As I'm writing this piece, I'm listening to Nat King Cole sing the words of W.C. Handy. It's an interesting album from this son of Bronzeville. Recorded for a curious biopic of this noted composer, Cole makes his way through a dozen of his well-known songs.
It seems like an appropriate choice for musical accompaniment, as I'm thinking about the Chicago Bee Building (3647 S. State St), which is one of the iconic structures in Cole's childhood neighborhood. Built by noted African American businessman Anthony Overton, this gleaming Art Deco structure stands as a testament to his own acumen and desire to provide a suitable new headquarters for a new daily newspaper that would celebrate the accomplishments and activities of the area's rapidly growing African American community.
Overton was not stepping into virgin territory with this new venture, as the Bee would find itself competing with the well-established Chicago Defender. But he would do things a bit differently, as his mission statement declared that his paper would dedicate itself to "higher education for all groups, cordial relations between the races, civic and racial improvement, the promotion of Negro business, and good, wholesome and authentic news fit for any member of the family."
A tall order indeed, and the Bee was able to weather the Great Depression under the very able direction of Olive Diggs. Interestingly enough, Diggs was in no way an outlier: most of the Bee staff was female and they scoured Bronzeville and beyond for stories on fraternal organization news, education stories, new business opportunities and more.
After Overton's passing in 1946, the Bee folded and Bronzeville became to change dramatically over the coming decades due to disinvestment, the migration of middle class residents, and a variety of other factors. Today, the Bee Building serves as a Chicago Public Library branch and provides residents with a place to commune, converse and learn.
This is part of an ongoing series exploring Chicago from A to Z, highlighting a unique place for each letter of the alphabet. Stay tuned for more entries to come!
Photos by Eric Allix Rogers