The Incredible History and Cultural Legacy of the Bronzeville Neighborhood

The Bronzeville neighborhood has been the heart of Chicago’s African-American community for a century. The Great Migration started in 1916, exactly 100 years ago this year. Eventually millions of African-Americans left the agricultural South for the industrial north. If they came to Chicago, then they almost certainly settled in the area of the Bronzeville neighborhood. As part of Black History Month, I wanted to explore Bronzeville’s numerous monikers, and the early history of the neighborhood. You can always learn more by visiting Bronzeville with us on the Jazz, Blues, and Beyond Bus Tour for private groups.

Bronzeville Neighborhood Great Migration Chicago Negro Family

What’s in the Bronzeville Name?

The Bronzeville neighborhood sprang up around the turn of the 20th Century. There had always been African-American residents of Chicago, but only a relative few until 1870. Though segregation was against the law after the Civil War, most African-Americans still encountered widespread job and housing discrimination. That meant that the nascent community had to settle in a thin strip of land on the South Side.

This area was once the estate of famed Senator Stephen Douglas. In fact, if you look on a map the official community name is still Douglas. When African-Americans began to move in, the neighborhood quickly took on several racially freighted names. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, the neighborhood was “alternately referred to as the ‘Black Belt’ or ‘Black Ghetto’ and occasionally ‘Darkie Town.’” Honestly, it makes me livid to even read that last one. The racism encountered by these new Chicagoans must have been appalling. The discrimination and sometimes shocking violence from the Chicago’s white population would persist for decades.

Unsurprisingly, residents of the neighborhood did not take kindly to these derogatory names. James Gentry, a theater editor for the Chicago Bee suggested the name “Bronzeville.” He said that African-Americans’ skin color was closer to bronze than black. The name was popularized by the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper with nationwide circulation.

The name “Bronzeville” has thus been in common use since the 1930’s. The new name may have reflected a desire by the neighborhood’s residents to define themselves on their own terms.

Regal Theater Bronzeville Neighborhood

The Stroll and the Black Metropolis

In its heyday, from the 1910’s to the 1940’s, Bronzeville rivaled Harlem as the cultural and political capital of African America. Bringing us to the next moniker associated with the Bronzeville neighborhood, the most famous are was called “The Stroll.” This section of State Street, from 26th to 29th Streets, was famous for its bustling activity. Day or night, people jammed the Stroll. Simply put, it was the center of the action back then. At its peak, the brilliantly illuminated lights and signs of the Stroll’s jazz clubs even led some to nickname it the “White Way.”

Geography lent the Stroll much of its energy. Bronzeville was a very small and densely populated neighborhood during the Great Migration. Racially biased housing policies meant that the Bronzeville neighborhood had small boundaries. Black residents were squeezed between 22nd Street on the north, 51st street on the South, the Rock Island Railway (near today’s Dan Ryan Expressway) on the west, and Cottage Grove Avenue on the east. The neighborhood was only a mile wide, at the most. This limited space in which blacks could live thus gave it these nicknames of “Black Belt” and “Black Metropolis.” As the biggest thoroughfare in that narrow strip of land, State Street became the natural meeting point for Bronzeville’s residents.

A Musical Theater Tribute to the Bronzeville Neighborhood

2016 is the 100th Anniversary of The Great Migration’s start. Today, the impact of Bronzeville is two-fold. First, it’s impossible to imagine Chicago without the incredible contributions of its African-American community. Secondly, during its heyday Bronzeville was central to black culture and identity across the nation.

–Alex Bean, Office Manager and Tour Guide

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Ellen

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.

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Jen

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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.

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Elyse

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.
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