Bronzeville, the renowned African-American enclave on Chicago’s South Side, is rich in the histories of Black writers and entertainers such as Richard Wright, Louis Armstrong, Lorraine Hansberry and Muddy Waters.
Now, the community wants to be known as the home of the Barack Obama presidential library.
The president has not publicly commented on his plans for a library, and the project is unlikely to reach fruition before the end of the decade. But several contenders from Illinois to Hawaii, including Bronzeville, are vying for the prestige and economic vitality that the tourism site could bring.
Because of Obama’s unique role as the first African-American president, his library—replete with documents, videos, photos and other memorabilia from his White House tenure—could be even more of a draw for researchers and tourists alike.
“In many areas, you have a library reaching 200,000 to 300,000 visitors a year,” Susan Donius, director of the National Archives’ Office of Presidential Libraries, said of the economic potential of an Obama library in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “That means people are coming into the city and spending travel and tourism dollars.”
Traditionally, presidential libraries are built in the leader’s home state, which narrows the race down to Chicago, where he most recently lived, and Honolulu, where he was born.
The University of Hawaii, the alma mater of the president's parents, has already mounted a campaign to lure the library to its campus. And the legislature has put together a group of leaders to lobby for the edifice.
But Jerry Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, said Chicago is a better geographical choice for the library.
“To be successful, it means people get an opportunity to view it,” Roper told the Tribune. “Flying all the way to Hawaii is costly and you'd have to tie it to a vacation. Here you can drive to the library and visit because you're already in the city for a meeting or convention or the lights festival.”
Chicago has several possible sites for the library, including a proposed 125-acre mixed-use property on the site of the former U.S. Steel South Works and the frontrunner, the University of Chicago, where Obama taught law for 12 years. But Bronzeville supporters say the facility would be a great boon to the community.
“Why does the university feel they have a right to it?” said Leonard McGee, president of the Bronzeville Alliance, a group of residents and organizations seeking to revitalize Bronzeville. “I’m not saying it’s owed to Bronzeville, either, but why not provide an economic boon to a community that is deprived?”
“If the university gets it, it's the same old game as usual. Where money flows, things go,” he said.
The community, already rich in Black history, is a natural fit for the library, added Harold Lucas, president of the Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council in Bronzeville.
“This area tells the story of Chess Records, gospel music, blues and jazz, electrified by Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters,” he said. “When people come to Chicago, that’s what they want to see. They want to see the birthplace of Mr. Obama’s political career.”