How Chicago’s ‘Promised Land’ of Black Business Faded


Most are gone now. The Soft Sheen plant is now a self-storage facility. And while the company is still in business, it is no longer based on 87th Street, or even in Chicago. It now belongs to the French cosmetics giant L’Oréal.

This black-owned business network was responsible for the rise of black political power in Chicago, putting in place the money that funded political campaigns, including Harold Washington’s successful 1983 attempt to become the first black mayor. from Chicago.

Washington’s head of fundraising was Al Johnson, of which Al Johnson Cadillac was the nation’s first black-owned Cadillac dealership when it opened in 1971. Media campaign encouraging black voter registration – “Come Alive le October 5 “- helped propel Washington to power.

Having capital changed the expectations of what Black Chicagoans could ask for politically. “For many black people, if you were a middle-class school teacher or a member of the city society council office, or a social worker, chances are your check was cut by the same government people. [in City Hall] that you were pushing out of there, ”said lawyer Quintin King, lobbyist and professor of political science at DePaul University.

But the people who organized and implemented the push to overthrow the political machine and to support Harold Washinton, most of them were independent businessmen like the Bouttes and Al Johnsons, King said.

“And a host of other people whose names have been lost in history.”

Lucrative contracts

TIt turned out that this ascent was brief. Shortly after his second term as mayor, Washington died in office, devastated by a heart attack. The ensuing race for power ultimately led to the election of another white mayor, Richard M. Daley, son of legendary Chicago political boss Mayor Richard J. Daley, in 1989.

Young Daley embraced the black business community just as other economic factors drove his numbers down.

But some Chicago political observers saw his strategy as fueling the decline: In order to stay in power and prevent the rise of another Harold Washington, they say, the mayor used the town hall’s vast purse to help reward loyal black businesses with lucrative contracts and political access. . (Full disclosure: I spent three years as Daley’s deputy chief of staff for town planning from 2001 to 2004.)

“Their bread was buttered in the city center [by City Hall]”said Jackson, the political consultant.

The result, he said: “As black business owners started to climb and enter the circle of wealth, they were no longer interested in empowering black people.”

“Fly dressed as you can”

The powerful marriage of black business and politics in Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s gained national attention, particularly in the pages of Ebony, Jet, and Black Enterprise magazines. The stories were enough to bring Quintin King to Chicago from Cleveland when he was a young lawyer in the 1980s.

“I said, ‘I’ve got to get there.’ There was something about seeing all these handsome black people walking the streets of Michigan Avenue, owning businesses and dressing the way you can, ”said King, who is now a partner at the Chicago-owned law firm. to Blacks, Dillard & King.

And for those of us of a certain age who grew up on the South Side where these black-owned businesses and many others were located, the loss of the years that have passed since then is personally felt.

If you were a kid growing up in the 1970s, when your mom would send you out to buy ice cream at the store, she didn’t have to tell you what to buy: it was Baldwin ice cream, black owned and local. . And until he went bankrupt in about 1977, Joe Louis Milk was a staple in many refrigerators. The Brown Bomber had a milk bottling business on 62nd Street and Prairie Avenue, right there on the South Side.

But now, with the massive population loss on the predominantly black south and west sides of the city, it becomes a very different Chicago.

“I have resigned myself to the fact that we are living through the Great Exodus,” said Jackson. “And we’re going to be like the Native Americans: to a place where [people will say], ‘Do you remember when black people were here?’ “

Black people built theirs

Mall historic black businesses were born in an era when white-owned businesses refused to serve – or even recognize – black customers.

So the blacks built theirs, in their own neighborhoods.

But John H. Johnson’s Johnson Publishing Co. was an outlier. In 1972, the media giant that published Ebony and Jet – and also created the Fashion Fair makeup and the legendary traveling fashion show Ebony Fashion Fair – moved to the near south side to an elegant 11-story corporate headquarters that it built in the South Loop at 820 S. Michigan Avenue.


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