Black Business’ Slow Flight From Bronzeville

Black Business’ Slow Flight From Bronzeville

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Bronzeville played a huge part in African-American history. When the Great Migration began a century ago, black Southerners flocked to the South Side neighborhood, which stretched between State Street and the lake, from 22nd Street to 63rd Street.

These migrants transformed the area into a black population center and a nexus of black culture. On the business side, a mass of black consumers supported black-owned restaurants, shops and other enterprises.

It’s this commercial  history that attracted the attention of Clare Butterfield, who lives on the north end of the neighborhood and sent along this question:

I wondered where those shops went. … There’s just not a lot of businesses there. And they’re not black-owned for the most part. So that was question: Where did they go? What happened to them?

We found several reasons behind the dispersal of Bronzeville’s black commercial might, from demographics to a changing business climate. But Clare herself touched on a possible explanation, too, one that’s both common and controversial: Perhaps legalized segregation had an upside for black Chicagoans otherwise hurt by discrimination and, when that segregation ended, the business climate took a hit.

Business in the heart of Bronzeville

The neighborhood’s status as a vibrant commercial center is undeniable, according to Christopher Robert Reed, an emeritus professor of history at Roosevelt University and one of the go-to scholars on black Chicago. (He also grew up in Bronzeville, his father owning a three-chair barber shop in the neighborhood until a fire destroyed it in the 1970s).

“The State Street corridor was a commercial center for black Chicago,” Reed says. “It’s been likened to a black Wall Street.”

This activity happened in the context of persistent racial segregation in Chicago. The primary instruments that kept blacks in Bronzeville and the rest of Chicago’s “Black Belt” were restrictive covenants, private legal agreements that barred whites from selling their homes to blacks. Until the covenants were ruled unconstitutional in 1948, discrimination crowded black families of all economic stripes into too few residential units. This created a critical density of black consumers and, the theory goes, one that kept black-owned businesses viable.

But there’s danger in presenting life or business in Bronzeville as a happy Jim Crow fest: Segregation did breed business ingenuity, but it also bred discriminatory practices. That led to some surprises in the neighborhood’s composition. For one, Chicago’s whites kept blacks out of white neighborhoods, but that didn’t stop whites from operating their own businesses within Bronzeville. In the seminal book Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City authors St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton found that, in 1938, Bronzeville blacks owned and operated 2,600 businesses while whites had 2,800.

And, there’s more. The area’s black businesses were smaller and older than their white counterparts, and they only received less than a tenth of all the money spent by black consumers within the area.

Business cycles, too, were unkind. Reed says from the 1920s on, blacks did own businesses on 35th Street, but these operations “were hurt tremendously by the Great Depression that started in 1930.”

Even after the worst of the Depression passed, segregation had put the black business community on unsure footing, as black owners couldn’t compete with whites when it came to securing capital. Steven Rogers, who teaches black entrepreneurship at Harvard University, says there’s always been a dearth of support by mainstream financial institutions.

“In the 1940s when we saw blacks in the business world, the only support that black-owned businesses had was through guerrilla financing, that’s self-financing, or family,” he says. “We didn’t see that institutional support that we saw with white-owned companies. And the reality is when that happens, when that’s in existence, you won’t see the prosperous businesses as we see in the white communities.”

And that left black businesses of the past last century much more vulnerable.

Spread far and wide

There are no data that show clear pre- and post-1948 numbers of black-owned businesses, but it’s clear that blacks began to disperse in the 1950s because of the lifting of covenants. At the same time “urban renewal” (often derided as “Negro removal”) was underway.

“The expansion of Lake Meadows, Prairie Shores, Michael Reese Hospital, Mercy Hospital and the Illinois Institute of Technology led to the displacement of thousands of black families from State Street east over to the Lake from 26th Street south to about 35th,” says Reed. “This was a devastating blow to black demographic unity and it affected businesses operations adversely on 35th Street.”

The bottom line, Reed says, is that “the customers had moved away.”

The erosion of a concentrated customer base plays into changes that took place in Scott’s Blue Book, a black business directory that contained an array of listings — everything from sausage-makers to dentists. As desegregation continued, the tone of the books shifted from unabashedly pro-black to more race-neutral in the 1960s.

And there was another transformation, one that gets to Clare’s observation about Bronzeville’s present-day businesses not being black-owned.

“What happened to the businesses happened to a lot of businesses in America, once the economy was transformed by the global economy’s dominance,” Reed says.

35th Street faced competitive trends similar to those faced by other commercial strips in Chicago, to the point where, today, 35th Street includes multinational companies: McDonald’s, Chase Bank, Subway and Popeye’s, to name a few. (Yes, Popeye’s is international!)

Survivors of segregation and then integration, too

The Depression, a global economy and urban renewal played their roles in undercutting or dispersing Bronzeville’s black-owned businesses. As we’re answering Clare’s question about what happened to them, it’s fair to point a brighter side: Some of these businesses stayed put.

Among the survivors are black-owned Seaway Bank and Illinois Service Federal, a savings and loan that’s been around since 1934. The latter issued home loans when commercial banks shunned black customers.

Illinois Service Federal chairman Norman Williams also happens to be president of Unity Funeral Parlors, a black-owned South Side business that started in 1937.

“My father came to Chicago as an insurance executive,” Williams says. “This was an entrepreneurial idea that came to him that he hoped his family would be able to continue.”

Williams’ father turned out to be right. For decades, few white funeral homes served blacks, and many of the funeral homes survived a more integrated era.

Continuing legacy

Black businesses are no longer clustered in an area like the Black Belt, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The basic pattern was that black businesses moved into the neighborhoods that black people moved into.

“Black Chicago has always been recognized as the crown jewel of black-owned businesses throughout the country,” says Harvard’s Steven Rogers. “The black business community in Chicago is responsible for some historic events in our country.”

Historic events like … helping finance the elections of the city’s first black mayor and the country’s first black president.

More about our questioner

(Photo courtesy of Clare Butterfield)
Clare Butterfield grew up in Central Illinois but has been in Chicago for 30 years, having lived on the North, West and South sides.

She’s called Bronzeville home for the past 10 years, and, following our reporting, appreciates a reminder that urban renewal programs deeply affected her neighborhood.

“I’ve seen the memorial marker on State Street north of 35th that mentions that IIT displaced a row of black businesses there,” she says. “Some of the businesses got swept out along with the housing, and that should have been more obvious to me.”

Clare is just one of many questioners who’ve asked about some of the least comfortable parts of Chicago history.

“It’s hard for white people to ask these questions,” she says, “partly because we don’t want to be interpreted as critical, when we mean to be sympathetic (however imperfectly), and partly because we’re probably not going to like what we learn: more examples of injustice and the use of power by people like us, first to force people into a neighborhood and then to force them out of it.”

The only way out, she says, is affirm that these things happened and, when we can, show, too, how “some entrepreneurs persisted and thrived in spite of everything they had to navigate.”

is WBEZ’s South Side Bureau reporter. Follow Natalie on Google+,  Twitter