Jazz Institute of Chicago

47th Street and South Park Boulevard — Bronzeville's Downtown

by Charles Walton

Headline in the Pittsburgh Courier, 1927

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS, FEBRUARY 2: The Regal Theater, 47th and South Parkway, is scheduled to open February 4th. An elaborate program is planned for the opening week with Fess Williams, a Quintette from New York City, to do the stunts on the stage with a selected orchestra of 12 artists, while Dave Peyton will direct the orchestra in the pit. There will be several big loop acts on stage and first run pictures on the screen.

It s called the South side s million dollar theater and a large force of our race will be in evidence as employees. The theater is next to the Savoy Ballroom. Just north of the theater will be a drug store and on the 47th Street side, a big department store. The Urban League is making an effort, with the assistance of Sheridan A. Bruseaux, to supply the department store with competent clerks and sales girls. Mr. Dorrell of Lubiner and Trintz is manager of the Theater and Mr. Jordan, his assistant.

Opening of the Regal

With the opening of the South Center department store and office building, professional Blacks (doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc) were in residence on the second and third floors. The Regal, and the Savoy Ballroom, 47th and South Park (now King Drive) replaced 35th and State Street as the Main Drag. On the west end of 47th Street was the Rosenwald Complex and the South Center Building was on the east end.

There were movies and stage shows at the Regal. At the Savoy, patrons danced to bands such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Lunceford. During the week skating and boxing matches were held at the Savoy. This, and more, made 47th and South Park a busy and fun place to be.

CHARLES DAVIS, former newsman:

"When I became aware of the South Center department store, the owner was Harry Englestein, Brigadier General. Richard "Dick" Jones was the manager. Later, Mr. Jones became the Ambassador to Liberia. He was also a big Republican.

On a spring or summer day 47th and South Park was the urban equivalent of a village square. People used to say, "If you re trying to find a certain Negro in Chicago, just stand on the corner of 47th and South Park long enough and you re bound to see him."

Many Sundays, when I [Charles Walton] was a teenager, I would stand on the southeast corner of 47th and South Park and watch couples in their Sunday finery go to the Regal Theater and teenagers going to the Savoy Ballroom. They were going to listen to the big bands appearing there. I was one of those teenagers and saw and heard every name band of that day.

When I was 14 or 15 years old, I started working as a shoe salesman in the Douglas Shoe Store at 342 East 47th Street. I worked there after school. The main business district was both sides of the street, between Vincennes Avenue on the east and Indiana Avenue on the west.

The big store in the Black community was the South Center department store on 47th Street in the South Center building. Also in the same building, on the ground level, was a Woolworth 5 & 10¢ store and a Walgreen Drug Store on the corner of 47th and South Park. Shoe and men s wear stores in the area including Eli s Pawn Shop on the northeast corner of 47th and Calumet Avenue.

AL DAVIS, worked on 47th Street:

"We once counted 23 shoe stores between Vincennes and Indiana Avenues, a 4 block stretch, all of them white-owned. Blacks had not been able to negotiate a store lease up to that time. The first Blacks to do so were the Jones Brothers, who opened the Ben Franklin 5&10 store. Henry C. Taylor was the second Black to open a men s haberdashery on the street. Later, other Black owners opened Morris Eat Shop, Buckner s Foot Support Shoe Store, The Palm Tavern, The Brass Rail, Mattie Chapel s Hat Shop and Rosetta s Frocks.

47th Street was the street of my life! I loved it, and everything that was happening there. When I went into the army, I often thought about what was happening on the street. It was the Black community s downtown. If there was anything better than that, I didn t want to know about it."


"I lived at 4756 St. Lawrence and 4801 St. Lawrence Avenue for a long time. Charlie Carpenter, who did some work on arrangements for Earl "Father" Hines and George Shearing, lived in the basement apartment of 4801 St. Lawrence. Dorothy Donegan lived with her parents up the street and Joe Williams in my block. Cab Calloway lived several blocks west of us around Vincennes Ave. We were all in our early teens, although some were a few years younger. John Levy, a musician who later became a well-known manager of the stars, such as Joe Williams and Nancy Wilson, lived on 49th and St. Lawrence.

Jo Jo Wicks, who later married Scoops Carry, musician, and Bea Ellis, who much later became Duke Ellington s "significant other," also lived in the 49th and St. Lawrence.

47th Street, especially as I remember it as a young girl, was alive with Black businesses. A "Mecca." I remember the Palm Tavern, where visiting celebrities and stars made their first stop to eat and drink and meet friends. It was the gathering place. I met Lena Horne and her father, Teddy Horne, a "sportsman" from Philadelphia there. She was young and not so famous then. I also met J. Levert Kelly who was the colorful President of the Waiters and Bartenders Union.

In the area were Freda Cross Corset Shop, the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper office with Ted Watson as the "Midnight Man," Henry C. Taylor s Haberdashery (first class), and Madam C H Walker's Stormy's (Leola Clark) Beauty Salon. Scotty Piper and Bill Hughes Men s Tailoring was next to the famous Morris Restaurant where the elite, including Dr T. K. Lawless and others, such as Marva Louis, could be seen most every Sunday for dinner. The Chicago Metropolitan Insurance Co. also had an office on 47th St.

The Regal and the Metropolitan Theaters were not Black owned, but the famous Black Bands and Entertainers appeared there including Sammy Davis Jr., Valada Snow, and the Berry Brothers (dancers), who had the most fabulous orchid-colored Dusenberg car Chicago had ever seen straight from Hollywood. Duke and Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong, whom I called "Uncle Louis," played there. Also the great Josephine Baker, Bojangles (Bill Robinson), Johnny Mathis, Mr. "B" (Billy Eckstine), Erskine Tate, Erskine Hawkins, Cozy Cole, Benny Carter, and Dizzy Gillespie.

I could go on and on Lester Young and, lest I forget, the great dancers "Tip, Tap and Toe," who were the first Blacks to appear on the Chesterfield Hour in New York. When in Chicago, they appeared mostly at the Chicago Theater, although they eventually did play the Regal. Sarah Vaughan—the Divine Sarah—was there and Duke Ellington showcased Herb Jeffries. These great musicians, singers, and dancers stopped in the Palm Tavern and patronized the Jones Bros. Ben Franklin Store."

Let's talk about the Jones Brothers Store, more popularly known as "The Ben Franklin Store."


"It was owned by three handsome, suave, real gentlemanly, educated sons of a Baptist minister, Rev. Edward P Jones of Evanston. Ed Jones Jr. attended Howard, Meharry, and Northwestern Universities and George attended Northwestern. "Mack" (McKissack), the youngest, was not a college graduate but served in the Armed Services. The Ben Franklin, the first Black-owned Department store in Chicago, opened in 1937. Many celebrities were on hand for the opening ceremony and World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis, cut the ribbon."

The Jones Brothers were multi-millionaires as a result of their huge "policy" gambling empire and were much sought after by important people from all walks of life. They provided thousands of jobs in those depression days in their policy stations, race horse parlors, keno games, hotels, etc. They also invested heavily in legitimate business such as real estate, a dairy, farms, apartment buildings, and bought homes in Michigan, the Chicago suburbs, France, Spain, and Mexico.

The famous Savoy Ballroom (not Black-owned) also provided jobs for Black musicians and show people. Later Eddie Plicque put on amateur fights there. Further west on 47th Street across South Park to Michigan, there were many other professional offices occupied by doctors, dentists, and lawyers. The 113 Tavern, Mae s Dress Shop, Peacocks Beauty Shop, and Ernie Henderson s Chicken Shack. These shops and stores were supported by the middle-class population living in the Rosenwald Gardens, a large apartment complex at 47th and Michigan Avenue.

JOE SEGAL, owner Jazz Showcase club:

"I enrolled in Roosevelt University in 1947. The school did not have a campus for out-of-state students, but through the school placement office, I received a call from someone with a south side accent asking, "Would you like to come live with us? We have a big house and several students are staying here." It was the three-story brownstone home of Dr. and Mrs. Bill London and their daughter who lived at 48th and Champlain Avenue. I gladly accepted the offer, for I had been out to the Regal, the Savoy Ballroom, the White City Ballroom, and later the Congo Club next to the Savoy, and was familiar with the area.

I found out years later that the placement office had also sent a Black student out to live with a white family as a social experiment. I don t know what happened to that student but I had a ball [Segal is white]! Richard Davis, bass, lived down the street and Paul Serano, trumpet, lived around the corner. I met all the people around there. Later on, McKee Fitzhugh, promoter, had "The Bop Shop" record store on 46th and South Park next door to the Metropolitan Theater.

Across the street from the Regal was a soul food restaurant, before "Soul food" became the trade thing that it is now. For 65 cents, there was plenty to eat. I had never had sweet potato pie, and didn t know what grits or collard greens were. I thought that it was spinach. I tried Murrays (hair grease) in my hair and konked my hair I couldn t comb it for a month, and I grew a little goatee, and wore a little tam, trying to be hip.

Years later, Richard Davis said his mother asked him, "Who is that skinny white boy that walks up and down the street whistling all the time?" I was whistling bebop.

This was the crest of the popularity of 47th. It was popping then, with the Regal, the Savoy, the South Center Building, and the Corpus Christ Center. 46th and South Park was where Al Benson and McKee Fitzhugh had their music promotions. I first saw Bird [Charlie Parker] there. He was out of it and spent the whole night trying to pick his handkerchief up off the floor. That was the extent of his playing that night. The Parkway Ballroom was on 45th and South Park where dances and benefits were held."

GRADY JOHNSON, musician and pharmacist in the 47th Street Walgreen Drug Store:

"I graduated from high school at 14 when I applied for a job as delivery boy at the Walgreen Drug Store at 63rd and South Park. The Walgreen store was across the street from the White City Ballroom. Besides working as a delivery boy, I was also their dishwasher (at that time Walgreen Stores had lunch counters). Later I was transferred to the Walgreen on 51st Street and from there I went into the army.

Upon my discharge from service, I entered the University of Illinois on the GI Bill and utilized a partial scholarship from Walgreen's. I graduated with a degree in Pharmacy and was transferred to the 47th Street Walgreen Store as a pharmacist. That was the greatest thing to happen to me. I had a ball! All the stars came in from the theater and I met them all.

Some time later, I was fired from the 47th Street store. I had to alternate working on days and also on the night shifts. In order to play gigs on my night shift I would have a substitute work for me. The management frowned on this and warned me to stop. I stopped accepting jobs on my night shift for quite a while.

But McKee gave me a job that I could not refuse to lead a group that was to accompany Lester Young at the White City Ballroom. I had Dorel Anderson on drums, Ernest Norckham on bass, Allen Hall on piano, and myself. I went to the gig and the next day I was called into the Walgreen office and they asked me for my keys to the store, saying, "It seems you want to go out and play music rather than manage a million dollar business."

I could have gotten that job back because my record was good and I had been with the company for 15 years. I had never missed a day, but I wanted to play music. I got a job in a drug store on the west side of Chicago in a white neighborhood, 14th and Ashland. I could open the store at nine o'clock in the morning, work until one o'clock, and then come back at five o'clock to work to closing at nine o'clock that night. This allowed me to play music after I left the store every night.

In 1963, S. B. Fuller President, and founder of the Fuller Products Co., bought the South Center Complex."

C E CHARLES, promoter:

"I met with S. B. Fuller and discovered how and why he bought the South Center Building. Fuller had a friend, who after a long career in the army, became eligible for retirement. This man, whom I shall refer to as Colonel Joe Kid, always wanted to be in the retail business, either owning or managing a department store. Somehow, the Colonel learned that the South Center Department Store was going to close.

Fuller began to look into the possibility of purchasing the store, but he felt the price was too high. Then he learned that the South Center Building Complex, which, besides housing the store, also housed the Regal Theater and other properties, could be purchased, which he did.

Fuller let the Colonel manage the store. The store presented many opportunities to Fuller, including showcasing the Fuller's products."


"I am from Williamson, North Carolina and came to Chicago in 1946. While I was here, someone told me that there was a Black man training Black people to go into business. This was right up my alley. 537 E. 63rd Street was the main office for Fuller who gave a motivational talk every morning to the door-to-door people who were selling the Fuller cosmetics products.

I was with Fuller for 30 years. Fuller had 13 corporations when I joined him. He also had four white companies with white salespeople who sold Fuller products under another name in order to sell them to white people. S. B. Fuller and The Fuller Brush company sometimes spilled over each other. The Fuller Brush Co., a white Company, sued to have S. B. Fuller change his company s name. The Fuller Brush Company lost.

Mr. Fuller, through the South Center Department Store, gave the poor people on welfare, $100 dollars credit with $30 down and had them repay the balance at $10 per month. When the Welfare agency staff alerted the welfare recipients that they could not be garnisheed or forced to pay whatever they owed, the Fuller Co. went bankrupt.

Fuller was quite a business man, but his ego held him back. He took $23 and promoted it into a multimillion dollar business. He always preached change but could not effect a change to expand his business and compete in the white retail market."


"Fuller and the Colonel didn t know enough about the retail business to make it work. The changing Black community was also a contributing factor."


"I was working in Walter's Shoe Store, east of the South Center Store, when S. B. Fuller bought the whole complex from the Englestein Brothers. I had sold Fuller products previously but became more involved with Mr. Fuller after he took over the Regal, through a Mr. Branch. A friend, Herb Hopkins, a former policeman, took over as manager of the Regal. Branch brought in the talent that appeared at the Regal. I was there everyday and he took a liking to me and hired me to work on the first Motown show there as a PR person and gofer. My last job at the Regal was when the Modern Jazz Quartet was appearing on the bill.

Al Benson and later Pervis Spann bought blocks of weeks at the theatre and hired talent to perform there. However they did not have the concessions. Mr. Fuller and the Spann group had a disagreement and the Spann promotions were moved to a theater on 79th and Halsted. The Regal Theater closed.

I had become a whiskey salesman during the late '40s. I began to read about real estate and development and I spoke to Mr. Fuller about my ideas but he thought I was crazy. I thought, with him being a big man, that I needed his help. I found out later I didn t really need his help. A friend and I put together a corporation and later built the high-rise building on the block at the south end of the 47th and King Drive. We later acquired the South Center complex property but that s another story."

DAVE YOUNG, musician:

"Why do all Black neighborhoods fall apart? Why did 47th Street fall apart? Answer: This is the price we paid for integration. Segregation made us support each other. When people have options they begin to exercise those options. Before, the Blacks were confined to spending in one community. After integration, they were free to go out of the community and away they went."

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