A Push to Save Landmarks of the ‘Great Migration’ — and Better Understand Today’s Racial InequitiesHistorians in the News
tags: historic preservation, African American history, Chicago, urban history, public history, Great Migration, Muddy Waters
As a child in the 1950s, Amelia Cooper lived in a multigenerational home in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood that often served as a settlement house for friends of her grandfather, the blues musician Muddy Waters. Many were musicians, arriving from the rural South as Waters had, and they needed a place from which to launch a new life.
“They would all gather and play music and talk about how they finally made it. They were all willing to help each other out,” she said. “The house was so overcrowded, but I didn’t think it was unusual. It became a way of life.”
Cooper’s memory is a classic snapshot of the Great Migration, the period between about 1916 and 1970 when Northern cities drew millions of Black Americans seeking greater economic opportunities and fleeing the racial violence and Jim Crow laws of Southern states.
It was a seminal event. Yet many of the sites that played so significantly into those years have fallen into disrepair or worse, the memories they held forgotten. That is now changing.
Projects underway across the Midwest are aimed at saving these structures and sharing the Great Migration’s complex story with a country again confronting the deep roots of systemic racism. Amanda Lewis, director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, believes they are “gestures in the right direction” and critical for connecting the present with the past.
The Great Migration, she said, “reminds us of the fact that the main thing that Black folks in this country have been trying to do for their entire existence in the U.S. is striving for access to all the opportunities other folks have.”
Chicago, which saw its Black population grow by more than 500,000 over those five decades, is the epicenter of the preservation efforts. Renovation is about to begin on the Waters house, which went unoccupied for years until it was purchased by Cooper’s daughter. With the help of the city and local civic organizations, the musician’s great-granddaughter is shaping it to become the Muddy Waters MOJO Museum. The house “is significant beyond the blues,” Chandra Cooper said. “It tells the story of how this Black African American made it here and changed the world.”
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