|Origins||Settled by Stephan A. Douglas in 1852 and annexed in 1863|
26th Street on the north, Pershing road on the south, Lake Michigan to Vincennes Avenue on the east, railroad tracks La Salle Street to Federal Street on the west
The area that became known as Douglas was first settled in the year 1852 by Stephan A. Douglas (pictured below) who is well known for running against Abraham Lincoln for presidency in 1860. Douglas planned to build an elegant subdivision for Chicago wealthy elites and the construction began in the second half of the 1850s.
Douglas’ property became noticed by the United States Army as they built Camp Douglas (pictured below) putting Stephan Douglas’ subdivision progress on hold in 1861 once the Civil War started. The camp was to be used to train new recruits but very soon it became a prison to hold Confederate soldiers as well. The camp was a hell hole and thousands of Confederates died in the prison which was the beginning of the many woes this neighborhood would face in the 19th and 20th centuries.
During the war in 1863, Douglas was granted annexation into the city of Chicago. As soon as the war ended the city paved roads and put in public transportation and this attracted many of Chicago’s elite as they built grand mansions mainly in the Groveland and Woodland Park (pictured above) sections and the upper middle class built houses along Michigan Avenue, Indiana Avenue, Wabash Avenue and State Street. Many of the wealthy residents were Jewish while Irish immigrants settled along Federal Street in small homes starting in the late 1860s after the Union Stock Yards opened up in nearby Back of The Yards.
After the war Douglas became immediately settled by several groups of opportunists looking to start a new life at a prime location not far from downtown and right along the lake. Employment boomed for railroad shops, breweries and jobs in meat packing attracting several German, Irish, Scottish and English migrants to the area whom built several cottages in the community especially along Federal and State Streets as that was the closest to the railroads where many had attained employment. Their living was simple and nothing elegant, typical of 19th century working class families but over in the more eastern part of the neighborhood along the lake front came an extension of the wealthy community just north of the 26th Street border as grand mansions were built in what is today the Prairie Shores community area down to Groveland Park and Aldine Square; therefore, it was safe to say the wealthy dominated the east side Grand Boulevard (known today as Martin Luther King Drive) while the working class was west of this elegant street. Grand Boulevard itself was dotted on both sides with exquisite mansion mainly for Chicago Jewish elites.
Because Douglas bordered the Near South Side community it made for easy access for blacks to moved just south of 26th Street into the Douglas community beginning in 1865. The first black settlers moved in among the Irish workers along Federal and State Streets working various industrial jobs especially for the railroad. Blacks were easily able to move into this community because Irish workers along State and Federal Streets were moving in at the same time and faced some of the same discriminations that blacks did. Wealthy Jews resided east of State Street and also empathized with the black struggle as well creating a community of mostly acceptance. There may have been racial strife within the neighborhood in these early days but I have found no evidence of that. Blacks were regarded as first settlers in this community earning respect from whites that settled at the same time.
The first black Free Mason lodge was also built in this neighborhood in the year 1867 at 42nd Place and he first black Free Mason lodge was also built in this neighborhood in the year 1867 at 42nd Place and Cottage Grove which still stands today, although not the original building it is still located at this intersection as it always was as this masonic society arrived alongside the first black migrants to this neighborhood. Douglas was the second neighborhood to become a permanent black settlement.
Beginning in the early 1890s as the homes of the upper middle class built in the 1860s and 1870s along State Street began to deteriorate the white residents there began to move out as African Americans moved into the neighborhood becoming a part of the “black belt,” the Douglas part of the black belt ran along State Street from 26th Street to 31st Street putting the first African Americans in Douglas in the north west quadrant of Douglas, this area housed many of middle class Chicago African Americans.
In the 1900s decade the African American population increased and many Irish residents began to achieve upward mobility and leave the State Street and Federal Street cottages and apartments. The pollution was heavy along State and Federal Streets causing foul air and soot on residences from the factories. Irish residents were able to afford to privilege to leave this community but impoverished blacks had to remain in the area. In the 1910s decade this part of Douglas became majority black as wealthy whites were also moving out of the rest of the community leaving their mansions left to landlords, many of which would become slumlords.
In the year 1915 the black Policy racket returned and this time it was operating in the Douglas neighborhood at the intersection of 31st and State Street by Sam “Policy” Young, the same man that introduced John “Mushmouth” Johnson to Policy back in 1882, now Sam Young was bringing the racket to the black community and by 1918 a new Policy King or “Chief Graf Collector” was nominated, Dan Jackson that owned multiple funeral parlors.
By 1916 the African American migration of Chicago began a major increase as more black southerners were taking up residence in Douglas and the surrounding neighborhoods. State Street was especially opening up as the black belt would soon expand to Pershing Road.
In the year 1919, an event happened that changed black Chicagoans forever. The Douglas beach was a beach off 31st Street. that was enjoyed by both blacks and whites; however, the beach was racially divided in two. For months leading up to the summer of 1919, frustrations were brewing around the city about a major influx of southern African American migrants moving into Chicago’s south side, primarily into Bronzeville. Several complaints about blacks taking up much needed housing and employment from nearby factories caused the pot to boil until it finally boiled over on July 27th. On that day a group of black teenagers were floating on a raft at the beach. There was an invisible barrier located at 29th Street that separated the white section of the beach from the black section. Blacks were not allowed to use the part of the beach north of 29th Street. The group of teens mistakenly floated north of the borderline and whites took immediate notice and began hurling rocks at the teens. The onslaught of rock throwing continued until 17 year old Eugene Williams was hit with a rock them fell into the water, he then drowned to death. When police arrived witnesses pointed to the white man that threw the rock but the police refused to make an arrest despite several witnesses saying the man did it, instead the same officers arrested a black man instead, probably because he was emphatically pointing out the injustice. This incident sparked a massive violent riot that lasted until August 3rd, the most intense part was from July 27th until July 31st.
Black Chicagoans finally fought back against the whites and stopped being passive but just as soon as they raised a hand to whites storms or mostly Irish and Polish gangs stormed black neighborhoods with scores of weapons; anything from bludgeoning objects to firearms and burned black homes, businesses and attacked any blacks they saw in the streets. The first major attack wave happened at the intersection of 35th and Giles in Douglas. Many returning World War I black soldiers broke into armories to grab weapons and took post to protect their community. Black males then very quickly assembled groups of organized men that invaded white communities as they hit them back and gang wars ensued, this was the birth of the very first black street gangs in Chicago and it mostly happened on the streets of Douglas. White gangs incited all whites to join in on their cause and even painted their faces black as they burned homes and buildings in their own neighborhood while making it appear that blacks did it as they were in disguise. The police were in heavy favoritism of white rioters and many times allowed them to carry on but if a black rioter dared be caught he was arrested immediately, hence, how many more blacks were arrested than whites. After this incident the police were heavily criticized for their racist favoritism.
After the rioting was over, the black community still wanted to dispose of their passive stance and the black gangs remained; however, they rarely attacked white neighborhoods. These gang mainly focused on hustling and getting into brawls with other black gangs. This is how they operated in Bronzeville in the 1920s, 1930s 1940s and 1950s.
Whites fled the neighborhood in high volumes in the 1920s as Douglas became a part of “Bronzeville” and became the center of southern black culture. The neighborhood thrived in the 1920s as black owned businesses popped up and several blues and jazz nightclubs opened. The streets of Douglas also became the sight of black Policy gangsters that owned many legit businesses and brought illegal Policy wheels to the community. The Policy gangsters were also key to the development of the Douglas community and helped stimulate the local economy, they also kept any other criminal elements and youth gangs in check because they did not want residents harassed in the neighborhood.
White flight became a major phenomena in the 1910s and 1920s. Old mansions on the east side of the community were bought by Chicago’s black middle classes making Douglas and Grand Boulevard the first black middle class communities in Chicago history. These were the only neighborhoods black middle classes could live together as a community. Many black upper classes purchased old mansions sold by fleeing whites while other mansions were sold to landlords that divided the mansions into tenement slum apartments. Other landlords would convert mansions into skeevy hotels, this was an issue plaguing this community until the 2000s decade.
When the Great Depression era hit the Douglas community hard and closed several black owned businesses, the Policy gangsters helped the people of the community by offering donations and giving jobs to the black community as Policy workers. Maybe the business was not legit but it put food on the table.
Poverty was still becoming a growing issue in this neighborhood during the Depression years as the rest of the white population left the area and the once elegant mansions of the 19th century were now subdivided into kitchenette apartments that were facing deterioration. The worst area of Douglas was in the area of the black belt where the homes were the oldest and the most run down, these homes were also converted into small kitchenette apartments where families were stuffed in on top of each other. The conditions of much of the housing in Douglas were not humane for anyone to live in yet slumlord landlords charged higher rents than the property was worth.
By the year 1939 the horrible state of housing African Americans lived in caught the attention of the Chicago Housing Authority as they began construction of the Ida B. Wells housing project in the far south east quadrant of Douglas that extended into the Oakland neighborhood. The projects were a godsend to the black community as they were built between 1939 and 1941 and many families that were living in horrid conditions or homeless were lining up to get in.
The war years in the 1940s saw better times for the Douglas community as more manufacturing jobs were offered in nearby neighborhoods for the war effort. The Ida B. Wells was also a success as it put many black families from Douglas that were downtrodden in affordable housing that was maintained by the city.
When the war ended the Douglas neighborhood would fall on harder times as war effort jobs disappeared leaving much of the black community jobless. Being black made it tough to find a new job in the city and to make matters worse the Chicago Outfit’s Sam Giancana began muscling in on the Policy racket in 1945 and by 1946 he flushed out Ed Jones and the majority of the Policy Kings, this meant Policy owned businesses like stores restaurants, banks etc…..closed down permanently. Just as harder times were sinking in after the war many black families managed to flee the neighborhood in 1948 when restrictive covenants were deemed unconstitutional, this took away a good portion of the middle class black families that could help stimulate the local economy which caused less tax payers and less revenue into the community, which was the early stages of the disinvestment that was yet to come.
In 1949 the Chicago Housing Authority built another project complex between 27th Street to 30th Street from State Street to Federal Street called the Dearborn Homes. The projects were built right over a portion of the black belt and many deteriorated run down slum homes were torn down to make way for these new projects that were completed by 1950, then in 1950 until 1952 CHA started the Prairie Courts projects from 26th Street to 29th Street and Martin Luther King Drive (Then Grand Boulevard) to Prairie Avenue which housed more impoverished families, and once again these new projects were godsends to these families that could not afford to leave the neighborhood.
By 1952 Sam Giancana had killed Teddy Roe and eliminated African American control of the south side Policy racket, which caused the closing of any other businesses and jobs Policy Kings owned. Sam Giancana introduced the black community of Douglas to Heroin and began pushing it upon black adult male drug dealers to sell it. Drugs in this community caused the neighborhood to become more of a slum and more dangerous than ever now that many adult males were using and selling the drugs who were supposed to be the breadwinners and protectors of the community.
A gang called the “Deacons” picked up where the Policy racket left off more or less. The Deacons multiplied in size starting in the Ida B. Wells projects in the late 1940s then in the 1950s they spread all over Bronzeville and ran it. The Deacons were the ones that organized gang wars and even their own and prevented gangs from attacking the innocent or completely destroying the community. The Deacons, 13 Cats, Destroyers and other black gangs did not sell drugs mainly because drug dealers did not allow kids and gang members to peddle it; however, drugs were flowing in the community in the 1950s.
Another housing project was built in Douglas between 1955 and 1958 called the Stateway Gardens that extended from 35th Street to Pershing Road and Federal Street to State Street. This project removed more of the dilapidated black belt homes from the 19th century.
In the 1960s, Blackstone Rangers and Black Disciples came to Douglas from further south neighborhoods and began flipping entire gangs to join their ranks. Within no time the neighborhood was completely ruled by these two federations. The Disciples also made their way into the Stateway Gardens public housing projects and took over many of the buildings while the Del Vikings street gang took over many more. Rangers and Disciples carried on bloody wars in the neighborhood as Bronzeville became increasingly dangerous.
By the 1970s Douglas had become an urban slum with high rates of poverty and violence. Douglas became one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago as it became well known for its many housing projects. The projects received their final renovations and police attention back in the 1970s, then after that they were left to deteriorate and be overrun by crime by the later 1970s. Drugs also became rampant in the neighborhood, especially Heroin.
The 1980s and 1990s saw the worst times for Douglas as the neighborhood was held hostage by gangs and drugs. The Gangster Disciples, Black P Stones, Black Disciples and Mickey Cobras had a strong grip on this neighborhood.
The Stateway Gardens projects could be seen right across the street from Comiskey Park on the other side of the Dan Ryan Expressway which created fears that Comiskey Park goers would be attacked by criminals from the projects, although this really did not happen in reality. The once grand “Black Metropolis” in Douglas had now became a depressing urban slum and one of the dirtiest and unsafe neighborhoods in the country until the 1990s when demolition of the inhumane housing projects began in 1999 and continued into 2011.
The Dearborn Projects were the only projects spared as they were renovated. The Douglas neighborhood became safer in the 21st century and black upper middle classes have begun moving back into the community in the various new condos and town homes that stand where the nightmarish public housing projects once stood. There is now a revived interest in restoring this community back into the black metropolis it once was with the creation of new businesses, restaurants and blues clubs. Douglas is soon to make a major comeback and has become a neighborhood with some gang and crime problems; however, it has actually become one of the safer communities in Chicago and there are not nearly as many vacant properties as there once was as many slums have been torn down, Douglas is aggressively repairing urban blight.
All images below are of vacant buildings at the time of the photo. All photos below are courtesy of Google Maps.