The Storefront Churches of Chicago is an exquisite photographic documentary by photographer Dave Jordano, which is contained in his recently published book, Articles of Faith. His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and Northwestern University, among others. Jordano’s powerful and reverent images in this work capture the small details that make the church spaces unique, familiar and alive; Jordano shows us it’s not only how, but where congregations pray that defines their faith. Describing this work, Jordano observes that, “There is a long history of small storefront churches in urban areas throughout America. The great migration of African-Americans to the north during the last century has definitely contributed to this. Even after Blacks moved north, they still encountered much racial tension and segregation, creating isolation and economic hardship within their communities. Because of this, many groups couldn’t afford to build a large church, so the idea of reusing small empty storefronts in depressed areas where rents were low became the catalyst for their reuse. It’s a cultural phenomenon that still resonates today and has become a vital component within the cultural fabric of poor Black urban communities.”
Jordano photographed the churches mostly empty in order to capture interior images that revealed the unique personality of each sacred space. In this way, the manner in which each pastor adorns and decorates a space is a reflection of their religious ideology, their concept of what is appealing and attractive to others, and of how that space can make others feel comfortable and leave them with feelings of importance and hope. Perhaps more significantly, he documented these spaces in order to illuminate their positive influences as pillars of community stability and support within poor Black neighborhoods, especially where crime, prostitution and drugs are often right outside the front door.
When these elegantly refined photographs of the sacred rooms are viewed as “portraits,” they resonate with their creators’ personalities. Seemingly insignificant items such as the ripped and folded-up paper song sheet that a young girl is holding so delicately between her fingers become important documents that signify identity. The hand-written titles are someone’s favorite songs to sing. It may be only a piece of paper, but its history is profound. Many of these little churches displayed portraits of the churches’ founders, to pay tribute or memorialize them. Some of them were photographs, some were paintings on the walls; all of them were signs of respect and testaments to the importance of the here and now, tributes to the day-to-day guiding moral principles of the leader of the church.
During the 1940s, the South Side of Chicago, and especially the creatively teeming area called Bronzeville, was home to poet Gwendolyn Brooks, playwright Richard Wright and dancer Katherine Dunham. It also became home for the renowned Delta blues musicians Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, B. B. King, Ruth Brown and Chuck Berry; soul and jazz musicians Sam Cooke, Jerry Butler, and Nat King Cole; entertainers Oscar Brown, Jr., and Sammy Davis, Jr.; and the queen of gospel music, Mahalia Jackson. Dinah Washington, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, Nancy Wilson, John Coltrane and nearly every great jazz artist came to play there, whether by road tour or for an extended period of time. Charlie “Yardbird” Parker played his last gig there. Chicago’s South Side Bronzeville is said by many to be second only to Harlem in providing a legacy of African-American cultural gifts to America and the world.
Chicago’s South Side 1946-1948
Photographer Gordon Parks
Like many African-Americans during the 1940s, the celebrated photographer Gordon Parks really got his big start on the South Side of Chicago. Soon after his arrival in Chicago, Parks began working for the entrepreneurial Marva Louis, wife of the boxer Joe Louis. In a very short period of time, he was exhibiting his photographs at the Southside Community Art Center, located in the creatively teeming area called Bronzeville. While in Chicago, Mr. Parks produced a number of society portraits and fashion images, but he also turned to documenting the slums of the South Side.