Pilgrim Baptist site to become gospel museum
April 5, 2018

Plans for the National Museum of Gospel Music, on the site of Pilgrim Baptist Church, call for retaining the historic outer walls and adding a modern roof.

By Lisa R. Jenkins

After more than 12 years in limbo, the site of the historic Pilgrim Baptist Church is slated to be rebuilt as the National Museum of Gospel Music (NMGM).

The building dates to 1891, when it was constructed as a synagogue located at 3301 S. Indiana Ave. Pilgrim Baptist Church moved into the building in 1922. The building is significant not only for its role in African-American musical and religious history—it was the birthplace of gospel music—but as one of the last remaining works of Chicago architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler.

Gospel music got its start at Pilgrim Baptist Church in the 1930s when African American musician Thomas Andrew Dorsey evolved praise and worship music from blues and jazz. Dorsey served as Pilgrim’s music director for more than seven decades. His pioneering work paved the way for other gospel greats.

While undergoing a $500,000 renovation, fire destroyed Pilgrim Baptist on Jan. 5, 2006, gutting the building and leaving only its façade and side walls standing with the support of braces.

The congregation has been meeting across the street at 3300 S. Indiana Ave. since then.

After previous attempts to rebuild the church failed, Don Jackson, CEO of Central City Productions and founder of the Stiller Gospel Music Awards, is leading an effort to turn the site into a museum, with opening slated for fall 2020. Jackson is developing plans and support for the NMGM. He has secured statements of support from the church, the community, and elected officials and partnered with noted architect Dirk Lohan to create a rendering of the proposed new building.

Jackson owns the 47-year-old Central City Productions. He also has a history of museum management and support, having served as the board chair for the DuSable Museum of African American History for 12 years.

“I think Chicago doesn’t realize the global impact of gospel and its legacy here,” Jackson said. “Today, gospel is sung in churches and concert halls all over the country, but it started here and many of its legends have come from Chicago – and from Pilgrim in particular.”

Courtesy National Museum of Gospel Music
Supporters of the National Museum of Gospel Music, including music, religion, and government, and community leaders came together at a recent press conference to announce their plans.

The vision for the museum includes a four-story, 45,000-square-foot facility that salvages the 127-year-old limestone walls. The new structure will include a research and listening library, multi-generational programming, educational exhibits, clothing and artifacts from gospel legends, and collections of gospel videos, photographs, and documents, as well as a 350-seat auditorium designed for TV production.

Antoinette Wright, selected by Jackson as the museum’s executive director, said this museum brings a unique opportunity to repurpose this historic space. “As the first cultural institution in Bronzeville, the National Museum of Gospel Music will bring a renewed richness to the area and the world while creating a place to gather and reflect on the City’s rich gospel heritage,” Wright said.

Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) said she was excited about the proposed museum for two reasons. “One, because I believe Don Jackson and his team have the capacity to deliver on their plans,” Dowell said. “And two, because the museum could increase heritage tourism, spur more economic development, and highlight the famous African Americans who uplifted and continue to uplift gospel music in the name of Jesus Christ.

“There is no more authentic location for this museum than the site of the church,” Dowell asserted. “People from around the world who love gospel music will flock to the historic Bronzeville community to celebrate our culture.” 

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “Chicago is the birthplace of gospel music and the perfect home for the new National Museum of Gospel Music. The museum will pay further tribute to the home-gown genre that’s given life to legends like Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, Albertina Walker, Jessy Dixon, Shirley Caesar, and so many more.

Pilgrim Baptist Church leaders could not be reached for comment.

To learn more about the National Museum of Gospel Music, join its mailing list: text NMGM to 22828 to get started.

For more about Central City Productions, log on to www.ccptv.com. To contact Dowell’s office, call (773) 373-9273.