Short History of the Mayor of Bronzeville
By Nathan Thompson
The whole "mayor" idea was the brainchild of one of Bronzeville's most beloved sons - James "Jimmy" Gentry, a local Chicago Defender writer and club promoter who since 1916, or thereabouts, bankrolled the annual Miss Bronze America beauty pageants. In fact the name Bronzeville is rooted in those very beauty pageants which gave rise to common expressions like Bronze- beauties of Bronze-ville.
In 1930, while employed at the Chicago Bee Newspaper as an editor, Gentry tried to launch a Mayor of Bronzeville campaign as a promotional gimmick to sell newspapers but it didn't work. Soon after though, Gentry left the Bee for the Defender right at a time when "things" were happening in the neighborhood.
With the blessings and backing of Robert Sengstacke Abbott - founding Publisher of the Chicago Defender Newspaper, the new Mayor of Bronzeville title was born.
As framed in its charter mission statement, the Mayor of Bronzeville was conceived to elevate an outstanding citizen to heights beyond imagination and to make of him a symbol for the city. The Mayor is the most important figure in the community, a person who has his hands on the pulse of every major development or situation affecting the area. He inspires his fellow citizens and elevates them as a mass. He is the servant of the community,"
Gentry set up shop in Suite 47 in the Liberty Life Insurance Company building at 35th & South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive) to run the campaign, which was to coincide with his annual Miss Bronze America beauty Pageant. Posters and ballot boxes were set up in every drug store, restaurant, boutique, barber shop, garage, church, grocery store, and newspaper stand in Bronzeville and nomination ballots ran in the Defender. The campaign was all the rage. Everyone took to the idea like a fish to water. Scores of community activists and ward precinct captains took to the streets of Bronzeville to hype the campaign. And it wasn't long before the mailroom at the Chicago Defender was flooded with nomination ballots.
Notable among the finalists were Savoy Ballroom announcer Eddie Plique, controversial union boss J. Levitt Kelly and Thomas Smith, owner of Smith Transportation Company.
But on Saturday night September 22, 1934, behind the walls of the Eighth Regiment Armory on Giles Street, Tiny Parham's Orchestra rocked the house as Pullman Porter-turned-leading businessman James E. Knight was elected as the first ever Mayor of Bronzeville, hallmarking a new era in "race progress," a phrase that was popular in that day to denote the improvement of the condition of African-Americans.
At the inauguration party held in Bacon's Casino, Knight handpicked "cabinet members" from a "Grand Table of 100". Among the chosen was Edith Sampson- the first decreed woman from John Marshall Law School, who went on to accomplish many noted firsts in her own career.
Known affectionately as "Genial Jim", Knight was a ranking member of the Masonic order and one of the architects of the "new downtown Black America" on 47th Street. James Knight was the founder of the world-famous Palm Tavern at 446 East 47th Street, a Bronzeville landmark still open for business today and for decades a key social and civic center. Knight went on to found the Knight-Young Shoe Stores with Defender sportswriter Frank "Beansy" Young and was the first African-American representative at the national shoe-store owners' convention, then held annually at the Palmer House.
As Mayor of Bronzeville, Knight would add his voice to the issue of jobs for the black man in the construction of what was to become the Ida B. Wells Homes.
Accomplishments of this coveted office can't really be measured in a tangible sense. On one hand the post was clearly a paper tiger with no official city status. The Mayor of Bronzeville could probably fix a parking ticket but couldn't get a law passed. However, the post was highly respected in that the -Bronzeville Mayor was chosen by popular vote of the people, void of political party influence. As such, when the Mayor of Bronzeville talked issues with outside business and political leaders, his words were taken in a sense that this person truly spoke for the concerns of the community. And over the years many of the community's most respected people would have the privilege of serving, including two noted physicians and a top radio personality.