Official landmarking could “open us to funding that we can’t get now,” said JoAnn Tate. “Grants, city funds, philanthropy.”
As a Phyllis Wheatley house, “this was a place where Black women came together to create betterment for other women who were migrating from the South,” Tate said. “It wasn’t only shelter, but a place for intellectual, social, spiritual and economic development for these women, at a time when Black women weren’t identified as being able to work on their own.”
“It was a transformative place for the women who came here,” Tate said.
Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said the Phyllis Wheatley House was also a place where Black women traveling through Chicago by train could shower and rest. “This was a safe place for them if they were traveling to or traveling through Chicago, a place of protection and empowerment,” Miller said.
Elizabeth Lindsay Davis founded the Phillis Wheatley Woman’s Club in Chicago in 1896, and the club opened its first house in 1908. That building and the club’s next house were both later demolished, leaving only the third and final house, the Michigan Avenue greystone, as its physical footprint in Chicago.
The plan to revitalize the house into a museum is another piece of Chicago’s burgeoning Black house movement, which in recent years has elevated and transformed the homes of murdered teenager Emmett Till, blues great Muddy Waters and several other Black historical figures, enshrining history in the places it was lived. Crain’s reporting indicates there’s nothing on this scale in any other city.
The greystone needs about $750,000 in rehabilitation, Tate said, including a new roof and extensive rebuilding of the rear structure. Last year, the owners and Preservation Chicago successfully fought off a demolition order.
The Tates, a former algebra teacher and an Illinois Department of Transportation employee, bought the greystone in 1991 for $55,000, according to the Cook County clerk. They raised their 10 children there, and began programming for neighborhood children in a garden a few doors down. For the past few years, the Tates have lived with one of their children in the suburbs, JoAnn Tate said.
They only learned in recent years of the house’s history, and Preservation Chicago’s research confirmed details.
Knowledge of the building’s distinguished history galvanized JoAnn Tate to consider how to fill their empty nest with new uses.
The first floor could be a revenue-generating business center, with office equipment, meeting rooms and such. There would also be a gallery of “Black Women Firsts,” as JoAnn Tate calls them.
Among the honorees would be Michelle Obama, the first Black First Lady; Lori Lightfoot, the first Black female mayor of a big city; and Oprah Winfrey, the first Black woman to own a production company.
Tate also wants to fill the house with programs she has developed over the years, including MISSY (Moms in Safe Spaces to Yell) and B-WISE (Black Women Immersing in Self Efforts).
The house would also have a residential component, as it did historically, likely for women only, Tate said.