by Ivana Hester
Harold L. Lucas calls himself an emancipator, some one who frees others from bondage. Decades ago this bondage would have been identified as slavery. However, in recent years that same bondage has shaped itself in a new form. “It is all in the mind,” Lucas says. He has made it his life’s mission to remind his community, residents of Bronzeville, of the rich history in which it came from. He and his team are hoping that this enlightenment will be the first step to an emancipation of the mind.
“We have to understand what is happening to us (as a community), and we have to have an honest dialogue about it among our peers. We have to understand the institutional foundations and legacies that have been left for us to work through. We have to respect those legacies and we have to embrace those legacies, and we have to translate it into to our own goals and objectives,” he said leaning forward in his chair using his hands to gesture the importance of this goal. It is not just for him, it is for the past and the present.
Bronzeville, also known as the Black Metropolis, is one of Chicago’s most historically prominent neighborhoods. Founded in 1916 as the settlement for African Americans coming up to the North during the Great Migration. They came for a promise of new jobs and freedom. During this time blacks were zoned to one side of Chicago due to racial segregation, and their neighborhood was referred to as the Black Ghetto or the Black Belt. Residents highly disapproved of the negative connotations so it was later renamed Bronzeville by a local play write. Also known to many during that time period as, the city within a city.
Segregation at this time meant that African American’s had to open their own businesses, and sustain on their own. The neighborhood was so independent it even had it’s own Mayoral elections. Bronzeville was once the home of great authors, play writes, poets and musicians such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright and Willie Dixon, just to name a few.
“What is our legacy? Electrified Blues, Gospel and Jazz Music and the African American grass roots politics that elected the first African American President, that is what the people want to see,” Lucas says as he discusses with enthusiasm the future plans he has for Bronzeville as a tourism destination sight.
The Bronzeville Visitor Information Center is Lucas’s headquarters. Where he brainstorms plans for the expansion of his growing dream. He currently runs several tours throughout the month that start at the John H. Johnson building, the sight of the first black owned publication founded by John H. Johnson, who started off working at the Supreme Life Insurance Agency that was once located in the very building Lucas and his historical preservationist staff are located today. The visitor information center also provides classes that train other adults how to also docent tours, but some people just take the classes to learn more about Bronzeville’s rich history.
When you walk into the visitor information center, you are immediately captivated by all the historical artifacts. Everywhere you turn pieces of Bronzeville’s profound history are all around you; newspapers that chronicle the neighborhood’s ground breaking events, pictures of businesses and people of the time, art work and posters. These treasures just seem endless. The visitor information center runs exhibitions through out the year, and host events. The most recent event was a celebration of the John H. Johnson stamp.
During the warmer months a gift shop is open down stairs where you can take a little bit of history home with you by purchasing informational books or antique treasures remnant of Bronzeville’s Hay Days. There is so much history in the visitor information center, so many stories to be taught about each exhibit and artifact, and Lucas is the perfect teacher.
“Will the negro find a meaning in his humiliation? Turn his slums and his sweat shops into modern cathedrals, out of which will be born a new spirit that will guide him toward freedom,” Lucas quotes an excerpt from the book Black Metropolis written by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, based on Bronzeville. He says this has been his mantra throughout his life. Lucas believes in historic preservation, and he is an advocate of educating the younger generations about their history. Instilling in them a since of pride to reverse the negative cycle of poverty. He believes it starts with changing individual mindsets. Establishing Bronzeville as a tourism destination will not only enlighten the younger generations of the community, but also bring awareness to people around the world. Lucas and his team are also hoping that the tours will help create revenue that can go toward re building the city and preserving several historical landmarks that are being threatened demolition by the city; such as the Rosenwald building on 47th and Michigan named after Julius Rosenwald of Sears and Roebuck a Jewish philanthropist that did a lot to help out the black community throughout his lifetime.
The deprivation in Lucas’s community makes Lucas more committed than ever to make all his dreams come true. “I’m willing to sift through 10 people, to find one or two good people who are dedicated to the cause of our (the African American community’s) emancipation, that I can invest my human energy in them; transferring the knowledge that I have learned over the generations that I have survived,” Lucas says.
Patricia Fox project manager for the Visitor Information Center, a valuable member of the preservation team said, “Harold has a certain kind of genius I wish more people had.”
He is a third generation Chicago native, who grew up in the Ida B. Wells Public Housing Projects until he was 7, one of the first four housing projects developed in Chicago it was located on the South Side in Bronzeville. At the age of seven he became the victim of a broken home when his mother and father split up, following which he moved to Woodlawn. He tells people he survived Woodlawn, from the ages of seven to 12 where he witnessed the beginning of the Black Stone Rangers a social club turned street gang. At the age of 13 his family moved him from 64th and Kenwood to 54th and Kimbark, which is located in Hyde Park. He attributes his family’s move to Hyde Park as the move that saved his life. Although it was a better environment to grow up in racial tensions were still prevalent at the time.
“In Hyde Park, they oppressed us with two pieces of silk,” Lucas says, explaining that African Americans were oppressed, but very nicely in comparison to how they would be treated in other neighborhoods.
Still he says that if he hadn’t moved he would probably have become a gang leader, would have been selling drugs or dead due to the rough environment he had been growing up in. “I don’t play... matter of fact my street name was Buzzard,” he jokes as justification to the rough path he could have gone down with the kind of personality he has. Today you can still sense that Lucas is a tough guy who is not afraid to speak his mind. He says that because he had a good catholic mother who loved him, he never crossed the line because he knew from a moral perspective what was right and what was wrong.
After his move to Hyde Park, things turned around for the better, and he became the leader of a community skating operation at the YMCA. He says he was always very active in the community. After finishing school he worked at the steel mill. Lucas explains that at that time there was an abundance of jobs.
Today Lucas fights to preserve African American history and the historic black neighborhood of Bronzeville. He fights against re-gentrification which he explains as, “The systematic withdrawal of government resources from an area, allowing that area to deteriorate, dealing with the people of that area from a criminal justice perspective, and clearing the land to prepare it for repatriation by the dominate white culture.” He classifies it as re-gentrification because he says it was has already happened before. Lucas explains that the original map in which African Americas were zoned to, also known as the original map of Bronzeville, which there is a copy of at the visitor information center, started at Michigan and 18th street.
Now present day Bronzeville’s map has been pushed back due to high priced developments that displaced citizens with lower incomes. Lucas’s problem is not with the idea gentrification as a whole, he would love to see new businesses and homes come in and revitalize his community. This is one of the primary reasons he wants the tourism business to grow and expand so that the income from it can go in to opening and funding these new businesses, and new homes that every one can afford. Lucas also wants to guarantee that the history is preserved while doing so, and that in the process current residents are not displaced.
He hopes that in the future the new developments will actually bring residents that were previously displaced by pricey developments, back into the community. He and his team believe that the drop in population is in direct correlation to the loss of businesses, because if the people of that community are no longer there to spend at local businesses then sales decrease. This often leads to the close of most of those establishments, and thus the cycle continues.
Norman Montgomery is the Information Service Manager at the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center; he retired from UIC in 2009 where he was a Senior Research Programmer in the Telecommunications Department. Responsible for gathering the community’s statistics and maintaining the database at the Visitor Information Center he says, the exact population loss that we are looking at in Bronzeville is about 20,000 to 33,000 people, this is if you include the areas from the original map of Bronzeville in which people have been pushed out from due to gentrification.
Lucas says these are the steps to his future plan:
1. Focus on authenticity
2. Save the site
3. Find the fit between site and community
4. Find the resources
5. Collaborate as broadly as possible
Lucas and his team recently got back from a trip to Springfield, Illinois to advocate for the cause. He has asked for 1 million dollars every year for the next 10-years to establish Bronzeville as a tourism destination site and preserve it’s great history. He has been working hard at bringing this vision to life for over 40 years now. At the age of 69, he is set on pushing this dream in to a complete reality by the time of Bronzeville’s 100th year anniversary in 2016.
Northeastern Illinois Professor Zada Johnson has known Harold for about 15-years now. They met when she was a young professor at Olive Harvey College, located at 10001 South Woodlawn Avenue, when she was teaching about Bronzeville. She has since then become a member of Harold’s team of supporters. Currently in addition to teaching she is working as the faculty coordinator of the Bronzeville Neighborhood Research Project, a group of student and faulty researchers that examine the history and culture of the community, contributing to Lucas’s work by introducing students to the Bronzeville neighborhood. She says,
“I feel that Mr. Lucas is a valuable member of our community, constantly reminding us of the importance of our history in Bronzeville as well as our responsibility to develop our neighborhoods and youth.”
Going on a tour with Lucas is like walking with a history book in your hand. He opens your eyes to a community you have never seen before, with 35th and King Drive at the heart. You travel back in time to a place where the streets are paved with Bronze. Well, they actually are. Bronze plaques line the King Drive sidewalks as tributes to the various individuals that made Bronzeville’s history. In the center of the street lies a map of all of Bronzeville’s historic sites. This is an effort that Lucas helped to push through as the beginning stages of re-establishing Bronzeville’s history.