Metropolitan Funeral System Association

by futurespastchicago

4445 South Parkway | New Chicago Defender Building, Former Metropolitan Funeral System Association, 2011. (Image Credit: Tempestt Hazel.)

The Bud Billiken Parade, The Great Migration and over 100 years of history. 

Originally built as the home of the Metropolitan Funeral System Association and the birthplace of the Parkway Ballroom, today 4445 South King Drive houses the legendary Chicago Defender. Founded in 1905 by Robert Sengstacke Abbott, the Chicago Defender went from an unknown weekly to one of the most widely circulated African American newspapers in the United States in only a matter of years. With its significant nation-wide readership, it is thought that through the articles, classified ads and tales of opportunity in the north for Blacks, the Chicago Defender was a key stimulus for the Great Migration of Black people from the rural south to Chicago’s metropolitan north in the early twentieth century. The Defender was also a platform for some of the most renowned Chicago writers of the time. The writings of Ethel Payne and Langston Hughes often appeared in the pages of the newspaper. The Chicago Defender is not the only major accomplishment of Abbott to stand the test of time. Abbott is also responsible for establishing the Bud Billiken Club for children, from which came the annual Bud Billiken Parade in 1929, one of the oldest and largest parades in the country that makes its way down this stretch of King Drive every August. In 1940 after Robert Sengstacke Abbott’s death, his nephew, John H. Sengstacke took over the paper, putting his own mark on Black journalism and continuing the legacy that his uncle started. The Defender has over 100 years of history behind it and is still in circulation today.

About the Building.

Built between 1939 and 1940 at the decline of the Great Depression, the building today that houses the Chicago Defender and Blanc Gallery was the third location of the burial insurance company Metropolitan Funeral System Association. Established in 1925, the Metropolitan Funeral System Association was the brainchild of local entrepreneur Otto Stevenson in partnership with Daniel McKee Jackson, one of the most established undertakers in Chicago’s Black Metropolis of the time. Soon after it was established, Stevenson sold the association to Jackson, who in turn made self-made businessman Robert Alexander Cole its manager. Cole later purchased the company for $500, but kept Jackson as the funeral director. Under Cole’s leadership it provided many jobs to Black Chicago before, during and after the Great Depression. When the company moved to this location, this corner became known as a premier showplace for Black performers with the Parkway Ballroom quickly becoming a shining jewel of the community. Before the Regal Theater and the Savoy Ballroom there was the Parkway Ballroom, which was the center of Black performance and social life in the Black Metropolis.

Metropolitan Funeral System Association Advertisement, c. 1928. (Image Credit: Chicago Public Library.)

Robert S. Abbott Ave., honorary street sign at 35th and Indiana Ave. (Image Credit: Tempestt Hazel.)

Robert S. Abbott historic marker. (Image courtesy of Bronzeville Visitor Information Center.)