When we reflect on Black history in America, we at Catalyst Ranch can’t help but recognize the importance of the spaces where Black joy, creativity and community thrive; the spaces where Black culture and achievement flourish.

After all, it was in Chicago, at the Wabash Avenue YMCA in Bronzeville, where Carter G. Woodson and colleagues convened in 1915. It’s there they founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which planted the seed for Black History Month as we know it today.

As the only YMCA in Chicago to admit Black residents when it opened in 1911 [1], of course the “Wabash Y” became an important hub for the Black community. It was a refuge from racism, a destination for education and communion, and a hearth of Black creativity.

Carter G. Woodson and the Wabash YMCA

In recognition of how the Wabash Y provided space for community and achievement, we’re pointing you to some of our favorite current-day, venerated Chicago institutions where Black history provides the context for inspired gathering, for us all.

Enjoy these now and beyond February, and let your celebration of Black history extend all year!

*For additional Black entrepreneurs and small businesses we’ve highlighted, see our blog post Black History Month Opportunities in Chicago and Beyond.

FOR THE ARTS

This year’s Black History Month theme, African Americans and the Arts, has deep resonance in Chicago.

This city has been a destination for Black music for generations. Take for instance when Chicago inherited from New Orleans the acclaim of being the jazz capital of the world in the early 1920s, with Louis Armstrong and others drawing crowds to the nightclubs of Bronzeville.

Chicago House Music Festival 2018

More recently, Black and primarily gay Chicago DJ’s originated the house music genre in the late 1970’s and 80’s [2], before it spread in popularity on the world stage. In fact, just a few blocks away from Catalyst Ranch was the Warehouse nightclub, where resident DJ Frankie Knuckles pioneered the combination of disco, R&B, Gospel and more. Warehouse no longer exists, but the building at 206 S. Jefferson was designated an official Chicago Landmark in 2023 for its cultural significance.

On June 2, the city hosts the annual Chicago House Music Festival, which will take over Millennium Park and is free to attend. 

And even bigger is the legendary Chosen Few picnic, the “world’s largest” house music festival, which blankets Jackson Park on July 13.

Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center

As for live theatre, the Black Ensemble Theater in the Uptown neighborhood is the only theater in the nation whose mission is to eradicate racism. Through live performance and education outreach, the organization brings all races together. Their next production, The Time Machine, showcases music from the 80s and opens March 3. Click here to see the rest of their performance season.

In the graphic novel and comic book realm, did you know that in 1993, Chicago artist Turtel Onli launched the Black Age of Comics? Existing outside the mainstream comic book industry, his goal was “celebrating creators, concepts, and content that’s derived from the Black, African, urban, or alternative experience.”[3] Since then, events for the movement have taken place in Philadelphia, Detroit and Atlanta, and now, to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of its launch, the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts is exhibiting works by Onli and his comics and zine peers. Turtel Onli: The Black Age of Comics is on view through March 31.

The South Side Community Art Center. Inset: Margaret Burroughs

For Discussion and Learning

Speaking of the Black Age, Turtel Onli launched that first convention in 1993 at Bronzeville’s South Side Community Arts Center, which is the oldest African American art center in the country. The organization serves as an artist- and community-centered resource, to preserve, promote and progress Black artists and their work. The SSCAC hosts a permanent collection, exhibitions and events throughout the year, and is free to attend.

Chicago is also home to the nation’s oldest independent African American museum, the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center, originally launched by the artist Margaret Taylor-Burroughs in her and her husband’s very own living room in 1961 — we’ve highlighted Taylor-Burroughs before here in our blog! The DuSable eventually was renamed to how we know it today, after Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a fur trader of Black African ancestry who was the first non-indigenous permanent settler in Chicago.

We recommend you spend a day in Hyde Park appreciating the DuSable’s15,000 piece collection of paintings, sculpture, historical memorabilia and more, and then stroll through the expansive Washington Park, just outside the museum.

For Contributing Your Own Experience

Lastly, we’ll mention that this weekend on Saturday, March 2, Black Chicagoans are invited to bring photographs and keepsakes to be digitized and recorded for inclusion in an archive of historic Black artifacts and ephemera. This Black Cultural Harvest is hosted by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD) at the Chicago History Museum.

“Because Black Chicagoans’ contributions to the city’s growth and heritage are not adequately reflected in local museums or history books, this event will help preserve and amplify Black heritage and empower local residents to highlight their own histories and heirlooms for future generations,” DPD Commissioner Ciere Boatright said.

Even if you don’t have objects to archive, this community gathering will feature music, food and interactive activities that recount and preserve some of Chicago’s most memorable moments and spaces. Archiving appointments and non-archiving event registration are both free.

 


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