuba during the Spanish-American War, the Eighth Regiment became the first black soldiers deployed overseas. However, the regiment did not see battle in Cuba because, according to reports, the white military establishment was so slow to accept the soldiers that by the time they arrived in Cuba the fighting was over. Instead, they assisted with recovery efforts and helped rebuild the island, which had lost more than 20 percent of its population during three years of revolution and war.

The Eighth Regiment Armory
The halls are filled with historic photos of black soldiers that came through the armory before serving overseas in WWI and WWII. Jason Marack / WBEZ

The regiment later served in World War I as part of the 370th Regiment. Barred from fighting in combat alongside white Americans, the black soldiers joined the French. After playing a decisive role in driving German forces out of the Aisne-Marne section of France in 1918, the troops received dozens of medals for valor.

As the Eighth Regiment returned home from WWI, they faced increased racism and discrimination. A year later, Bronzeville and other South Side neighborhoods were devastated when the 1919 race riot broke out in which 38 people died and thousands, mostly black, were injured.

National Negro Congress

Just over a decade later, the armory saw another significant event in its halls: the first-ever National Negro Congress, which convened in mid-February 1936 to focus on the needs of black workers during the Great Depression.

Leaders also discussed lobbying for a federal anti-lynching law, fighting for black women workers, injecting black history in public school curriculums, and seeking justice for the Scottsboro Boys, the nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama.

The congress gathered in what today is the drill hall, a three-story auditorium the size of two basketball gyms. Only the brick walls remain from the original interior.

In this loft-like space, a crowd of about 800 people sat on the floor listening to A. Philip Randolph — founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black union — call for “a new Bill of Rights for the Negro.”

The Eighth Armory
The drill hall, where the National Negro Congress took place in 1936. Jason Marack / WBEZ

Roy Wilkins, a future leader of the NAACP; Ralph Bunche, a future founder of the United Nations; the novelist Richard Wright; and the poet Langston Hughes were among those who attended the event.

Even the gavel used at the podium had historical significance: It was made from wood believed to have come from the Clotilda, the last ship to transport enslaved Africans to America.

Closed and revitalized

In the 1960s, the Eighth Regiment moved into another building in Washington Park, and the armory closed and fell into disrepair. Eventually most of the roof caved in, and trees grew through the floor of the old auditorium and drill hall.

That’s according to Lt. Col. Ezinwa Nwankpa, the commandant of the Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville, which now occupies the building. It was revitalized in 1999, to the tune of $18.5 million, as a key component of then-Mayor Daley’s effort to spark revitalization of Bronzeville.

In 2003, a four-story tall addition was completed, with nods to the original design.

The Eighth Regiment Armory
Lt. Col. Ezinwa Nwankpa, Commandant of the Chicago Military Academy, stands next to one of the massive original wooden doors to the armory. Jason Marack / WBEZ

Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Mary Hall is a digital producer at WBEZ.