Tag Archives: Chicago History

Energy Never Dies: Afro-Optimism and Creativity in Black Chicago


This holiday season, my first book (which deals with many of the ideas and themes in this blog), will be published through University of Illinois Press. I’m over the moon to get this collection of uplifting narratives about the city I adore out into the world. Energy Never Dies: Afro-Optimism and Creativity in Chicago outlines the undefeatable culture of Black Chicago, past and present.


From Afro Sheen to Theaster Gates and from Soul Train to Chance the Rapper, Black Chicago draws sustenance from a culture rooted in self-determination, aspiration, and hustle. Ayana Contreras embarks on a journey to share the implausible success stories and breathtaking achievements of Black Chicago’s artists and entrepreneurs. Past and present generations speak with one another, maintaining a vital connection to a beautiful narrative of Black triumph and empowerment that still inspires creativity and pride. Contreras weaves a hidden history from these true stories and the magic released by undervalued cultural artifacts. As she does, the idea that the improbable is always possible emerges as an indestructible Afro-Optimism that binds a people together.

Passionate and enlightening, Energy Never Dies uses the power of storytelling to show how optimism and courage fuel the dreams of Black Chicago.

“Contreras puts virtually every aspect of Black Chicago culture, music, business breakthroughs, and more on the table, then shows exactly how they are all interconnected. She writes the book as the Black experience is actually lived–this guy knows that guy, but the other guy used to work for the two of them. And none of it would’ve happened were it not for a certain audacious manner of hope and optimism found in Black Chicago.”–Lee Bey, author of Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side

“In Energy Never Dies, Ayana Contreras crafts an intensely intimate and loving portrait of Black Chicago that that will illuminate, even to lifelong South and West Siders, the distinctiveness of our cultural history and worldview. This book offers urgently needed blueprints for extending the work and actualizing the dreams of the Great Migrants.”–Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, coeditor of L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema

You can preorder the book here: https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/?id=84kcq6nx9780252044069

An Evening at the Forum: Jive and Jitterbug on!

evening at the forum event flyer

I’ll be spinning a very special set on Wednesday, September 24th in Chicago’s Bronzeville Community. All 1920s through 1950s music (with a few copacetic newer tracks sprinkled in). All vinyl. Actually, I’m trying to figure out if I’m bringing my Victrola. Then it’d be vinyl and shellac.

Lil Green Chicago

The event is titled “An Evening at the Forum”, and I am very excited that this building, and all the culture it represents, will be celebrated. That’s especially true because, not long ago, The Forum building nearly perished.

The Forum was built around 1900, and was slated for demolition in 2011. That’s when Bernard Loyd’s final bid for the property was accepted. That’s also when the work to restore the building (that’s suffered from decades of neglect) really began. Chicagopatterns.com did a really though job documenting some of the history, imagery, and narratives surrounding the space. I highly recommend that you check out their work here.

from the organizers of the event:

“On September 24, The Forum will pay homage to the Golden Age of Bronzeville with An Evening at The Forum, a retro-themed block party. The evening will revive key elements of the era – notably music and dance – while drawing the attention of locals and visitors to major redevelopment projects slated for historic 43rd Street.

The event will feature sounds from the 20’s through the 50’s by DJ Ayana Contreras, dance lessons by Big City Blues, historical tours by Chicago Patterns, classic children’s tales by Jason Driver, old fashioned games for children & adults, prohibition-era “mocktails” and hors d’oeuvres, and a preview of CRib Productions‘ “Juke Joint” a short which was recently filmed at Forum Hall, the iconic centerpiece of The Forum.


the particulars:

An Evening at the Forum

Wednesday, September 24th


The Forum

318-328 E 43rd St, Chicago, Illinois 60653

UPDATE! Here’s a couple of images from the event, courtesy of Urban Juncture.

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Operation Breadbasket, the seed of PUSH

Harry Belafonte at Operation Breadbasket, Chicago 1968

I have dedicated a number of posts here at Darkjive to the PUSH Expo, a 1970s exercise in Black Economic Empowerment (or Black Power as it was then known). The PUSH Expo phenomenon was borne from the seed of Operation Breadbasket (a department of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference), but the roots took twisted turns.

The term “Civil Rights Movement” often brings to mind images of the deep south, but Chicago was a key battleground in those days. Not just because of the influx of new Black citizens that the Great Migration delivered, but because of the ongoing struggles for housing equality and empowerment exacerbated by said influx.

Jesse Jackson, whose ties to Dr. King traced back to the Campaign at Selma in 1965, was selected by King to head Operation Breadbasket’s Chicago Branch.  True to its name, the organization distributed nourishment to the communtity, but it also played a more proactive role to fighting for social justice. 

Tactics such as boycotts were implemented, but according to Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power by David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), a seamier aspect including cronyism and strong-arming businesses to donate money to Operation Breadbasket were folded into the tactics, as well.

Eventually, leadership rifts came to a head, and in December 1971, Jackson fell out with Ralph Abernathy, King’s successor as head of the national SCLC. Jackson and his allies broke off and formed Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity).

Various sources tell me that this was a pivotal moment in Chicago History because a giant, organized black party (the largest in Chicago at the time) broke off into factions and never regained the traction it had built before that point.  Then crack hit the community like the atomic bomb (and the fallout is still being felt).  I argue that the hindsighted strength of the PUSH Expo-era was built on momentum created in the years that had preceded it, in conjunction with the genius of marketing with a major motion picture (!) and tons of press.   Documentation equals existence itself, and media has the power to romanticize just about anything.

In the end, please leave me the romance.  Let me believe that we were SO close to breaking free.  It gives me a fairy tale to build tomorrow upon.

Portraits of Black Chicago: The Beat Goes On

black_bongo_playerBlack bongo player performs at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the annual PUSH [People United to Save Humanity] ‘Black Expo’ in the fall of 1973. October 1973

Chicago’s PUSH Black Expo was a powerful tour de force for Black Businesses nationwide at the time this photo was shot.  Time magazine stated in a 1971 article: When the five-day trade fair opened in Chicago last week, there were representatives of nearly 400 black firms on hand to prove the premise. But before the week was out, Black Expo proved to be more than a display of the products of America’s fledgling black capitalism. It turned out to be an unofficial convention of entrepreneurs and politicians in search of power at the polls as well as in the marketplace. Wow.   There was even a major motion picture shot to document one year’s occurrence, entitled “Save the Children” (after that year’s theme).  So what happened?

Almost exactly twenty years after the above photo was shot, the following was published in the Chicago Reporter:

Black Expo: Taking Care of Business?

(originally published in the Chicago Reporter in September 1993)

When about 250,000 people, most of them African Americans, turned out for this year’s Chicago Black Expo, many were offered fried chicken and menthol cigarettes…

(click the link below for original footage of Marvin Gaye at the PUSH Expo)

marvin gaye live at the expo after the jump

The Shrine is coming…


shrinelogo(n.): A new music venue bringing entertainment back to Chicago nightlife, expected to open Memorial Day weekend 2009.

Joseph Russo, The Shrine’s founder and principal, has a number of legendary nightlife establishments in Chicago, including: The Funky Buddha, Thyme Restaurant, and its upscale lounge component Sinibar.  The Shrine’s Myspace page promises: “A fusion of a sensuous nightclub, state-of-the-art live performance space, and high-end lounge, …a next generation nightlife venue.”

I am ready to stop fantasizing about 63rd street back in the day….

excerpted from

“Chicago In Song: Street Signs”

by Robert Pruter (as published in the Beachwood Reporter)

Chicago city limits, that’s what the street sign on the highway read
I’m going to keep moving, until I get to that street called 63rd
…”  from “Hitch Hike” by Marvin Gaye

kitty-kat-adSixty-Third Street was bisected by Cottage Grove Avenue, and for a couple of decades it was the dividing line between the black and white sections of Woodlawn. The black nightclubs first arose on the west side of Cottage Grove, south and north of 63rd, and then a string went from Cottage Grove along 63rd west to South Parkway (now King Drive). When the color line of Woodlawn broke in 1951, black nightclubs then blossomed on the east side of Cottage Grove and east on 63rd to Stony Island Ave.

One of the most famous clubs on 63rd Street was the Kitty Kat, established in 1953, and which featured King Fleming, John Young, Ahmad Jamal and other more art-oriented jazz musicians. On the west side of Cottage Grove could be found another legendary jazz club, Basin Street, with such stellar acts as Johnny Griffin and Eddie Vinson, and about a block south at 64th Street was the Pershing Hotel complex of venues – the ballroom, the first-floor lounge and the basement club called Budland, which at first was a jazz club featuring such acts as Arnett Cobb, Miles Davis, and Billie Holiday, but later was booking rhythm and blues acts.

On the west side of the Cottage Grove was the Trianon Ballroom, where teenagers saw huge rhythm and blues stage shows, and McKie’s Lounge, which booked a host of great sax blowers. Further east on 63rd Street was the famed Crown Propeller Lounge, which booked both jazz and rhythm and blues acts. The 63rd-Cottage Grove intersection was anchored by the largest theater on the South Side, the Tivoli, which put on rhythm and blues shows as well.

The 63rd Street Stroll also emerged as the South Side’s new “sin strip” during this period. The attraction of the area was “the forbidden,” where one could find not only jazz and rhythm and blues, but smoking, drinking, dope dealing and women. The area attracted not only ardent music fans, both black and white, but also those on the lookout for “action.”

My most rhythmic sisters, The Shrine is holding open auditions for dancers next weekend (I wanted to give you time to prep)…. Here’s the deal:

We invite young, passionate, creative female dancers willing to commit to four to six short performances a week (2-3 nights) to participate in our open call process.

Location and Time:

Visceral Dance Studio
2820 N. Elston Ave
12pm, April 11th, 2009


– Female Dancers who are 21 years of age or older by May 15th, 2009
-Must provide one non-returnable headshot and one non-returnable full-body shot including height and weight (5″x7″ or larger preferred). Photos are used for identification purposes.
-Professional photo is not mandatory. Photos should be a current representation of what you look like or will look like at the audition.
-No street shoes.

What we’re looking for:

– Athletic build, personality, energy, enthusiasm!
-Professionalism and maturity
-Background in african, modern, or jazz a plus
-Ability to improvise with confidence
-Ability to pick up dance choreography quickly
-Consistent positive attitude
-Strong teamwork skills

Portraits of Black Chicago: Cool Off

black_youngstersBlack youngsters cool off with fire hydrant water on Chicago’s South Side in the Woodlawn community… June 1973

“…The kids don’t go to the city beaches and use the fire hydrants to cool off instead. It’s a tradition in the community, comprised of very low income people. The area has high crime and fire records. From 1960 to 1970 the percentage of Chicago blacks with income of $7,000 or more jumped from 26% to 58%.”*  caption by John H. White.

* according to Paul Louis Street’s Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis, the median income for Blacks in Chicago in 2000 was “more than $6,000 less than the Economic Policy Institute’s “basic family budget”…for even a small family of one parent and two children ($35,307).  On the flip of this, the median white income in the city was $11,000 more than the that basic family budget.

from the National Archives website:

From June through October 1973 and briefly during the spring of 1974, John H. White, a 28-year-old photographer with the Chicago Daily News, worked for the federal government photographing Chicago, especially the city’s African American community. As White reflected recently, he saw his assignment as “an opportunity to capture a slice of life, to capture history.”

Today, John White is a staff photographer with the Chicago Sun-Times. He has won hundreds of awards, and his work has been exhibited and published widely. In 1982 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.

I am a big fan of John H. White’s photography.  He has that magic ability to tell a whole story with one frame.  click here for his website

taken from the National Archives and Records Administration Website

Portraits of Black Chicago: The Fruit of Islam


The Fruit of Islam,’ a special group of bodyguards for Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad, sits at the bottom of the platform while he delivers his annual Savior’s Day message in Chicago. March 1974.

“….The city is headquarters for the Black Muslims. Their $75 million dollar empire includes a mosque, newspaper, university, restaurants, real estate, bank, and variety of retail stores. Muhammad died February 25, 1975.” – caption by John H. White

UPDATE:  Since 1978, Louis Farrakhan has been the leader of a reconstituted Nation of Islam.  The Nation of Islam’s headquarters is still located in Chicago, Illinois, and its flagship Mosque No. 2, Mosque Maryam is on South Stony Island Avenue.

according to Wikipedia:

In an interview on NBC‘s Meet the Press, Louis Farrakhan was asked by Tim Russert to explain the Nation of Islam’s view on separation:

“Tim Russert: Once a week, on the back page [of your newspaper] is The Muslim Program, “What the Muslims Want,” [written in 1965]. The first is in terms of territory, “Since we cannot get along with them in peace and equality, we believe our contributions to this land and the suffering forced upon us by white America justifies our demand for complete separation in a state or territory of our own.” Is that your view in 1997, a separate state for Black Americans?”

“Minister Louis Farrakhan: First, the program starts with number one. That is number four. The first part of that program is that we want freedom, a full and complete freedom. The second is, we want justice. We want equal justice under the law, and we want justice applied equally to all, regardless of race or class or color. And the third is that we want equality. We want equal membership in society with the best in civilized society. If we can get that within the political, economic, social system of America, there’s no need for point number four. But if we cannot get along in peace after giving America 400 years of our service and sweat and labor, then, of course, separation would be the solution to our race problem.”

For more on the Nation, click here.

from the National Archives website:

From June through October 1973 and briefly during the spring of 1974, John H. White, a 28-year-old photographer with the Chicago Daily News, worked for the federal government photographing Chicago, especially the city’s African-American community. As White reflected recently, he saw his assignment as “an opportunity to capture a slice of life, to capture history.”

Today, John White is a staff photographer with the Chicago Sun-Times. He has won hundreds of awards, and his work has been exhibited and published widely. In 1982 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.

I am a big fan of John H. White’s photography.  He has that magic ability to tell a whole story with one frame.  click here for his website

The History of Gangs in Chicago


A Communiversity Course beginning next week…
This course examines the history of gangs in Chicago through the lens of racism and social movements.  Rather than explain Chicago’s history of gangs as a one-sided story of criminality, the course looks at how gangs have played political roles in Chicago and have changed in response to local conditions.  Check out an intro video for this course HERE.

Educator: John Hagedorn is Professor of Criminology, Law, & Justice at UIC. Author of People and Folks: Gangs, Crime and the Underclass in a Rustbelt City, his most recent book is A World of Gangs; Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture. William Julius Wilson called Of People and Things “the most insightful book ever written on inner-city gangs” and “required reading for anyone seeking an understanding of gang activity in our large urban centers.”

Dates: March 23 – May 8
Place: online (with two in-person sessions)
Fee:  8 sessions, FREE for all ages

This course is open to all….

for more info (and registration information) click here

About the Communiversity:

According to Mia Henry, Communiversity events, facilitated by the Chicago Freedom School, seek to engage intergenerational audiences in the study of past movements and discussions on what we can learn from them…

Chicago 10 [fight the power]

(above clip, from the film Chicago 10, as aired on PBS’ Independent lens)

Plans for the Festival of Life (to be held during the Democratic National Convention of 1968), developed by Yippie founders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, called for a “festival of youth, music, and theater.”  In January 1968, the Yippies released an initial call to come to Chicago, called:


“Join us in Chicago in August for an international festival of youth, music, and theater.  Rise up and abandon the creeping meatball!  Come all you rebels, youth spirits, rock minstrels, truth-seekers, peacock-freaks, poets, barricade-jumpers, dancers, lovers and artists!
“It is summer.  It is the last week in August, and the NATIONAL DEATH PARTY meets to bless Lyndon Johnson.  We
are there!  There are 50,000 of us dancing in the streets, throbbing with amplifiers and harmony.  We are making love in the
parks.  We are reading, singing, laughing, printing newspapers, groping, and making a mock convention, and celebrating the
birth of FREE AMERICA in our own time.
“Everything will be free.  Bring blankets, tents, draft-cards, body-paint, Mr. Leary’s Cow, food to share, music, eager skin,
and happiness.  The threats of LBJ, Mayor Daley, and J. Edgar Freako will not stop us.  We are coming!  We are coming from
all over the world!
“The life of the American spirit is being torn asunder by the forces of violence, decay, and the napalm-cancer fiend.  We
demand the Politics of Ecstasy!  We are the delicate spores of the new fierceness that will change America.  We will create our
own reality, we are Free America!  And we will not accept the false theater of the Death Convention.
“We will be in Chicago.  Begin preparations now!  Chicago is yours!  Do it!”

Chicago was never quite the same….. In the wake of the riots, of so much turmoil, a fire was lit.  More on this topic to come (I’ve got lots of underground local papers from the era…)

Below is Jose Feliciano with a performance of “Light My Fire”, a Doors cover and a top record on both WVON and WLS (local Radio Station powerhouses) during August of 1968…