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Farewell, Mama Gerri

Letters of Palm Tavern sign above photograph of patrons at the Palm Tavern
The letters of the Palm Tavern sign on display in The Secret Lives of Objects exhibition (March 21, 2015–November 26, 2017). Image by CHM staff. Bottom: Patrons at the Palm Tavern, 446 E. 47th St., Chicago, c. 1940. CHM, ICHi-029772; Gordon Coster, photographer.

Chicago’s Gerri Oliver was as much a legend as the famed South Side institution that bore her name. She passed away on December 7 in Palos Verdes, California, at the age of 101. From 1956 to 2001, “Mama Gerri” owned the now-demolished Gerri’s Palm Tavern, one of the last Chicago Black Renaissance establishments in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Located across the street from the renowned Regal Theater, the Palm Tavern was the main hangout spot for touring jazz and blues performers, including Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as Chicago musicians such as Billy Branch and Fernando Jones. Although the Palm Tavern was more of a bar than a supper club, the watering hole became famous for Mama Gerri’s homemade red beans and rice, which many musicians would call to preorder before their arrival.

For years, the Palm Tavern and Mama Gerri were Chicago landmarks. History was made there every day, and the big-hearted woman was happy to share her stories and keep many of those memories alive for the next generation. The scrapbooks behind the bar could barely close from all the photographs and newspaper clippings she accumulated. Through those weighty tomes Mama Gerri would share with patrons over drinks about the who’s who that visited the Tavern over the decades. She would tell stories about all the times Martin Luther King Jr. would visit when he lived in Chicago or how Harold Washington, the city’s first Black mayor, held campaign meetings there.

As time passed and the neighborhood changed, Gerri’s Palm Tavern fell into decay. Due to its condition, the city condemned the building, forcing out Mama Gerri who had taken up residence there. The years of history that happened within those walls, many of which were significant to Chicago’s Black history, were lost when the building was torn down in 2001. Fortunately, the Chicago History Museum worked with Mama Gerri before her eviction, acquiring a collection of images, posters, and other materials to preserve the history of Gerri’s Palm Tavern. Many who remember the establishment felt the loss of a significant part of Chicago history. Now that Mama Gerri is gone as well, the loss stings even more deeply.

Learn more about Mama Gerri and the Palm Tavern in the Chicago Tribune’s article about her life and legacy.

Studs Terkel Radio Archive

In his forty-five years on WFMT radio, Studs Terkel talked to the twentieth century’s most interesting people. The blues and gospel music genres were among the most important influences on Terkel’s views of art and society. He was a fierce and joyful champion of the music on his show, and his guests included Oscar Brown Jr., Brother John Sellers, Son House, and Helen Humes. Listen now.

Google Arts & Culture

Turn up your speakers and enjoy some tunes in our Google Arts & Culture exhibit Sweet Home Chicago. Through the work of photographer and music industry veteran Raeburn Flerlage, explore the streets, clubs, homes, and studios where a community of musicians defined the Chicago blues sound.


Chicago History Museum Sharing Chicago Stories