Throughout the month of February, we celebrate the achievements and acknowledge the triumph of Black Americans. Chicago’s history is Black history, and Black history is American history. They simply can’t be separated. Here are but a handful of the Black Chicagoans who have shaped our great city.
Though there is limited record of du Sable’s early life, he was born in Haiti, emigrated to French Louisiana and then moved north. After marrying a Potawatomi woman in Cahokia, an early settlement near present-day St. Louis, du Sable purchased a piece of land at the mouth of the Chicago River and established a trading post. His settlement is regarded as the first permanent residence in the area. He is remembered as the founder of Chicago, with numerous landmarks and memorials in his name today.
As an investigative journalist, Ida B. Wells wrote lengthy exposés on the practice of lynching in 19th century America. In addition to her terrific written communication skills, Wells was a gifted orator who gave many speeches on oppression and injustice around the world. She settled in Chicago to raise her family, and quickly became involved in local organizing. She worked closely with Frederick Douglass to stage a boycott of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition for its lack of black inclusion within exhibits, and became one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In July of 2018, Chicago’s Congress Parkway was renamed Ida B. Wells Drive. It is the first downtown street named for a woman of color.
Born to a mostly Native American father and mostly African American mother in the deep south at the end of the 19th century, there was no precedent for Bessie Coleman’s eventual success. At age 24, she moved to Chicago with her brothers and got a job at a barber shop where she would hear stories of flying planes from the WWI pilots who recently returned to the homefront. She yearned to get in the air herself. At the time, American flight schools were not admitting women nor people of color. Under the advisement of Robert S. Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender, one of the nation’s premiere African American newspapers, Coleman applied to a French flight school, where she went on to become the first person of African American descent and the first person of Native American descent to earn a pilot’s license.
Born McKinley Morganfield, the musician professionally known as Muddy Waters moved to Chicago from Mississippi in the early 1940s, and began recording with a small label that went on to become the legendary Chess Records. Muddy Waters’ music defined post-war blues and was a heavy influence on the rock and roll that came after. His tunes became the soundtrack to a generation. Both The Rolling Stones and Rolling Stone magazine are named for his song “Rollin’ Stone” (also known as “Catfish Blues”). Today, Waters is constantly cited as the father of Chicago blues.
By the age of 16, American poet Gwendolyn Brooks had already published 75 poems. After growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Brooks’ poems often featured characters she met in the bustling city. Her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), was a love letter to the neighborhood that continues to breed Black talent today. In 1950, Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, becoming the first African American person to take home the honor.
Honoring Chicago’s rich Black history cannot be limited to just one month. Explore the landmarks and memorials dedicated to our Black icons all year long!