Robbins, Illinois – A Story of Environmental Injustice and Resilience

Robbins’ origin story is one of a small village with a big history. It’s the oldest primarily African-American suburb in the Chicago region and one of only a few in the nation. Having recently celebrated its centennial, the village reflects the pioneering spirit of its early settlers who incorporated it in 1917 to be an independent and self-sustaining African-American enclave buttressed from forced segregation and discrimination in big cities.

Robbins was started with the ethos of black self-determination rooted in the philosophies of black leaders like Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey who promoted self-reliance, black empowerment, collective work and responsibility at the turn of the last century. Robbins was founded by former slaves and descendants thereof during the period of “reconstruction” when blacks were emerging from rural poverty and legally enforced Jim Crow segregation to establish their identity in northern cities. Archetypal founding residents during this period have been described as “strivers” because of their dogged determination, tenacious perseverance, and will to prevail against daunting odds.[1]

Settlers came to Robbins to start a new life of promise offered by industrial and factory jobs along the Calumet River. The Encyclopedia of Chicago History describes early residents as, “predominantly working-class African-Americans who were willing to sacrifice urban services for land and a home of their own. Most were southerners who had preferences for homeownership, open space, tightly knit community life, and country atmosphere”.[2] Historian and Robbins History Museum Director, Tyrone Haymore describes the village as the best of both worlds between the rural south and city living for early residents.

From a land use perspective, Robbins’ early typology was not a traditional Chicago street grid. Robbins was unplanned. Streets and homes formed organically and in many cases were built before traditional infrastructure like roads and sewers were established. Robbins is also located in a floodplain and suffers from frequent flooding that requires residents to evacuate after rain events to this day. Perhaps land was sold to early residents so affordably because no one else dared to build on it. Nonetheless, residents persisted and considered the benefits of having so much open space and freedom worth enduring the rain. Residents enjoyed growing vegetables, maintaining gardens and raising livestock. Over time, shops, grocery stores, churches, and social clubs emerged along Claire Boulevard – a street that many still consider Robbins’ de facto downtown. This frontiersman semi-rural lifestyle, coupled with the shelter from discrimination and racial terror that many new black homeowners in Chicago experienced, made Robbins a haven for its residents. The same elements however made Robbins appear a mostly invisible marshy slum to others who unflatteringly labeled it “The Bottoms”.

Robbins past is apparent throughout the landscape. The house where the founders voted to incorporate the village still stands at 3234 W. 139th Street. The nation’s first Black-owned airport and flight training school that taught many famed Tuskegee airmen – a league of black fighter pilots who fought in World War II – is located at 14046 S. Lawndale Ave. The home of one of the nation’s first Black millionaires, S.B. Fuller, still sits prominently along Kedzie Ave. and 135th St. The house was recently donated to the Robbins History Museum and was intentionally situated on a prominent street to showcase black success to passersby. Mr. Fuller had plans for another prominent millionaire protégé to locate a home across the street – a would-be start of a boulevard of black-owned mansions. With this tradition of showcasing excellence, it’s no wonder the village has nurtured numerous celebrities and notables, including NBA star Dwayne Wade, and actors and actresses like Lawrence Tureaud aka “Mr. T”, KeKe Palmer and Nichelle Nichols, the groundbreaking member of the original Star Trek cast and NASA advisor.

A strong sense of ownership and local heritage continues to be important to the community today. The Village participates in the “Juneteenth” celebration of African-American freedom from slavery with a yearly outdoor festival. They also hold a back-to-school parade on Labor Day weekend which serves as a homecoming celebration for village “alumni”, family and friends from around the country. These traditions give Robbins a sense of place in addition to showcasing their resilience and reinforcing their commitment to cultivating the next generation of leaders in the community.

Robbins is currently undergoing a revitalization effort with numerous partners and stakeholders. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) has proposed to build a park that will detain flooding by adding a 47-acre recreational feature for the community that will make long-neglected land available for development. Informed by Village leadership and residents, MWRD chose to look beyond standard engineering solutions by involving numerous partners to maximize the opportunity and achieve multifaceted economic and quality-of-life benefits for the community. A cadre of planners, architects, and government agencies in the Chicago region are working together to create new opportunities for development in Robbins that were impossible before. As a result this community may finally be able to overcome it’s environmental constraints and fully realize the dream of being the sustainable African-American model town it can be.

Kelwin Harris

[1] Cornel West, The Cornel West Reader, (Basic Civitas Books, 1999), 101.

[2] The Chicago Historical Society

Published by Kelwin Harris

Kelwin Harris is a public speaker, city planner and public engagement professional who focuses on creating equitable communities, empowering people that have been historically excluded from connectivity, and dismantling inequity in Chicago.

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