CHICAGO, March 18, 2021 Emmett Till's death became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement 66 years ago. Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, worked tirelessly to preserve her son's place in history. From the segregated south and the mores of white supremacy that lynched Emmett's 14-year old body; through the Civil Rights movement to the recent uprising of America at the witness of George Floyd's murder, the purchase, and landmark designation of Emmett Till's childhood home; the struggle continues.
After decades of advocating for the preservation of cultural heritage sites that honor Black women and Black heroes who migrated to Chicago, comes the announcement of a new zoning amendment, primed to shut down all preservation efforts. The proposed ordinance will prevent community organizations from telling heritage stories from the hallowed halls where the history happened.
Ald. Sophia King (4th Ward) introduced a zoning amendment, scheduled to be heard at the March 23 Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards Committee meeting. The amendment would outright prohibit future cultural spaces and house museums in most residential zoning districts while restricting others' expansion.
"We are deeply shocked and saddened by this sweeping proposal by city leaders sworn to advance equity. The City of Chicago should offer the vital role of support in memorializing the local legacies of Black champions by preserving our sites of significance. Yet politicians are asking us to stop," said Naomi Davis, Executive Director of Blacks in Green™, a West Woodlawn-based non-profit preparing to launch the Till-Mobley House Great Migration Museum, Garden & Theatre at the former home of Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till Mobley. Emmett Till's childhood home was designated a Chicago Landmark in January 2021. Blacks in Green™ has commenced a formal filing with the state and federal agencies to achieve status as a National Historic Landmark.
"We have been elated by DPD's Maurice Cox's comments and promised support. The City Council's favorable Landmark designation sent us over the moon with joy. Now, this! Whatever affects the economic health of the Black community affects Blacks in Green. The 'wokeness' we've seen in Chicago and America makes this act by a Chicago Alderwoman inexplicable. Alderwoman King uses a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel to resolve problems like parking regulation and community engagement. But we can have economic development in our Black neighborhoods without sacrificing peace and democracy," Davis said. "We deeply believe that a ban on Chicago House Museums is a ban on Black History, and clearly, the public agrees." The Chicago City Council has received hundreds of letters opposing the anti-house museum ordinance, and the change.org petition currently circulating has received over 5,000 signatures in less than two days.
"We are on the verge of a cultural renaissance that is appreciated far and wide with the opportunity to bring African American heritage in Chicago to its rightful level," adds Davis. "We are so proud of Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor and her unflagging support. She stands with us, ensuring that the Till House and other preservation sites in her ward and beyond have the opportunity to bring African American heritage in Chicago to its proper level."
BIG™ is partnering with organizations representing other Black history museums and Preservation Chicago to oppose this house museum ban.
Dr. Lyn Hughes, Founder and Board Chair of the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Pullman is a part of that coalition: "I am immensely proud to be a part of this coalition for mobilizing against such an unjust and unnecessary action. If passed, it would be financially damaging to many small museums and force others to close." After 26 years, it is heartwarming to know that we are not alone."
Dr. Joann Tate is working to restore the Phyllis Wheatley Home, a Black women settlement house and organization that dates to the 1890s. This amendment will kill that vision. "Black communities are limited in economic opportunities, and a Phyllis Wheatley museum can become the mechanism to generate heritage tourism," Tate said. "We can bring in economic, educational, historical, and cultural elements to promote successful development and generational prosperity."
Ald. King claimed there were only four house museums that she could find in residential areas. However, the legislation would essentially ban more than a dozen culturally significant sites, including the long-time residence of author and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. The Till Home, the Wheatley Home, and the Muddy Waters Home are all sites planned to honor significant African American community contributions. Also at risk are future expansion plans for the South Side Community Arts Center and the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum.
"We have been working with communities across Chicago to restore the built places that tell the story of this city," said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago. "It would be devastating to set back this progressive work over concerns about parking and gift shops."
Naomi Davis is the author of The Sustainable Square Mile Handbook™, The 8 Principles of Green Village Building™, and the 12 Propositions of Grannynomics™. Blacks In Green (BIG™) serves as a bridge and catalyst among communities and their stakeholders, designing and developing green, self-sustaining, mixed-income, walkable-villages in communities owned and populated by African Americans. Villages where every household can walk-to-work, walk-to-shop, walk-to-learn, walk-to-play, and neighbor dollars circulate to reduce greenhouse gases.