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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

Artist Explores Little-Known History Of Avondale’s Black Settlers With New Walking Tours

A group of about 20 black families settled in Avondale in the late 1800s after the construction of the neighborhood's first church. "It was a revelation that this community existed there," the artist said.

Nia Easley (right) is leading tours on Avondale's little-known black settlement using maps and other information she's compiled over the last three years.
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AVONDALE — When artist and Avondale resident Nia Easley discovered that Avondale, a neighborhood known for its Polish and Latino roots, was once home to a black settlement, she was shocked.

Easley, a native South Sider who describes herself as a product of the Great Migration, had assumed all of Chicago’s black settlers had landed on the South and West sides.

“But that clearly wasn’t the truth,” she said.

Over the last three years, Easley scoured public records and talked to a number of local history buffs, both professional and amateur, to find out more about Avondale’s little-known black settlement: the Dawson subdivision.

Now she’s leading tours through the area to share what she’s learned.

“It was a revelation that this community existed there, and I hope that by sharing that knowledge, others can feel more connected to that part of the city,” Easley said.

One of the old maps Easley found in her research shows the Allen chapel.

The Dawson subdivision spanned a pocket of Avondale that includes the now-busy intersection of Milwaukee, Kimball and Diversey avenues, Easley found. The enclave ran just south of Milwaukee Avenue and just north of Diversey Avenue.

In the 1870s, Rev. John B. Dawson bought a large swath of land in what is today considered Avondale and the surrounding area. Back then, the area was called Jefferson Township.

Dawson opened the area’s first church there, called the Allen Church. The church, located on Allen Street north of Milwaukee Avenue, existed at the center of life in the Dawson subdivision. A small group of about 20 parishioners settled near the church.

By 1880, the Dawson subdivision’s black population hit about 70 people, according to Easley, citing census data. But by 1910, that number fell to six. And in 1920, only one black family called the area home.

According to the book “Avondale and Chicago’s Polish Village,” Dawson’s descendants and parishioners moved to Bronzeville at the turn of the 20th century.

Exactly what prompted them to leave is a mystery, Easley said.

“That’s still a big part of the puzzle I’m trying to figure out,” she said.

Easley said what they do know is about 4,000 European immigrants moved to Jefferson Township around the same time that Dawson and his descendants and parishioners left.

Easley will go over all of this and more at two upcoming tours, one set for 3 p.m. Saturday and another set for noon Sept. 17.

The free tours will each go for an hour. Easley will guide people through the Dawson subdivision and point out noteworthy markers along the way. The church is no longer standing, but Dawson Avenue and Allen Avenue were both named after Dawson and his church.

Easley, who works full-time in administration at the School of the Art Institute, is putting on the tours as part of a project with the Chicago-based arts organization Threewalls.

“There are several examples of walking as an artistic practice. That’s how I see these tours,” she said.

More broadly, Easley is interested in “ideas around belonging . .. and the many stories that can be found in a place.”

It’s important, she said, to “hold this space and acknowledge that these people were here.”

Tour-goers should meet at Small Bar at Albany and Wellington avenues.

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