Most are gone now. Soft Sheen’s plant is now a self-storage facility. And while the company is still in businesses, it’s no longer based on 87th Street, or even Chicago. It’s now owned by French cosmetics giant L’Oreal.
This network of Black-owned businesses was responsible for the rise of Black political power in Chicago, laying out the cash that funded political campaigns, most notably Harold Washington’s successful 1983 bid to become Chicago’s first Black mayor.
Washington’s fundraising chief was Al Johnson, whose Al Johnson Cadillac was the country’s first Black-owned Cadillac dealership when it opened in 1971. A media campaign encouraging Black voter registration — “Come Alive October 5” — helped sweep Washington into office.
Having capital changed the expectations of what Black Chicagoans could ask for politically. “For a lot of Black people, if you were a middle-class school teacher or a member of the city’s corporation counsel’s office, or a social worker, chances are your check was being cut by the same government folks [in City Hall] that you were pushing to get out of there,” said attorney Quintin King, a lobbyist and political science professor at DePaul University.
But the folks who organized and put together the push to unseat the political machine and to back Harold Washinton, most of them were independent businesspeople like the Bouttes and Al Johnsons, King said.
“And a slew of other people whose names have been lost to history.”
That ascension, it turned out, was brief. Shortly into his second term as mayor, Washington died in office, felled by a heart attack. The ensuing scramble for power ultimately led to the election of another white mayor, Richard M. Daley—son of legendary Chicago political boss Mayor Richard J. Daley—in 1989.
The younger Daley embraced the Black business community, just as other economic factors caused its numbers to dip.
But some Chicago political observers saw his strategy as fueling the decline: in order to remain in power and prevent the rise of another Harold Washington, they say, the mayor used the vast City Hall purse to help reward loyal Black businesses with lucrative contracts and political access. (Full disclosure: I spent three years as Daley’s deputy chief of staff for urban planning from 2001 to 2004.)
“Their bread was being buttered downtown [by City Hall],” said Jackson, the political consultant.
The result, he said: “As black business owners started to climb and get into the wealth circle, they were no longer interested in Black empowerment.”
‘Dressed fly as can be’
The power marriage of Black business and politics in Chicago during the 1970s and 1980s garnered national attention, especially on the pages of Ebony, Jet, and Black Enterprise magazine. The stories were enough to bring Quintin King to Chicago from Cleveland when he was a young attorney in the 1980s.
“I said, ‘I gotta get there.’ There was something about seeing all these beautiful Black people walking down the street on Michigan Avenue, owning businesses and dressed fly as can be,” said King, who is now a partner at the Black-owned Chicago law firm Dillard & King.
And for those of us of a certain age who grew up on the South Side where these Black-owned businesses and many others were located, the loss in the years since then is felt personally.
If you were a kid growing up in the 1970s, when your mother sent you to the store to buy ice cream, she didn’t have to tell you what to get: It was Baldwin Ice Cream, Black-owned and local. And until it went out of business in 1977 or so, Joe Louis Milk was a staple in many a refrigerator. The Brown Bomber had a milk bottling company at 62nd Street and Prairie Avenue, right there in the South Side.
But now, with the massive population loss from the city’s predominantly Black South and West Sides, it’s becoming a very different Chicago.
“I have become resigned to the fact that we are living through the Great Exodus,” Jackson said. “And we are going to be like the Native American: at a place where [people will say], ‘Remember when the Black people used to be here?’”
Black people built their own
Many historic Black businesses were born of a time when white-owned businesses would refuse to serve — or even recognize — Black customers.
So Black people built their own, in their own neighborhoods.
But John H. Johnson’s Johnson Publishing Co. was an outlier. In 1972, the media giant that published Ebony and Jet — and also created Fashion Fair makeup and the legendary Ebony Fashion Fair traveling fashion show — moved from the near South Side to a stylish 11-story headquarters it built in the South Loop at 820 S. Michigan Ave.