With its boarded-up windows, the abandoned three-story mansion doesn’t look historically significant.
But in the 1930s, the greystone was where Melissia Ann Elam, a woman born into slavery and later emancipated, provided housing and social services to other black women and girls who came to Chicago during the first wave of the Great Migration.
For years, this site and others where black women labored to serve their South Side communities have gone unnoticed. But two women are releasing a guidebook that maps where more than 40 black women landed during the 1800s and early 1900s and worked to transform life for African-Americans.
Some, like social justice crusader and journalist Ida B. Wells; poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks, and pilot Bessie Coleman, are well known. But most of the women in the book, “Lifting as They Climbed,” have faded into history, even as their work in medicine, the fine arts, organizing and housing continues to touch lives.
“I want people to think about what these women did, the stories they told, the music they made, the institutions they built and how it’s connected to black women’s lives today,” said co-author Mariame Kaba.
The project comes during a national conversation about how black women’s contributions have been erased from history and what that has meant for women who have followed in their footsteps.
There are tours that highlight historical landmarks important to the black community, but this project is unique because it is centered on significant women — specifically points to their homes, churches, schools and businesses. For example: the crumbling three-flat in the 6100 block of South Rhodes where writer Lorraine Hansberry grew up in the 1930s. It inspired the play “A Raisin in the Sun.”
“I want young girls to visit these places and see what black women built,” Kaba said.
The guidebook — at chicagoblackwomen tour.com — was the brainchild of Kaba, who moved to Chicago in 1995. An educator and social justice organizer, Kaba realized she was following in the footsteps of other black women. “We walk by places and don’t know the history,” she said.
She began to research women like Emma Jane Atkinson, who moved to Chicago in 1847, became an abolitionist and helped provide food, clothing and shelter to runaway slaves. She learned about Fannie Hagen Emanuel, who arrived in the mid-1880s and opened a settlement home for black girls where she taught them how to sew, cook and develop other skills so they could find work. At 41, Emanuel went to medical school and became one of the country’s first black doctors serving black women.
For Essence McDowell, the project came just as she was exhausted from her activist work. She was sitting on boards, marching in protests and helping younger activists develop organizing strategies. Her volunteer work stretched her thin, and she wondered if she was being effective.
McDowell and Kaba developed a list of women they wanted to highlight. With research the list grew, in part because one woman’s story would carry them to another woman’s story. They narrowed their list, focusing on the South Side and women with a range of backgrounds.
“These black women created a road map, a blueprint for how to build in a community,” said McDowell, shown above at Hansberry’s House. “These women didn’t care what people thought of them, they didn’t let racism stop them, they didn’t let the threat of violence, didn’t let social structures, stop them.”
Neither of the women was paid for producing the book and they worked on it between their full-time jobs.
McDowell said the project re-energized her. “I consider these women my family now,” she said. “There’s Mama Elam. Mama Emanuel. Mama (Roberta Evelyn Winston) Martin. These women are a part of me and part of our city.”