NEAR WEST SIDE — Local historians and activists are pushing for a former Chicago church to be nationally recognized for its role in the Black Panther Party’s history.
The Church of the Epiphany, 201 S. Ashland Ave., has been designated worthy of preservation by the National Park Service since 1998 for its architectural value and was landmarked by the city in the mid-1990s. But the former house of worship, now an events venue, is significant for much more than its building design.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the Black Panther Party met there and offered social services to the community. Activist Fred Hampton, who was assassinated by police, held his final meeting at the church in December 1969.
The Historical Preservation Society of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party is now working to update the listing of the church in the National Register of Historic Places to commemorate its Black history. The Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council will consider the proposal Friday. If it recommends the amendment, the Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer will decide whether to nominate the change to the National Park Service, which would make the final determination about updating the listing.
The Church of the Epiphany, nicknamed the People’s Church, “was an important gathering place,” said Leila Wills, executive director of the Historical Preservation Society. “It wasn’t just the Illinois Chapter [of the Black Panther Party] that held meetings there. They had anti-draft meetings there. They fed the homeless there.”
“It’s a living record and reference of what took place there before,” she said.
Especially after the Federal Bureau of Investigation surveilled and smeared the Black Panther Party for years, Wills said she feels an extra responsibility to ensure the party’s stories are preserved properly.
Wills started looking into the possibility of listing Black Panther historical sites on the National Register in 2019. The party’s offices had been demolished. The church was one of the most significant meeting places still standing, so she decided to focus her energy there.
To update the National Register listing, Wills needed to show how the church fit into the Black Panther Party’s local and national significance. She spent years researching with the help of Mikey Spehn and Adam Yunis, two then-graduate students in public history who joined the Historical Preservation Society’s Landmark and Historic Site Program Committee.
They read old newspapers, interviewed members of the Black Panther Party like former deputy education minister Billy “Che” Brooks and jumped through bureaucratic hoops to get access to records of Chicago police surveillance. Spehn came away from the experience inspired.
“’60s radicals — they’re so interesting. They have so much experience,” he said. “When they talk, I listen.”
Spehn, Yunis and Wills compiled much of their research into an amendment of the People’s Church listing and a 169-page “multiple property document,” which traces the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party’s activities all over Chicagoland.
The multiple property document is central to the group’s project, Wills said. Not only will it make it easier for someone to write nominations to the National Register for other important Black Panther sites in the future, but it also could be incorporated into educational resources distributed across the country.
Amy Hathaway, a survey and national register specialist for the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office, helped Wills navigate the National Register update process. She said she sees their project as part of an important push to expand which parts of history are preserved.
“Early on, mostly what was being listed was — a lot of architectural significance, but not necessarily things that were associated with women or people of color,” Hathaway said. “So this is one of the things that we want to do more of.”
Yunis said the People’s Church project feels much bigger than one building. As a public historian, he — like Wills and Spehn — hopes to keep cataloging even more stories of local activism.
“This is all our Chicago history,” he said. “It’s our human history and the history of class struggle in America.”
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