NORTH LAWNDALE — In the winter of 1869, the state legislature voted to annex a portion of Cicero Township into the City of Chicago.
One hundred and fifty years later, that community now known as North Lawndale is celebrating its sesquicentennial anniversary by looking back at the rich history of the neighborhood.
The North Lawndale Sesquicentennial Committee is taking steps to make sure that the neighborhood’s past is never forgotten by sending snippets of Lawndale history into the future in a time capsule set to be opened 50 years from now on the bicentennial anniversary. The capsule is to be buried at a yet to be determined location early next year to coincide with the North Lawndale Sesquicentennial Gala on Feb. 27.
Invoking the tradition of oral histories passed through the descendants of African slaves and families taking root in Chicago during the Great Migration, stories told by Lawndale residents will be at the forefront of the memorabilia preserved in the time capsule.
“One of the things that’s going to go in that time capsule, among other artifacts, are interviews of everyday people,” said committee chairman Paul Norrington.
The committee has been collecting oral histories in a series of storytelling events filmed by videographers at Free Spirit Media. Each monthly event revolved around a theme, such as the “Churches of North Lawndale” storytelling night that celebrated the legacy of the institutions like Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached during his time in Chicago working to end redlining.
The most recent event was focused on the musical history of Lawndale. At the Nov. 21 storytelling event, young musicians from the Chicago West Community Music Center performed as the ensemble’s Executive Director Howard Sandifer recounted moments in history when Lawndale was the setting for timeless developments in ragtime, jazz, gospel, blues and house music.
The blues, for example, was born in the South but worked its way to Chicago during the Great Migration, where it found a home in the streets, bars, clubs and recording studios of the West Side. Sandifer recalled that during the ’70s, street musicians playing the blues could be heard all throughout Lawndale, with some of the best performing concerts outside the fish market on Pulaski Street and 5th Avenue.
Lawndale was also the home to one of the most important record labels of the ’50s, Cobra Records at 3347 W. Roosevelt Rd. Cobra Records launched the careers of many of the fixtures in blues music like Otis Rush and Buddy Guy and Magic Sam, who developed a new style of blues known as the “West Side Sound.”
“The history is extremely rich here. Another great genre of music, gospel music, one of the most moving, emotional music in the world— the West Side, North Lawndale specifically, played a big role in the development,” with gospel greats like Jesse Dixon and James Cleveland coming from the West Side Sandifer said.
At the storytelling events, these oral histories were recorded for the time capsule. But they were also a chance for younger generations to learn firsthand about the legacy of their neighborhoods so that they can relay the past to their families and preserve the collective memory of Lawndale, even before the time capsule is opened in 2069.
The young musicians performing said they learned a lot about the greatness that was born in their own community.
One young performer, Quentin Smith, said he had always been inspired by gospel singer and composer James Cleveland, but he had never known that Cleveland came from his own neighborhood.
“You’ve got to know where home is,” Smith said about sharing the history of Lawndale. “I’m just glad that we came here tonight to bring music to the community and make people happy.”
The Music of North Lawndale event was also attended by former President of the Cook County Board Bobbie Steele, who said the musical legacy was one of the defining features of her 56 years living in Lawndale.
“People used to come from all over to see Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, all those old blues singers. … Everybody knew which clubs they would be at, right here in North Lawndale, a lot of them,” Steele said.
For Steele, music is something that brings people together and cultivates an appreciation for the community that people live in. By sharing stories of Lawndale’s heyday, Steele said residents are encouraged to remember the greatness of the neighborhood, and can be inspired to build a future that is once again full of opportunity, stability, and music.
“Some of the houses and buildings had been neglected. But the community is coming back, with the help of a lot of dedicated people. … This is the most beautiful part of the city — the West Side, North Lawndale,” Steele said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.