When Bernard Loyd first ducked into the Checkerboard Lounge in 1995, he didn’t realize he was stepping in the shadows of musical giants.
Loyd, a perennially traveling consultant in his early 30s, was new to the neighborhood and just wanted to enjoy a Heineken while chatting about the weather and Chicago Bulls. He picked the Checkerboard — despite the cigarette smoke that lingered in his hair and clothes — mostly because by that time, much of the retail corridors of Bronzeville already had been gutted, leaving scant other options.
The hole-in-the-wall charm of the nightclub’s mismatched chairs, no-airs crowd and commanding live vocalists made it easy to go back. So did the stories Loyd later heard of those who had graced its stage, such as Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones, Junior Wells, B.B. King and more.
Today, a square of bumpy grass sits in the former footprint of the Checkerboard Lounge, some of it growing wild and starting to creep into sidewalk cracks on 43rd Street. A sign on the empty lot, detailing plans for five rowhouses to take over that space, bills the upcoming development as “extraordinary.”
“It’s gone,” Loyd said about his old haunt, which moved to Hyde Park nearly two decades ago. “There’s no trace of it.”
Loyd, now the project leader of a community revitalization campaign called Build Bronzeville, said he doesn’t want other historic anchors of his neighborhood to disappear. He and other community leaders support federal legislation introduced last month in Congress by Democratic U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago in the House, and Illinois U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth in the Senate.
The proposal would designate the neighborhood as a National Heritage Area and pump $10 million into preserving its remaining buildings and traditions. Such areas are maintained by community organizations with assistance from the National Park Service, whose website says the program “tells nationally important stories” about heritage, although they aren’t national parks.
In Illinois, only two such heritage areas exist: the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area, and the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Proponents of the bill say it’s long overdue that Bronzeville, also known as the Black Metropolis for its outsize footprint on Black culture, is noted for being just as influential on America’s historical landscape. They contend it’s not enough as the neighborhood tries to leave behind the recent decades’ trials with population loss and disinvestment, but they believe the funding and acknowledgment could jump-start a new era of revitalization.
The Bronzeville-Black Metropolis National Heritage Area Act has been introduced before, but with Democrats now controlling both chambers of Congress and the White House this year, Rush said he believes 2021 is the year the legislation will see movement.
“It is important for us to maintain and protect and promote the historical legacy of Bronzeville so that future generations, African Americans and otherwise, but African American particularly, can understand and appreciate the tremendous sacrifice that was made to make Bronzeville an important aspect of American history,” Rush said in a recent phone interview.
Starting more than a century ago, the roads and rail tracks connecting the South to the North stirred with millions of Black families traveling to cities such as Chicago to flee racism and seek out grander job prospects. This was known as the Great Migration. In Chicago, they were met with further segregation in the form of restrictive covenants that prohibited homeowners from renting or selling to Black people, constraining them to an area on the South Side that became nicknamed the “Black Metropolis.”
It was from this crucible that Bronzeville fostered renowned Black artists such as Nat King Cole, Gwendolyn Brooks and Louis Armstrong as well as a reputation across the U.S. where Black residents from all backgrounds bumped elbows and started fresh. Bronzeville also is a land of firsts: There was Supreme Life Insurance, the first northern Black-owned insurance company; Pilgrim Baptist Church, the birthplace of gospel music; the Wabash Avenue YMCA, where Black History Month began; the George Cleveland Hall branch of the Chicago Public Library, led by the first Black person to head a CPL branch; and more.
Bernard Turner, the executive director of the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area Commission that would head the implementation of Rush’s bill, likened growing up in Bronzeville in the 1950s to exploring a “city within a city.” He isn’t sure how his father cobbled up the money to own his own gas station in the neighborhood, but it was typical for businesses across Bronzeville to be Black-owned. Money changed hands for multiple cycles before ever leaving the neighborhood, he said.
Though that bustling population has thinned over the decades, Turner said the cultural significance of Bronzeville remains. Now it falls on Congress to help preserve Bronzeville’s past in order to ensure its future, he said.
“Putting more emphasis and support into Bronzeville is going to produce more jobs,” Turner said about the measure. “It will rejuvenate the neighborhood and help it to become more stable. I think it will make Chicago a better place.”
The Great Migration spanned the 1910s to the 1970s and ultimately drew more than 500,000 Black Americans to Chicago. But after World War II, Bronzeville began an era of decline that has been attributed to myriad factors, such as residents moving away following a landmark 1948 U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down restrictive covenants or the Chicago Housing Authority constructing and then demolishing public housing high-rise towers in the neighborhood. Others have said the Dan Ryan Expressway, which opened in 1962, cut Bronzeville off from the rest of the city, or that the neighborhood suffered insufficient public transportation and other government neglect.
From 1950 to 2010, Bronzeville lost more than 75% of its population, according to a Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning analysis of the U.S. census data. Black-owned businesses that had dotted the main corridors for decades vanished as vacant lots, fast-food franchises and boarded-up homes took their place.
However, there have been good signs for the neighborhood during the past decade. The populations in Douglas and Grand Boulevard, two of the main communities that make up Bronzeville, grew by 16.6% and 3.9%, respectively, from 2010 to 2018. Home values also have risen during that time, and sparkling new residential buildings continue to pop up.
The churn within the neighborhood makes Ronnie Matthew Harris, who moved to Bronzeville from Gulfport, Mississippi, in the 1960s with his parents, wonder if the potential designation of his neighborhood as a National Heritage Area has come too late for some.
“On the one hand I think it’s great,” Harris, also the founder of the community development organization Sacred Roots, said. “It’s just sad to see that it has come so late at a point where so many of (Bronzeville’s) children who migrated here, and made it great, I should add, are no longer around to take advantage of what that might mean.”
Still, supporters of the bill said the promise of Bronzeville remains, and that the conversation about its singular past is especially apt after a tumultuous year following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died as a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck last May. Andrea Evans, director of Northeastern Illinois University’s Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies, said she backs the proposed act because part of the racial reckoning that has followed should include education about Black history.
“There’s so much about Black life in America that’s just so disconnected and disjointed,” Evans said. “So when you have a place like Bronzeville that really was the center of Black life in Chicago and in some ways in America, you have to mark off the places that mattered.”
Loyd, the past frequenter of Checkerboard Lounge, still riles himself up when he talks about the demise of his favorite nightclub founded by Buddy Guy in 1972. In 2003, city officials closed the lounge because of code violations, spurring the University of Chicago to offer its owner a $7-a-square-foot deal to reopen in Hyde Park.
Though a U. of C. spokeswoman said at the time the owner agreed to sell and “the university is not stealing the Checkerboard,” Loyd was one of the dozens of protesters who picketed campus premises that December to demand the lounge remain in Bronzeville. He had told the Tribune at the time the proposal was akin to “theft.”
The club moved to Hyde Park but never took off, ultimately closing its doors years later.
“The Checkerboard was so deeply rooted in the culture of Bronzeville, and then was lost,” Loyd said. “That’s been the story of so much of Bronzeville culture, that it ran into hard times because of societal forces beyond our control, and other folks outside of Bronzeville took advantage of those challenges.”
But the story of the Checkerboard Lounge has not unfolded everywhere in Bronzeville. Loyd, who also is president of the community organization Urban Juncture, is focused on fixing up The Forum, a former performance hall at 318-328 E. 43rd St. that is on the National Register of Historic Places. His organization saved it from a city demolition a decade ago. When he moves between its cavernous walls, he feels the weight of Bronzeville’s past and future, he said.
“As a person, (Bronzeville) would be the life of the party,” Loyd said. “Now, the party has dimmed for some decades, but all of the intrinsics are still there. … We need to figure out how to bring it back.”
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