Most are gone now. Soft Sheen’s plant is now a self-storage facility. And while the company is still in businesses, it’s no longer based on 87th Street, or even Chicago. It’s now owned by French cosmetics giant L’Oreal.
This network of Black-owned businesses was responsible for the rise of Black political power in Chicago, laying out the cash that funded political campaigns, most notably Harold Washington’s successful 1983 bid to become Chicago’s first Black mayor.
Washington’s fundraising chief was Al Johnson, whose Al Johnson Cadillac was the country’s first Black-owned Cadillac dealership when it opened in 1971. A media campaign encouraging Black voter registration — “Come Alive October 5” — helped sweep Washington into office.
Having capital changed the expectations of what Black Chicagoans could ask for politically. “For a lot of Black people, if you were a middle-class school teacher or a member of the city’s corporation counsel’s office, or a social worker, chances are your check was being cut by the same government folks [in City Hall] that you were pushing to get out of there,” said attorney Quintin King, a lobbyist and political science professor at DePaul University.
But the folks who organized and put together the push to unseat the political machine and to back Harold Washinton, most of them were independent businesspeople like the Bouttes and Al Johnsons, King said.
“And a slew of other people whose names have been lost to history.”
That ascension, it turned out, was brief. Shortly into his second term as mayor, Washington died in office, felled by a heart attack. The ensuing scramble for power ultimately led to the election of another white mayor, Richard M. Daley—son of legendary Chicago political boss Mayor Richard J. Daley—in 1989.
The younger Daley embraced the Black business community, just as other economic factors caused its numbers to dip.
But some Chicago political observers saw his strategy as fueling the decline: in order to remain in power and prevent the rise of another Harold Washington, they say, the mayor used the vast City Hall purse to help reward loyal Black businesses with lucrative contracts and political access. (Full disclosure: I spent three years as Daley’s deputy chief of staff for urban planning from 2001 to 2004.)
“Their bread was being buttered downtown [by City Hall],” said Jackson, the political consultant.
The result, he said: “As black …….