African Americans in Chicago
Civic icons, the Barnetts – Ferdinand L. Barnett and Ida B. Wells-Barnett
One of Black Chicago's original power couples, Old Settler Ferdinand L. Barnett and recent Chicago transplant, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, wed in 1895 in a marriage that lasted until Mrs. Barnett's death in 1931 (Mr. Barnett passed away five years later in 1936). Together, they participated in major civic, political, labor and civil rights efforts throughout the first one-third of the twentieth century. An integral part of the cultural vanguard of the late nineteenth century and modern industrial age, they played active roles within the emerging leadership which was committed to promotion of the beaux arts. Their early involvement in the struggle against racial exclusion in the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 foreshadowed successive efforts in cultural efforts. This was evidenced by their membership in the Prudence Crandall Club in 1888, and later, the Frederick Douglass Center from 1904 on. Their combined contributions in promoting journalism through the independent Chicago Conservator newspaper (that preceded the Chicago Defender) represent efforts that were both productive and courageous.
The Barnetts were active in local and national Republican politics as well, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett's activism through the Alpha Suffrage Club introduced a black womanist influence over Chicago government that bore fruit in the election of the first African American member to the Chicago City Council in 1915. While opposed to the nation's imperialist war involvement in the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898, they nonetheless supported the troops of the famed Eighth Infantry Regiment of the Illinois National Guard as they served in Cuba. Two decades later, they fully supported this military unit's service as combatants during the First World War.
When the newly-formed Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porter and Maids sought support in Chicago to jumpstart its abortive efforts in New York, the Barnetts directly buoyed the labor union's successful membership drive in Chicago, one which impacted the entire Pullman labor network. Then, the Barnetts helped thwart the early and sustaining efforts by racial bigots to segregate the city's schoolchildren on several occasions through the early twentieth century. The couple moved onto fashionable Grand Boulevard (later called South Park Way and then King Drive) to 3624 South Grand Boulevard during the 1920s. Their home is listed as both a Chicago and a national landmark. (It is pictured above.) A decade after Ida B. Wells-Barnett's death in 1931, a major public housing development stretching along Grand Boulevard (now King Drive) bore her name for eight decades until its demolition two decades ago. It was a source of such national pride that the British Royal couple toured the housing complex upon their arrival in the U.S. in 1959.