To look at the neighborhood today you'd never know it, but if you were African American and living in the first half of last century, the place to be was on Chicago's Southside, a place known to ethnic Whites as the Black Belt for it's Negro population. But to those who lived there, and to their friends and family abroad, it was called Bronzeville. It was a thriving mecca of economic and political power, seated in the city's 2nd, 3rd and 4th wards, the promised land of socioeconomic opportunity and prosperity for the emancipated African American.
In a word, Bronzeville was great. What made it great were the people who lived, worked and played there: business and civic leaders with vision and clergymen who carried on the founding principles and traditions of our first Black churches. It's where the nation's first Black certified public accountants were working and supporting their families. There were great writers with a sense of the past, powerful political bosses with powerful allies, respected Pullman porters and longshoremen, doctors, lawyers, dentists, hotel owners and restaurateurs. Bronzeville was a place where great things were happening: Dr. Daniel Hale Williams performed the world's first successful open-heart surgery, Jesse Binga built America's first Black-owned and operated state bank, and Rube Foster founded the Negro Baseball League. It was a place where a Black kid could grow up to be anything he or she wanted to be-- even mayor.
There were the great "strolls" like South Parkway with its magnificent greystones and mansions occupied by the prosperous and the influential. There was 47th Street, the new downtown Black America with its world class cafés like the Palm Tavern, serving the business and civic elite by day and busloads of stage performers from the Regal Theater by night. Then there was State Street-- the original "stroll" where the dark of night was eclipsed by the bright lights of hot jazz spots like the Elite Club and the Dreamland Café, accented with finely dressed colored folks and late model cars. It was the northern reality to southern dreams.
But Bronzeville had its share of poverty too; in fact, Chicago's ghettos were among the worst in the nation with seriously over-crowded living conditions brought on by old "Restrictive Covenants", this during the ever- present Great Depression. The name Bronzeville has been around since the 1910s but came of age on Saturday night, September 22, 1934. On that night, behind the walls of the Eighth Regiment Armory on Giles and 35th Street, Tiny Parham's Orchestra was swinging the night away as the first ever "Mayor of Bronzeville" was elected, the event that hallmarked a new era in "race progress" and Chicago's Black Experience.
The idea was the brainchild of James J. "Gentle Jimmy" Gentry, a local African American promoter who for years had bankrolled the "Miss Bronze America" pageants. Gentry hooked up with Robert S. Abbott, founding publisher of the Chicago Defender newspaper, and Ed Jones, the "King of Policy Kings" who controlled an army of racketeers, and the new Bronzeville was born.
For all of the prosperity associated with the legacy of Bronzeville, the era had strong roots in what the world today knows as the "Lottery." But make no mistake about it, in the first half of last century the lottery was known by its true name, "Policy", and flourished, albeit illegally, in nearly every Black community in the United States. It is a significant chapter in African American history-- little known and less talked about.
Policy became the biggest Black-owned business in the world with combined annual sales sometimes reaching the $100 million mark and employing tens-of-thousands of people nationwide. In Bronzeville, Policy was a major catalyst by which the black economy was driven. In 1938 Time magazine reported that Bronzeville was the "Center of U.S. Negro Business", and more than a decade later, Our World magazine reported that "Windy City Negroes have more money, bigger cars and brighter clothes than any other city…. The city which has become famous for the biggest Policy wheels, the largest funerals, the flashiest cars and the prettiest women, has built that reputation on one thing, money". Those attributions, however, were largely due to Policy, a business conceived, owned, and operated by African American men known by many names including "Digit Barons", "Numbers Bankers", "Sportsmen", "Digitarians", and "the 1-2-3-4 Guys"; but more often than not they were called "Policy Kings".
The True Story of Chicago's Policy Kings
and Numbers Racketeers
An Informal History by Nathan Thompson
Published by The Bronzeville Press ISBN: 0972487506