“One of the oldest and revered churches in Chicago” read the proclamation issued by Chicago Mayor Harold Washington on Progressive’s 62nd anniversary, declaring October 22, 1984 as “Progressive Community Center – The People’s Church Day in Chicago”.
What might be taken as a generally true description of a number of churches in Chicago holds particularly true for Progressive. Established in 1922, Progressive is not one of Chicago’s oldest, but it was one of the first two independent non-denominational African-American churches in America. Progressive’s founding came at a crossroads in time when African-American churches were still connected to their traditional post-Civil War white “mainline” denominations. But the post-World War I Great Migration was bringing thousands of new congregants up from the Deep South seeking new ways of worship.
It was out of this mix of the new and the old that Progressive was born. Under the leadership of its first pastor, Rev. Joseph A. Winters, Progressive, while now free of the bonds of denominational ties, held and still holds true to the fundamental beliefs in the Bible as God’s Word, the saving power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the virtuous dignity of the traditional form of worship, while at the same time being open to the realities of a changing world and the active role of God’s Church in it. From its beginning, Progressive was open to the idea of social activism and new forms of worship. This would explain, for instance, the fact that the very first gospel chorus in America was established at Progressive in 1926, a full six years before its more famous counterpart was established by Thomas A. Dorsey just to the north at Pilgrim Baptist. Both Thomas Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson worshiped and performed at Progressive in the 1920s. Gospel may have been born at Pilgrim, but it was conceived at Progressive.
Now in its ninth decade and under the leadership of Rev. Dr. B. Herbert Martin, Sr., whose tenure began in 1981, this same spirit remains in place at Progressive. Progressive was the home church of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington until his death in 1987. As Bronzeville and Grand Boulevard changed over the later decades of the 20th century, Progressive proudly worked to bring the spirit of the Living God to address the many urgent needs of the community, in many cases taking a leading role in not only healing the immediate wounds but in identifying and striving for long-lasting solutions. This held true in the 1920s when Rev. Winters opened the doors of the church to allow A. Philip Randolph to establish a local chapter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in our building. In the 1930s Rev. Winters had rocks thrown through the front door of his home on Calumet because of his leadership role in the elimination of gangs. In the 1960s, under the leadership of Pastor William Knighten, Dr. Martin Luther King was invited to use Progressive as a staging area for his marches into Marquette Park. In the 1990s under the leadership of Rev. Martin, Progressive took the lead in seeking racial healing across neighborhood boundaries. Finally, in the present Progressive addresses the issues emanating from the demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes and the oncoming of the great and exciting changes in the Bronzeville and Grand Boulevard neighborhood.
As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, and our 100th year at 48th and Wabash, we continue to seek God’s guidance in helping us to maintain our original mission: to be a dynamic voice for God’s work in the city of Chicago, maintaining the traditions of the African-American worship experience while welcoming the new, and above all knowing that though the winds of change blow all around, we are anchored in the vision and spirit of Jesus Christ. Welcome to Chicago’s “Miracle on 48th Street”!