War in Bronzeville

War in Bronzeville
Thanks to the Chicago Historical Society

Griffin Funeral HomeIf 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 DriveThis 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.


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  • "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)." 

    First of all, most of these kids do not live in the neighborhood! According to the census, the area between 2600 south, 3900 north, the lake and the expressway contains 2,577 children between the ages of 5 and 17. The total number of students attending the schools in the same area is 8,460. There are approximately 6,000 students coming into our community everyday. They have no vested interest in our community. That number is probably higher because my children as well as most of my neighbor's children, attend other public schools outside of our neighborhood. As far as the other alternative school located on state street, had we known about it before it opened, we would have been against it as well and there is another alternative school on cottage grove. Can you explain to me why we need three alternative schools in a neighborhood with 2,577 kids between the ages of 5 and 17? I'm sure that Prologue would have plenty of students to serve in Englewood or Roseland.

    Second, I have opened my front door to retreive my mail to find teens smoking weed on my front porch. They opened my gate and walked into my front yard to sit on my porch to get high. My flower bed has been trampled multiple times. I don't even want to talk about the trash and the profanity that they spew out. There is no other neighborhood in the city that has 10 high schools within a 1.5 radius. I would like to point out that non of these CPS schools have any form of selective program. Several years ago, a CPS official admitted that they chose our neighborhood because it was safe, didn't have a gang problem and it was close to various public transportation. So we are getting dumped on because we worked hard to take care of our homes and community.

    Our community looks like a war zone between 3:00 and 5:00 because there are so many kids leaving school and wondering through the neighborhood. They stop traffic because they don't want to wait for the light to change. They walk on lawns and act like they don't know the meaning of the word "Respect". The traffic aides can't do anything with them because there are just too many of them. If you want to commit a crime in Bronzeville, you should do it between 3:00 and 5:00 because half of the police force seem to be patrolling 35th street. While the police are patrolling 35th street the kids are wandering through the neighborhood side streets being disrepectful to homeowners and their property. Danie is this the kind of environment that you would enjoy living in? What do you think is happening to our property values? I always thought that you should be adding value to a community, not decreasing its value. I don't know anyone who would be excited about living next door to an alternative school.

    Prologue has been evasive about answering questions and they were recently evicted from a location at 47th street because they did not have the proper zoning. Prologue is trying to promote the museum piece and the community center piece but they didn't have a lot of detail regarding these two other functions of the space at the community meetings.

    I feel really bad for the O'neals because they are a fine family and no one should be treated they way you claim they have been treated.

    Why is it that a predominantly black community is not allowed to want high standards without being accused of class warfare?

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    I agree with TAS, Danie has a very limited knowledge of the facts. For over 7 years my husband and I have joined our neighbors to make a safe and welcoming neighborhood. Who is Dr. Jackson to come into our neighborhood to tell us what is or is not appropriate. My neighbors children do not go to school here. We clean up the park each morning from the trash that comes from the Dunbar students. Look at Dunbar's front yard, they can't even repair the art in their garden.
    Prologue wants us to feel guilty, we are not. We house 6000 students not living in our neighborhood. We are doing our duty! Our neighborhood is not a dumping ground. The O'Neals thought they were selling their funeral home to be Prologue school's headquarters and a museum, not a school.

  • In reply to Lktinthegap:

    I too was originally under the assumption that the building was to be a headquarters and museum and community center. In fact, my husband and I approached Dr. Jackson to ask her if the computer lab supposedly going into the center could be used for a cognitive fitness software project to address ADD/ADHD, early stage Alzheimer and focus problems for the clients of the 7 Bronzeville workforce development projects. In fact, we discussed this with Bernita Johnson-Gabriel at QCDC.

    The school issue became of interest when we found out about the opposition. We all know that many of the local public schools are slated for closure. We also heard that Dunbar was going to become a S.T.E.M. center, a learning system of particular interest to our organization. We also heard that the Pershing High School (we thought was being backed and sponsored by the Gap) was shelved. So, I started trying to get some answers to how the proposed school was situated. Is this school intended to replace some of the anticipated closures? Is this in lieu of the Pershing High School Proposal? How will the museum and community center interface with the efforts of Historic Bronzeville to preserve the history of the Griffin family and the Douglas Camp. All I could find was complaints about we don’t need another school, which didn’t answer my questions about the planned closures. One person expressed concerns about “kids” going to school in a former funeral home. That I really didn’t understand for two reasons, one the students weren’t “kids” and two what the heck is the issue with the site being a former funeral home. So what was the problem? I posted that on www.everyblock.com/.
    That led to doing the blog. There seems to be an awful lot of passion on this subject but no answers to questions like what to do about the problems already involving students in the area, the loitering, the crime, etc.

  • So what Danie person seems to be suggesting is the “Rebirth of a POW Camp” for the at risk students who have been captured and placed in academic prison. The funeral home is a symbol which suggests that their ultimate punishment will be their demise. Current punishment would be their habitation on top of land that has a history of disease and death. This history will undoubtedly be shared with them on a daily basis.

    What student would feel comfortable telling their peers that their school is a funeral home? This would destroy any student’s self-esteem and send them the message that the reason why they have to attend at this location is because they are already accustomed to death, violence and imprisonment. Why would any caring adult want to send the message to these at risk students that their end result will be in a funeral home?

    Are their any real parents who see a problem with this message? It is hard to believe that these students will not suffer psychologically from the daily reminder that their school is a funeral home, sitting on top of a prison camp. Why would any nurturing adult want to subject a person who is already unhealthy, unruly, psychologically deficient and academically disenfranchised, to this type of mental torture.

    CPS has been auctioning off CPS building this summer, several of which were in Bronzeville, south of the Gap, but instead, this organization came to the conclusion that a funeral home would be the best environment for an at risk student. Shameful!!!

  • To all of you who commented. I have absolutely no information that Prologue is associated with or obliged to take young adults from CPS. I have learned the school is not a reform school and that students who attend there come of their own accord. I recently heard that one graduate is the child of the owners of a well-established Hyde Park business. I would suggest those interested might research this because it is hearsay.

    As far as parents sending a child to a former funeral home, these are young adults. No one is sending them anywhere. If this is such a horrendous idea, why do we drag little kids to a wake or funeral with a dead body in the room? This spot is part of our history. African American soldiers died here as well. The lives of important figures in our history as black people were celebrated here.

    I have lived in Bronzeville for my entire life, thirty seven years of it on 35th and Prairie before it was fashionable to come to the "hood" to revitalize. What I learned was that some people are problematic no matter what income level and some are diamonds in the rough. I don't know all the ends and outs of Prologue but I think we as a community need to do more research; ask questions and put some common sense in our solutions.

    I must acknowledge that the kids at Dunbar are not primarily from the local surroundings. I did more research and found that most do come from farther south. That makes sense because the housing projects have been razed. I have also heard that Dunbar is to be converted to a S.T.E.M. school. If that is true, enrollment will be based on aptitude in the sciences. This should eliminate a great deal of bored and or just plain contrary young folk tramping in the Bronzeville area for fast food on 35th Street. In fact, I suggest we do something about the store owners allowing these kids whoever and wherever they originate from hanging out. I suggested this on Every Block. Enforce BUY AND FLY. Get your junk food and leave the street.

    Face it we won't be able to close the mega fast food joints unless we come out as a community against them strongly for feeding our kids fats, sugar and GMO foods and contributing to the loitering problem. Maybe we need to assault them more vehemently then we seem to be assaulting a school. We know quite clearly how “beneficial” junk food is and how these places draw the after school crowd.
    My children are adults. My grandchildren don’t live in Chicago but I firmly believe that all concerned people need to halt the rhetoric; listen to all sides; check the facts and find solutions. I appreciate when you check my facts. Keep them coming.

  • Danie, Dr. Jackson from Prologue told the Gap Community Organization that she spoke with some of the principals at these high schools and that they would be referring students to Prologue. I'm sure the principals were happy to hear from Prologue. Now they can get rid of students that are hurting their test scores and attendance. Maybe you need to do some research of your own because Dr. Jackson is not being totally honest with you. When I asked her for her market research that showed that there was a need for Prologue's services in our community, she said that CPS did a study.

    Why is it that we are not using common sense because we don't want another school in our community that is already over saturated with schools? What you don't understand is that we don't want another school in our neighborhood, period! We didn't want ChiArts but it was rammed down our throats anyway. Why are you trying to make us look bad because we want to have a say as to what happens in our community? Many parents seemed to have stopped raising their children and our neighborhood is filled with thousands of those children on a daily basis. I am tired of dealing with ignorant, unruly children with no home training and I will not apologize for that! I have lived in this neighborhood for 17 years. There were only 3 high schools in the area when I moved here and now there are 10!

    Danie, you act as if people are indecisive, we don't need to find a solution, our solution is to say no to Prologue. What you seem to want is a solution that will allow Prologue to open their school.

  • In reply to TAS:

    Please read my reply to LKtinthegap. That pretty much explains my position.

    This situation looks like it will be hotly contested on each side and unfortunately end up the worse for the community. So the school goes; we lose the museum and community center? Can we preserve the site for posterity or let it go because we just can’t perceive another course?

    I was in a planning meeting a few months ago with CMAP. One of the staff said to me they had never seen such division among community members in any other neighborhood in the entire metropolitan area. I hated to believe that but I guess they were right.

  • Hotly contested. By whom? The community members versus those who don't live here.

    This community center was not mentioned until they heard there was resistance. If you really knew what was going on, we are working to get a fieldhouse in the community, or more realistically looking at reopening the north side of Dunbar for the community as it was when I attended there in the 70's. We don't need no stinking community center!

    Preserve the memory of a Confederate Cemetary? Really? The one thing about the Griffins is that they went against the grain in trying to remember the Confederate Prisoners. While noteworthy this must be the only place in the country where preserving the stars and bars in a Black Community is seen as a positive. Not in my eyes. That flag stands for racism and you and those trying to use it to add an 11th high school to this community is sad.

    As stated in previous comments, very few of the students that would benefit from the Prologue School live in this community.

    The museum is a sham, the community center is a sham, they need to move this where it is most needed. Ten high schools is enough.

  • If there are 10 high schools in Bronzeville then there should be 20 local school council (LSC) representatives. Who are they? What are they doing? Are they representing your interest? They need to be held accountable.

    Yes, the talk of alternative high schools is frightening to any community because most grew up with the understanding that those were the schools that the "bad" kids got shipped off too.

    While there are some schools that house those students, Milburn and Sullivan House, there are precautions put in place. Also, what is a CPS supported alternative school versus what is not has changed.

    The issue of children who fall through the cracks, miseducated and tossed aside is a political hot potato that needs a serious debate. When we have a true dropout rate of about 60% when you count those who stop going to school after 8th grade, we really have to look at the long term cost this problem is causing.

    I suggest that a fact finding group go into the school where it stands today and see first hand what is taking place versus going off of old notions.

  • In reply to Worlee:

    Worlee, why is it ok to impose another school on a community that is already saturated with schools? This is the only area in the entire city or maybe the entire country that has 10 high schools within a one mile radius. We will never have viable businesses on 35th street because any potential owner will be turned off by the mob that appears everyday between 3:00 and 5:00 everyday. These schools are not adding value to our community, they are decreasing it. Everyone keeps talking about the alternative school and the good it does. I am not disputing that. When ChiArts was presented to the community, there was opposition as well for the simple fact that it was another school. A fact finding group is really not necessary. We are standing up to protect and preserve the value of our homes and our community and the black middle class should not be criticized and shunned for that. We want better for our community. Maybe if more people wanted better for themselves and their children, there would not be a need for alternative schools. I didn't grow up with money. My parents raised six kids and taught us the value of getting an education and working hard.

  • In reply to Worlee:

    Be careful Worlee, if we ask for community members to do logical fact finding or sit down with the local school councils, we are automatically pro Prologue and against the gap. Not true!

    I just got a call from my daughter who is teaching in Beirut. A car bomb took the lives of many and injured many more. Frankly, I am sick of confrontations based on ideology that is often flawed or discriminatory.

    All I see in these posts is the number of schools in the area. Has anyone looked at the scheduled school closings? What are the expected gaps in service to ALL levels of education opportunities in the community?

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