4 Badass Black Women in Chicago History

Black History Month has nearly ended, but we still want to take this chance to highlight some of the amazing black women of Chicago history. Two of these stories come from past presenters at our annual Badass Women of Chicago History storytelling event. These storytellers helped raise the profile of hidden figures in local Black history.

This year’s event will be at 7:30pm on Friday, March 20th, 2020 at Sleeping Village, 3734 W. Belmont Ave. This event will benefit Chicago Women’s Health Center which has been a force for good in Chicago for decades.

We research stories from Chicago history, architecture and culture like this while developing our live virtual tours, in-person private tours, and custom content for corporate events. You can join us to experience Chicago’s stories in-person or online. We can also create custom tours and original content about this Chicago topic and countless others.

Rev. Willie Barrow

Presenter Kyle Ann Sebastian shared the story of Rev. Willie Barrow at our 2018 event. A co-founder of Operation PUSH, Barrow was a tireless advocate for anyone and everyone in need. Nicknamed the Little Warrior, she was a fierce fighter for justice and community organizer. Barrow mentored enormously influential figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama and established the Barrow Fund for Black Women’s Leadership. Barrow was named the city’s Woman of the Year in 1969–a very nice accolade for one of the great women in Chicago’s history.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman Black women Chicago history
Bessie Coleman, one of the badass women of Chicago history who has been highlighted at our annual event.

Storyteller Velma Gladney brought the house down when she took on the persona of early Black female aviatrix Bessie Colman at the 2019 Badass Women event. Coleman was the first woman of African American and Native American descent to earn a pilot’s license. As one might surmise from such a description, she was the very definition of a badass woman. Gladney roared “…I didn’t take hell from nobody!” when men told [Coleman] she couldn’t make it as a pilot. Coleman used her prominence for good, advocating for the desegregation of the flight shows she performed in. Truly one of the most audacious black women in Chicago history.

Mary Jane Richardson Jones

Badass women have been affecting the course of black history since Chicago’s earliest days. Mary Jane Richardson Jones is a fantastic example of this–a free Black woman who bravely advocated emancipation and suffrage. Jones was born free in Tennessee in 1820 and moved to Chicago when she was 25 years old. Illinois, at that time, had one of the strictest Black Codes in the Union. Living in Chicago as a free Black woman in the 1840s was a courageous act, but Jones went even further. She and her husband, a freed slave himself, turned their home into a stop on the Underground Railroad. It is hard to imagine a more courageous action or a more badass political figure.

Vivian Harsh

vivian harsh black women Chicago history
Vivian Harsh helped preserve Chicago’s Black history for future generations. Photo from Chicago Public Library

Badass women can often change the course of history through quiet advocacy and actions. Vivian Harsh, the first African-American to head a branch of the Chicago Public Library, personifies this truism. Harsh led the effort in the 1920s to bring a full service library branch to Bronzeville, then (as now) the beating heart of Chicago’s black community. Julius Rosenwald, of Sears fame, donated the money to start the branch and funded Harsh’s scholarly work. She, in turn, nurtured the growing literary scene in the Black Metropolis and collected material about African-American history decades before it became a widely-studied field. Without women like Harsh our sense of Black history would be vastly diminished.

Hear More Black History at Badass Women 2020!

We’ve got an exciting slate of presenters and stories on tap for this year’s Badass Women of Chicago History. Two presenters will share stories from Chicago’s Black history. Tracy Baim, the Executive Editor and Publisher of the Windy City Times will tell us about trailblazing black lesbian icon Vernita Gray. Lolly Bowean, whose work at the Chicago Tribune we adore, will tell the crowd about Ethel Payne, “the First Lady of the Black Press.”

See you at Sleeping Village on March 20th!

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide


Chicago Detours is a boutique tour company passionate about connecting people to places and each other through the power of storytelling. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact with Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through in-person private group tourscontent production, and virtual tours.


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K


Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F

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