Part of the Chicago Icons series from the 2023 Best of Chicago edition. Read the rest here.
I’m a Chicagoan, born and raised.
When I was younger, that fact didn’t move me much.
It was only after I left my hometown that I became a Chicagoan.
In 1980, at my best friend’s urging, I moved to New York.
I can still see my loving and tender eight-year-old standing on the front steps beside my Mother, holding her hand and softly crying as I pulled away in my blue Beetle.
I sobbed all the way through Indiana, doubted myself with every mile.
No relatives there.
No job there.
No place there.
Just a vague plan to make a mark quick, and rush home.
I soon found a pleasant apartment in a Brooklyn brownstone, and Sydney joined me shortly.
Together we grew up in myriad ways.
It was not easy, in fact, it was often tough.
We learned Big Lessons,
but we had each other and made our way.
Sydney remained profoundly homesick. Calls to my family only made things worse.
She was so homesick, that I promised her eighth-grade year at P.S. 11 would be her last in New York.
That fall she entered an excellent Catholic prep school in Chicago, just as I had years before.
When I followed two years later—older and much, much wiser, with a fiancé in tow—the ground felt firm and sure beneath my feet.
I’d adapted to New York’s many warts and wonders, but I always found myself comparing it to what I’d known:
Chicago-solid bungalows with lawns, front and back;
garbage cans in alleys where they belonged;
swings and small rubber pools in backyards, and cars in their garages;
wide streets dotted with playmates and helpful neighbors up and down the block.
The simpler kind of life on the Plains needs no hoopla.
There’s untold magic and beauty in the everydayness of this town.
The Majestic, mysterious Lake Michigan shores welcomed me back.
Buckingham Fountain, glistening Jewel of the summer Lakefront, gently mists passersby while cavorting sea creatures spew water ’til nightfall.
(It delights me still!)
I was so glad to be home.
The city had changed in my absence.
I had, too.
So, we came to an understanding.
Chicago offered more hard-won opportunities for Black theater professionals like me than it had seven years earlier.
It felt as if the city was stretching, busy becoming something better, and I suspect Harold Washington’s historic win and personal dynamism contributed mightily to that rejuvenation.
Two years after my return, I married that fiancé and found us three a lovely lakefront Hyde Park sublet, but in three years, we sprung for a crumbling 1883 Victorian in Bronzeville, and became “pioneers” in a neighborhood no one took much note of, except maybe Gwendolyn Brooks.
Now, thirty years later, I look back at the wisdom of that choice.
Bronzeville became home to this country’s first Black hospital.
In the 1890s, Black doctors were routinely denied privileges at white hospitals, so noted physician Daniel Hale Williams, with the support of Black doctors, ministers, businessmen and community leaders, spearheaded the move to establish a hospital to better serve the Black community. The Armour Meat Packing Company provided the down payment on a three-story brick building at 29th & Dearborn, and Provident Hospital became a reality.
At the same time, a nurse-training facility was established to welcome eager and bright young Black women who yearned to learn and practice nursing, but were flatly refused admittance by white nursing schools.
Those dreamers were not to be deterred, though.
My Mother was one of them.
Newly graduated from Lincoln High School in East St. Louis, my Mother, Thelma Lee Thompson, boarded a bus, with her mother, headed to Chicago where she was accepted and trained at Provident, and became one of the finest, most-dedicated, most-proficient cadres of registered nurses ever to serve.
She became a lifelong Chicagoan, and Provident was her entry point.
How proudly she wore
her starched white cap,
her white stockings,
her crisp white uniform.
Her Provident pin shone bright against her navy blue cape lined in red.
My Mother was a nurse ’til her last days, too.
Every now and again, I’d come across an envelope, or glance at her wall calendar and see she’d charted her own “vitals.”
Thelma was a nurse through and through.
She was also a joyful gardener who, along with my great aunt Ruth, helped clear my backyard of overgrown weeds, and start my humble Bronzeville garden, one that has given me decades of pleasure.
During the Great Migration northward, Bronzeville’s Wabash YMCA was an important stop where Black newcomers could find a clean, safe place to stay until they got on their feet.
In 1890, an impressive building, designed by famed architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan in the “Chicago” style, was constructed in the heart of Bronzeville as a synagogue.
In 1922, the building became the home of Pilgrim Baptist Church, widely known as the birthplace of gospel music, and its Musical Director Thomas A. Dorsey as its “Father.”
Many famous Black church singers raised their voices in Pilgrim’s sanctuary, including Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Albertina Walker, The Staples Singers and James Cleveland.
Pioneering Black pilot Bessie Coleman was a member of its congregation, and ever-challenging Black boxer Jack Johnson’s funeral was held there.
From Pilgrim’s pulpit, Martyr and Shepherd Martin Luther King, Jr. raised his voice, too, and inspired many a waiting, open heart.
I especially love Bronzeville for being the home of The Pekin Theatre, the nation’s first Black-owned musical and vaudeville house. It sat right there at 27th & State Street, a stone’s throw from St. James School where I ran a summer theater program serving hundreds of Dearborn Homes teen and t’ween residents for twelve years.
Robert T. Motts ran numbers and a saloon, but the Pekin Theatre, his “Temple of Music,” boasted an all-Black Staff, and offered original works “written and composed by colored men” for all comers to enjoy.
Yeah, I’m a Chicagoan, born and raised.
Cheryl Lynn Bruce has performed on numerous regional stages as well as in Europe and Mexico. She originated the role of Elizabeth Sandry for Steppenwolf’s Tony Award-winner “The Grapes of Wrath” directed by Frank Galati (Cort Theatre, National Theatre (UK), La Jolla Playhouse.) Film credits include: “Stranger Than Fiction,” “Daughters of the Dust,” “The Fugitive.” A Teatro Vista company member, Ms. Bruce directed Sandra Delgado’s “La Havana Madrid” premiere. Ms. Bruce won two prestigious Helen Hayes Awards (Best Supporting Actress, 2019) and (Outstanding Lead Actress,1991); Rauschenberg residency through a 3Arts fellowship (2015), received a Yale University Art Gallery residency (2011); and both the Jane Addams Hull House Association’s Woman of Valor Award (2010) and 3Arts Award (2010) for her work as theater artist and educator.