WASHINGTON PARK — Chicago’s last standing Phyllis Wheatley Home, which offered shelter and resources to young Black women moving north during the Great Migration, is at risk of being ordered demolished in less than two months.
The three-story building at 5128 S. Michigan Ave. was built in 1896.
Up to 22 young Black women lived there at a time as they sought employment in Chicago and got acquainted with their new city.
The 125-year-old structure must have its roof and rear wall replaced, owner Ariajo “JoAnn” Tate said. She’s owned the home for three decades, raising her family there while running the nonprofit Training and Educational Resources for Children, which she founded in the ’90s.
Though the facade and the first floor are salvageable — along with its cherry wood paneling and wall-mounted buffet chests dating to the Wheatley Home’s operation — the basement and top floors must be gutted and rehabbed.
Tate estimates it will cost $700,000-$1 million to make the necessary repairs.
It will take another $2 million or so to execute Tate’s vision for the space, she said. She would move back into the home, which would also host her rebooted nonprofit with programs for Black economic empowerment and community-building.
Most loans Tate has pursued require her to live in the home, which isn’t possible given its condition, she said.
As she lives with one of her children in the suburbs, she’s working with local preservation organizations to secure grant funding. She plans to roll out a fundraiser on social media in early February.
But a Circuit Court hearing for the vacant building is scheduled for March 16. At that, a judge may issue a demolition order, said Mimi Simon, a Department of Buildings spokesperson.
With the court hearing just weeks away, there’s a lot of heavy lifting to be done to ensure the building will escape the bulldozer — let alone transform it into a community center honoring the work of the women who ran the settlement home.
“This is not something I’m doing for status,” Tate said. “It’s for my heart.”
‘Black Women Helping Black Women’
Joi Weathers is a third-generation Bronzeville resident, currently receiving medical treatment in Baltimore. After visiting the Wheatley Home for her blog and connecting with Tate in late 2019, Weathers began raising awareness about the site’s significance.
About a month ago, she organized a petition to save the home. It’s since gained more than 700 signatures, but “a petition is not going to sway the city,” Weathers said.
Preserving “a tangible place that holds the heritage and spirit of Black women” is a must, Weathers said — particularly as a hot housing market stokes fears of gentrification and the erasure of Black history in the former Black Belt.
“Hearing Dr. Tate and her story, I remembered how emotional my father was when the Palm Tavern closed, the Checkerboard Lounge — you just get tired of seeing everybody so lost and not understanding what is at stake,” Weathers said.
What’s at stake is an opportunity for Chicagoans to continue learning from a place where Black women invested in each other for decades, researchers said.
“The accomplishments of the women who founded the Phyllis Wheatley Home won’t be erased if the building was gone,” said Anna Agbe-Davies, an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “They’ll still have done the incredible things that they did.
“But it will be that much more difficult to talk about.”
The Wheatley Home aimed to be “one-stop shopping” for women migrating from the South, said Agbe-Davies, who led archaeological digs at the site while at DePaul University in the mid-2000s.
The home ran ads in the Chicago Defender offering to put employers in touch with women in need of jobs, serving as “the connector between resources and the young women,” Agbe-Davies said.
“A lot of the resources that were open to the white immigrants to the city weren’t open to those women,” she said. “It was a big part of [the home’s] mission and identity that they were Black women helping Black women.”
In 2006 and 2007, Agbe-Davies co-led digs with Rebecca Graff, then a University of Chicago graduate student.
Found items like blush compacts and cameras help historians better “understand the ordinary people and the extraordinary women who ran the Phyllis Wheatley Home,” said Graff, now an anthropology professor at Lake Forest College.
“Chicago is a city that doesn’t have a lot of archaeology done in it,” Graff said. “This is a city that deserves that type of interrogation, to understand the lives of people … whose narratives aren’t always enshrined in that way.”
As an archaeologist, Agbe-Davies said she wants the Phyllis Wheatley Home to be preserved so researchers can continue unearthing items and building narratives about the women who lived there.
Analyzing and processing the artifacts from the mid-2000s digs has been her “main project” since arriving at North Carolina, and she teaches a course on archaeological research using items found at the site.
If the building is preserved and opened to the public, Tate said she wants to host a display depicting the progress of Black women since the Great Migration on the first floor.
“Black Chicago women have done some awesome things” — including becoming the first lady of the United States — and displaying artifacts like those dug up by Agbe-Davies and Graff is a way to honor them, Tate said.
But the Wheatley Home is more than the remnants its residents left behind. In keeping the building itself intact, Chicago would preserve a “touchstone for the neighborhood” — a material reminder of “the accomplishments of people who have been pushed to the margins,” Agbe-Davies said.
“People viscerally respond to being in the place, or touching the thing that somebody else touched,” she said. “When that’s gone, sometimes you can feel like that connection is broken.”
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