By Bill Chambers
CHICAGO, Ill. – On Sat., March 18, 2023, Masjid Al-Taqwa (MAT) Chicago hosted the first “Black Muslim History” Tour in the city that was at the heart of the late Hon. Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam (NOI) and the Imam Warith Deen Mohammed’s emerging Community of Al-Islam.
Chicago has a rich history of Muslim presence and influence that has contributed to the establishment of Islam in the United States.
The tour traced the history of Chicago’s African American Muslim community (in association with the leadership of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed), going from the historic Woodlawn and Hyde Park neighborhoods to Chicago’s south suburbs.
Some of Islam’s most notable figures in the United States have called Chicago home, including Nation of Islam leader the Hon. Elijah Muhammad and wife Sis. Clara Muhammad, former Three Time World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali, and Imam Warith Deen Mohammed who transitioned the NOI to “proper Al Islam.”
Masjid Al-Taqwa and The Taqwa Center for Community Excellence invited a wide variety of participants to experience and learn about this history that was unknown to so many. The 56-seat bus was filled, with many more on the waiting list asking for the next tour (which is planned for Juneteenth weekend 2023).
Our bus driver was Muslim and participated along with people from Interfaith America; Zakat Foundation; Lutheran Theological Seminary; McCormick Theological Seminary; chaplain, professor, and students from University of Chicago; President and staff from American Islamic College; President of the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition; chaplain from Dominican University; members of the Wheaton Muslim Center; Greater Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church, and a member of the Focolare Movement.
Even more impressive was the number of families and young people who came. Feedback on the tour was universally positive with people saying how impressed they were to learn about the history from elders on the tour, who shared their personal involvement with each site.
Some “had new appreciation for the neighborhood where they lived,” and said: “The history was amazing. I learned so much I didn’t know at all and know there is so much more to learn.” Response from one of the families was: “I’m excited that I had the chance to experience it with my family, so we can get to know more about our black history.”
One of the most important goals of the tour was not only to share the history of the African American Muslim community but also to communicate a strong sense of pride in what was accomplished and what continues to be provided by African American Muslims in Chicago.
Another important goal was to share this history with other Muslim groups who have had a history of distancing themselves from all Black (African American) Muslims. The following comment was only one example of how this goal was achieved:
“My sister and I discussed how we wished we had known about this community when we were young in the 80s. The American Muslim role models we had were out of reach, like Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
“Growing up in the suburbs/rural town to immigrant parents, we just didn’t know. Thank you for serving as a space to bridge the gap so another generation of immigrant Muslim children do not pass without this knowledge.”
At the end of the tour, there was lunch provided by MAT and final summary presentations. Everyone who attended was so excited about the tour (and some of the traditional food) that they all stayed to discuss what they had seen.
This IS what it means to share African American Muslim history with people outside of the community, i.e. to inspire others with what has been done and continues to be accomplished. It also allows others to respect two great American religious leaders: Hon. Elijah Muhammad and his son Imam Warith Deen Mohammed.
Each bus rider was given a booklet with a picture of each stop, its address, and why it is significant. For each location, a member of the community described in personal detail each location and his/her own association with it.
The first stop was Masjid Honorable Elijah Muhammad/Sister Clara Muhammad School, 7351 S. Stony Island. Originally it was a Greek Orthodox Church and its purchase in 1971 was the largest of the NOI under the leadership of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad.
Bro. Clyde El-Amin explained how this was the national center of all activity for every generation in the community. The school was called the University of Islam and is known nationally as excellent and offering Black children a positive view of themselves.
Becoming the leader of the NOI and transforming it after his father’s passing, Imam W. D. Mohammed would rename all 47 of the schools to be “Sister Clara Muhammad Schools” (System). In 1931, Sis. Clara Muhammad began teaching of children in her own home that then grew to be a nationwide system of schools. She was a pioneer of homeschooling, facing down truant officers who threatened to take her children.
Next stop was the Guaranty Bank location, at 6750 S. Stony Island Ave., which was purchased in 1973 and kept by the NOI until 1980. This acquisition complemented the mission of African Americans controlling their community economics.
The tour continued to the Hyde Park community homes of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad and Muhammad Ali. Imam Rabbani Mubashshir emphasized the wide reach of Muhammad Ali expressing the teachings of the NOI, including impressing a teenage Rabbani to join in 1969.
He also said that after the passing of Hon. Elijah Muhammad in 1975, many members were not oriented to accept his death, and it was a shock for many. But they were fortunate that people like Muhammad Ali, the members of Elijah Muhammad’s family, and the chosen successor Imam W.D. Mohammed helped the community to get through his passing.
Next was Masjid Al-Faatir, at 1200 E. 47th St., the largest of Chicago’s mosques on the Southside of Chicago and co-founded by Muhammad Ali. Bro. Bashir Asad, often called the historian of the community, described this mosque being opened in 1987 in the Kenwood neighborhood as the first free standing mosque in the city.
It was opened under Imam W. Deen Mohammed, who was moving the NOI toward the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. Now it is part of nearly 70 mosques in the Chicagoland area.
Temple #2, at 843 East 43rd St., was next and served as the Chicago headquarters for the NOI when it was purchased in the 1950s. Noting that it preceded establishment of Temple #1 in 1934, which was at 11529 Linwood (Honorable Elijah Muhammad Blvd) in Detroit, Michigan.
Next was the Lamb Processing Plant, which once stood at 3900 S. Halsted St. as a lamb processing and training facility providing food and educational opportunities for NOI members. This was an early effort to address the “food desert” issue in the community.
Lamb was provided to local and national grocery stores. Brother Bashir Asad explained that lamb was a staple of many ethnic groups in Chicago and was part of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad’s plan to improve the health of the African American community laid out in his book, “How to Eat to Live.”
This was an initiative to inform African American communities on a healthy eating lifestyle that would benefit and not harm their health.
The building at 2548 S. Federal St. was the production facility of Muhammad Speaks Press and the Muhammad Speaks Newspaper. During the 1960s, Muhammad Speaks was printing 600,000 copies a week. Latifah Wangara said Malcolm X El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz started the paper in 1961 to get the message of freedom, justice, and equality and the do-for-self message of Elijah Muhammad out into the world.
In 1977, Imam Mohammed changed the name of the paper to the Bilalian News and moved the production to the Pioneer Building, 8300 S. Cottage Grove, which served as headquarters for the paper’s last name change to the Muslim Journal.
Sis. Wangara explained, “The goal was always the same, i.e. to tell our own story. We watch other people try to tell our story or write our story out of history. The paper preserves our heritage and our history.”
The Sister Clara Muhammad Memorial Foundation, at 7900 S. Champlain was next. Their tagline was “Providing Quality Education to Humankind for Human Salvation Since 1931.” The Foundation gave support, monetarily and morally, to the nationwide system of Clara Muhammad Schools [grades k-8] and W.D. Mohammed High Schools [grades 9-12] that Clara Muhammad started as homeschooling. The Hon. Elijah Muhammad had pronounced that “those who oppressed you should not be the ones to teach you.”
Salaam Community Wellness Center, 613 E. 67th St., one of the more recent establishments of 2020, offers an integrative, holistic model of health and wellness. Muslim American Pioneer of the NOI era, Dr. Constance Shabazz provided a tour of the Wellness Center while presenting how it fits into the vision of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad and Imam W. D. Mohammed.
She explained that vision to help build and support healthy communities by empowering them through the improvement of health, wellness, education, and economic development. The Center offers Primary Care, Addiction Treatment, Mental Health, Nutrition and Case Management.
The Ephraim Bahar Cultural Center, 2525 W. 71st St., is a community in association with Imam W. D. Mohammed led by Imam Omar Karim. In his talk on the Center, Imam Omar emphasized the work they do in the community throughout the year and their close partnership with Masjid Al-Taqwa on numerous events.
It is named in honor of a revered Muslim American Pioneer of the 1930s – Ephraim Bahar – who assisted in supporting Sis. Clara and her children while her husband was imprisoned as a “draft evader” although the Hon. Elijah was past draft age for WWII.
The Center provides multiple classes, interfaith dialogue, feeding and clothing the homeless, community meetings, the Annual Walk for Moral Excellence Parade, and many more services in the heart of the African American communities.
Originally, the last stop on the tour was going to be The Mosque Cares, 929 171st St., Hazel Crest, Ill., but due to time constraints of the bus it had to be skipped. Bro. Rod Bashir, a longtime resident of Hazel Crest, provided a commentary on The Mosque Cares, a non-profit Islamic da’wah project founded by Imam W.D. Mohammed in 2003.
The Mosque Cares is currently led by his son, Wallace D. Mohammed II. The Mosque Cares also has meetings with other Islamic groups, hosts the annual Saviors Day, and produces books and DVDs from the teachings of Imam Mohammed. Bro. Rod also explained how the city of Hazel Crest has also established a Day in Honor of Imam W.D. Mohammed.
The hard-working team of Masjid Al-Taqwa members put together this tour that was such a resounding success. We thank Imam Tariq El-Amin for coming up with the idea. Inshallah, the next tour will be Juneteenth weekend this year, with the expectation of many more participants and the retelling of the history of African American Muslims will have an even wider reach than before.
MJ Contributing Writer Bill Chambers