Place  /  Dispatch

Landmarking The Black Panther Party

In Chicago, preservationists have launched an unusual effort to explore the radical history of the 1960s civil rights group through the city’s built environment.

The walls of the Church of the Epiphany in Chicago are two feet thick, made of red-brown sandstone from the upper peninsula of Michigan. Designed by Francis Whitehouse and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s a preeminent example of the Richardson Romanesque architectural style. The ornate floral masonry detailing on its facade bears witness to its costly construction: Upon opening in 1885, it was the most expensive building the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Illinois had ever built, surrounded by affluent neighbors in the city’s West Loop neighborhood. 

But by the 1960s, it had a different constituency. Then informally called the People’s Church, the building was an organizing hub for the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. There, members of the revolutionary civil rights group hosted free meals for children and led classes, meetings and rallies — including chapter chairman Fred Hampton’s last speech before he was shot by police in December 1969.

The feeling of sanctuary behind these engine-block thick walls was more than metaphorical: The Panthers felt the Chicago police, who had raided their headquarters, would not break down the doors of a church. It was “liberated territory,” said Black Panthers’ Illinois chapter co-founder Bobby Rush, who later represented Chicago in Congress for 30 years. “We felt safe there.”

The storied church — known today as the Epiphany Center for the Arts, a multipurpose art and events center — is now part of a unique historic preservation project. It’s one of dozens of Chicago-area properties associated with the Black Panther Party that have been listed in a National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Document. The designation defines the broad history and cultural context of the Black Panthers in Illinois, so that additional Black Panther sites can eventually be added to the historic register or have their status updated, like the Church of the Epiphany, which has had its National Register nomination updated with the history of the Panthers.

Spearheaded by the Historical Preservation Society of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, the listing was approved by the state of Illinois and the National Park Service in December. That in itself is a landmark of sorts: It’s the first time the Panthers’ history and significance in the built environment has been recognized by the federal government in a Multiple Property Document.