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Landmarking Phyllis Wheatley House, Black Women’s Historic Refuge During Great Migration

PhenomenalMAG Staff  |  Culturally Conscious

As part of the Great Migration, young Black women from the South came to Chicago and sought refuge in a Washington Park greystone.

Now its owners hope to make it a city landmark, a move that could open doors to funds for future programming and renovation of the aging structure.

For over 50 years, young Black women could receive lodging at the Phyllis Wheatley House as well as instruction in social and economic skills.

From 1926 until the 1970s, the greystone at 5128 S. Michigan Ave. in Washington Park, which was constructed in 1896, was known as the Phyllis Wheatley House, after the enslaved American poet. JoAnn and Martin Tate, the property's current private owners, are collaborating with Preservation Chicago to have the building recognized as a city landmark.

JoAnn Tate stated that official landmarking "may open us to financing that we can't get now." Grants, municipal finances, and philanthropy.

According to Tate, the Phyllis Wheatley residence was a gathering place for Black women who wanted to improve the lives of other women leaving the South. "At a period when Black women weren't seen as capable of working independently, it wasn't just shelter, but a place for intellectual, social, spiritual, and economic development for these women."

The ladies who came here underwent transformations, according to Tate.

According to Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, Black women passing through Chicago by rail could also take a shower and rest at the Phyllis Wheatley House. If they were going to or through Chicago, this was a secure location for them, a place of empowerment, according to Miller.

The Phyllis Wheatley Woman's Club was formed by Elizabeth Lindsay Davis in Chicago in 1896, and it moved into its first home in 1908. The club's physical presence in Chicago is now all that is left after the destruction of that structure and the following residence, the Michigan Avenue greystone.

The idea to restore the home and turn it into a museum is yet another manifestation of Chicago's burgeoning Black house movement, which in recent years has elevated and transformed the homes of several important Black historical figures, including blues legend Muddy Waters and murdered teenager Emmett Till, thus preserving history in the places it was lived. Nothing comparable has been reported by Crain's in any other city.

According to Tate, the greystone needs roughly $750,000 in rehabilitation work, including a new roof and thorough reconstruction of the back structure. A demolition order was successfully resisted by the owners and Preservation Chicago last year.

The greystone was purchased by the Tates, a former algebra instructor and employee of the Illinois Department of Transportation, for $55,000 in 1991, according to the Cook County clerk. In a garden a few doors down, they started hosting programs for neighborhood kids while raising their ten children there. The Tates have been residing in the suburbs with one of their children for a number of years, according to JoAnn Tate.

The history of the house was only recently made known to them, and information was corroborated by Preservation Chicago's study.

JoAnn Tate was inspired to think about how to fill their empty nest with new purposes after learning about the building's illustrious past.

A business center with offices, conference rooms, and other amenities could be located on the ground floor to generate income. Additionally, there would be a collection of "Black Women Firsts," as JoAnn Tate refers to them.

The first Black First Lady Michelle Obama, the first Black female mayor of a major city Lori Lightfoot, and the first Black woman to own a production firm Oprah Winfrey would all be honored.

Tate also wants to install the various programs she has created over the years, such as MISSY (Moms in Safe Spaces to Yell) and B-WISE, throughout the home (Black Women Immersing in Self Efforts).

As in the past, the mansion would also include a residential section, Tate suggested, perhaps reserved for women alone.

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