South Center

421-429 East 47th Street
Founded 1928

The South Center department store, 421-429 E. 47th Street, was one of the largest retail establishments on Chicago’s south side when it opened in 1928. Among other things, the store helped anchor and attract consumers to the emerging bright-light district along 47th Street near South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive), an area sometimes referred to as the “Harlem of Chicago.” More significantly, the store, located as it was in the heart of Chicago’s African-American community, rejected racist hiring practices and enthusiastically recruited African-Americans as employees and customers.

The South Center department store was constructed as part of a massive commercial real estate development project built between 1926 and 1928 by a group of local real estate investors. Aside from a department store, the project, located on the southeast corner of 47th Street and South Parkway, included the Regal Theater, the Savoy Ballroom, offices, a drug store, and several smaller retail stores. Owned by Harry and Louis Englestein, the store’s first manager was Louis Kahn, a former executive at the Becker-Ryan department store at 63rd and Halsted.

The three-story department store opened its doors at 10 a.m., Saturday, 17 March 1928. It sold everything from jewelry, hats, shoes, and handbags to candies, toys, paints, washing machines, and canary birds. Large crowds turned out for the store’s grand opening. “All during the day,” reported the Defender, “hundreds of persons croded the store to scrutinize the wares. With fifty different departments, everything is carried that is sold by the finest Loop stores.” Store management, if somewhat prematurely, predicted the business would be a great success. “This will be,” announced one of the store’s opening-day advertisements, “the south side’s greatest merchandising institution. It was planned to serve the wants of thousands. With a personnel selected for its helpful service and ability—reliable—capable—the South Center Department Store is destined to occupy a niche of distinction in the eyes of the entire city.”

By far the most remarkable feature of the store, however, was its fair and even-handed treatment of African-Americans. At a time when most other Chicago department stores treated African-American customers with utter contempt and seldom hired them for anything other than the lowest-paid positions as janitors and elevator operators, Louis Kahn and the store’s owners broke new ground by considering African-Americans for all store positions and pledging from day one to treat all customers equally, regardless of race. In fact, the store’s executives desired to hire as many African-Americans as possible. They considered the presence of African-Americans on the sales staff as a good way to demonstrate to African-American customers their committment to providing the same level of customer service to all. At the same time, the store’s executives believed such employment opportunities would provide African-Americans valuable experience in retail merchandising that would help them land better jobs at this and other Chicago department stores. “The owners of the new store,” observed the Defender, “were extremely anxious to secure the services of young men and women who have had business training and show some signs of ability to advance in the concern. Speaking of the personnel of the store, one of the executives revealed that in time practically the entire management of the store would be in the hands of those who are now starting in the store in less important positions.”

Of the store’s approximately 150 regular employees, more than 125 were, according to the Defender, African-American. Among the most prominent of these employees was Dick Jones, who became something of a celebrity at the store. Jones was initially hired to work as assistant superintendent of the store, then quickly promoted to the position of general superintendent. In 1930, the store celebrated the young man’s accomplishments with a special “Dick Jones Day” that included lowered prices and glowing tributes to Jones in a twelve-page circular and the pages of the Defender. “The most significant thing,” wrote the newspaper, “behind the whole idea [of Dick Jones Day] is that fact that a man of color has forged to the front. It means that opportunities are now in the grasp of those of the Race who will prepare themselves for the big positions.” Such accolades demonstrate to what extent some in Chicago’s African-American community had come to demand and expect fairer treatment from the city’s commercial establishments by the early 1930s.

The South Center Department Store was demolished in the 1970s. For more than two decades, the site remained vacant. During the 1990s, local alderwoman Dorothy Tillman spearheaded plans to redevelop the property with a performing arts and community center. Finally, in 1998, after many delays, construction on the $4.2 million Harold Washington Cultural Center began.

Sources: Chicago Defender, 30 July 1927, pt. 2, pg. 10; 10 Mar. 1928, pt. 1, pg. 14; 24 Mar. 1928, pt. 1, pg. 2; 7 Apr. 1928, pt. 1, pg. 3; 15 Nov. 1930, 4; Chicago Sunday Tribune, 29 Aug. 1926, pt. 3, pg. 1.