If Prologue, Inc. gets its wish a plot of land in Bronzeville will personify the concept of rebirth after a long history of incarceration and death. Prologue, Inc., of which Dr. Nancy Jackson is the Executive Director, purchased the iconic south side funeral home, Griffin located at 3232 South King Drive. This acquisition started a conflict amongst members of the Bronzeville neighborhood. A conflict I will describe as the Bronzeville war of 2012.
The first war associated with the property goes all the way back to 1861 and the Civil War. The land on which Griffin Funeral Home sits is the site of Camp Douglas. The footprint started at Cottage Grove Avenue and ran to what is now Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, from 31st Street on the north to 33rd place. It abutted the south gate of land donated to the University of Chicago by Stephen A. Douglas.
A year after the training camp was installed Ulysses S. Grant captured opposing soldiers at Fort Donelson, Tennessee. Douglas became a POW camp. Over the course of years from 1862 to 1864, Douglas was the largest prisoner of war camp; housing over 26,000 men. It also became infamous for disease and death from exposure. Over 4,000 men died.
The history surrounding this land is storybook quality. Earnest Griffin, the family grand patriarch opened the funeral home in 1947. His father, Charles Griffin enlisted and trained at Douglas Camp. In 1992 the family dedicated a memorial to those who lost their lives at Camp Douglas. This included a Confederate flag flown at half-mast, a bone of contention in the community but as Mrs. Griffin was often heard to say, the dead were children of God before they were Confederate soldiers. Perhaps the flag uproar represented the second war surrounding this historic site.
The third incident resulting in a community skirmish started when the matriarch of Griffin Funeral Home, Alyce Griffin, and her children Dawn Griffin O’Neal and Pearl Griffin- Martin decided to close the doors of the family owned business after 60 years. They were adamant that no other funeral home would occupy the space. In walked Dr. Jackson.
According to Dr. Jackson, the Griffin family was pleased that she wanted to keep the family heritage by preserving the small museum dedicated to the memories of Camp Douglas. She also planned to include a course of studies in curatorial sciences at an alternative high on the site. The deal was struck. Unfortunately the gauntlet was thrown as well.
After City approval, demolition was started on the interior of the old funeral home to renovate for the planned school, museum and a community center. When some of the community residents discovered the intended use, the war was on. Unbeknownst to Dr. Jackson over the past few years there had been quite a kafuffle over the number of schools in the area already. Phillips Academy High School, Chicago Military Academy High School, De la Salle Institute and Chicago High School for the Arts are all within a mile or two of the Griffin site.
My family lived five blocks from Griffin for 37 years. Believe me I remember some of the problems associated with high schools in the area having dismissal at the same time and the proximity of the schools to the 35th street row of fast food joints. What teenager hasn’t stopped for fries and a coke at some time after school and what group of high school students hasn’t gotten into mischief with the fries and coke?
Some of the Bronzeville residents don’t think the proximity of other schools matters a fig. What they think the crux of the matter may be is the designation “ALTERNATIVE”. As far as alternative high schools in the area, the only one I could find while doing the research for this blog was Youth Connection Learning Academy located at 35th and State. Apparently far enough from the protesting neighbors to be acceptable. It’s a case of not in my backyard.
Alternative schools serve students age 17 and over who for some reason or another are unable to finish a regular high school. Unfortunately there are elements in and around the planned site that are hearing stories of rowdy young adults with ankle bracelets (parolees on house arrest), bringing the “wrong element” into the already beleaguered community. That may or may not be the case.
Most of these kids already live in the neighborhood and attend local high schools but are in danger of dropping out for many reasons- social, medical, early parenting and even some with disciplinary problems but bright minds (a sign of being smart and bored is acting out). The planned school would recruit and accept transfers on a last ditch effort; one that perhaps all of us deserve. Is the potential of troubled kids worth sending threats to long time, upstanding members of this community?
Apparently some people think it is. A source tells me the O’Neal family has received threatening phone calls, mail and even a box with contents not shared with me. (I shudder to think).
Is this a case of class warfare, scared neighbors, misunderstanding, or adults behaving badly? Whatever the reason, sending threats to senior citizens who want to preserve their family heritage through enabling a museum to be part of the school and flying a Confederate flag at half-mast in honor of the thousands who died there including some African American confederate soldiers is despicable.
It seems to me the people of Bronzeville should sit down with the school which by all indication has an excellent record of getting these alternative school students graduated and many off to college, and try to find a way to preserve the peace starting with a cease and desist of the threats to the O’Neal family.
This site has been complicated by war, incarceration of soldiers and death. Perhaps a rebirth is in order.