‘History is dope:’ TikTok historian shares Chicago neighborhood stories through tours


Ishani Hariprasad

Shermann “Dilla” Thomas lectures on Chicago history. Mr. Thomas started posting on TikTok during the pandemic. One of his main goals was to work against negative perceptions of Chicago that he saw on the platform.

William Tan, Editor-In-Chief

“And remember, everything dope in America comes from Chicago, the greatest city on Earth.”

Those who recognize this phrase from TikTok know it’s the trademark sign-off of Chicago urban historian Shermann “Dilla” Thomas. Under the account 6figga_dilla, Mr. Thomas’ brief and engaging videos on defining aspects of Chicago’s history have gone viral on TikTok to over 96,000 followers.

From introducing deep-dish pizza and Italian beef to profiling Earl B. Dickerson, the first African American to graduate from the University of Chicago, Mr. Thomas wishes to challenge narratives that misconstrue Chicago history while teaching his audience about the city that he and many others embrace as home. 

 Mr. Thomas gave a lecture at the University of Chicago on Oct. 14 and later participated in an interview with the Midway.
Even before finding a platform to share his knowledge, Mr. Thomas has always appreciated the value of history. His father served in the Chicago police force and would drive his then-young son around in his cop car, pointing out different neighborhood landmarks and encouraging him to memorize street names.

“I’m the son of a Chicago policeman. He was a cop here for 32 years. And so just as a kid, anything we drove past, he kind of knew the history of it, just from being a cop,” Mr. Thomas said. “Either that was the former alderman’s office, or that’s where something tragically sad happened, or maybe that was where something good happened.”

In 1992, when Mr. Thomas was 11, he witnessed native Chicagoan Carol Moseley Braun become the first Black woman to become a U.S. Senator. In this moment he realized that understanding Chicago history could have powerful implications.

“I remember being around Carol Moseley Braun as a kid, and just how she talked about Chicago history and the fact that it was her being from Chicago that even made it possible to become the first Black U.S. woman senator,” he said. “I would say that’s when I fell in love with Chicago history.”

More importantly, Mr. Thomas recognized early on the growing negative narratives encircling his hometown. He saw people equating Chicago with untrue stereotypes and generalizations while failing to recognize its vibrant and unique cultural past.

“People would say, ‘Such and such got killed on O Block, and then the hashtag would be ‘Chicago History.’ And for me, that is something that historically happened, but that’s not Chicago history, right?” he said. “We’re more than that.”

Though he works as an electrician by day, Mr. Thomas started to dream of educating others about Chicago history as an avocation only a couple years ago. 

“I thought I was just gonna work for the Union, retire at 68, take my pension, and then I was going to drive a cab and bore the hell out of whoever got in about Chicago history,” he said during the UChicago talk. “Everywhere I dropped you off, I was gonna tell you a story. That was how I was gonna get it out of me.”

I figured I would put out the information that I loved, which was Chicago history, on TikTok. And the world told me that I was a historian. So I listened.

— Shermann Thomas

But the chance to share his historical knowledge would come much earlier than expected. Stuck inside during the initial months of the pandemic, Mr. Thomas saw an opportunity to use TikTok as a learning resource to correct misconceptions surrounding Chicago culture. 

“I thought history would be an activation, something I was good at. But then what made me go ahead and do it was what I was seeing on TikTok,” he said. “I just [wanted] to be a counterbalance to what was negative out there about Chicago. This was what really got me started. That, and wanting to bond with my kids.”

Now, Mr. Thomas’s passion for history has become his work. In addition to making daily TikToks about all 77 neighborhoods of Chicago, he leads in-person tours of major landmarks with his company, Chicago Mahogany Tours. He’s also drafting a pilot episode script for a movie studio hoping to film a historical fiction series about Chicago.

Mr. Thomas believes he didn’t choose to be an urban historian. Rather, history chose him. He’s always wanted to connect with others through a shared joy of respecting and embracing Chicago history. Now he has a platform and audience to make that a reality. 

“I figured I would put out the information that I loved, which was Chicago history, on TikTok,” he said at UChicago. “And the world told me that I was a historian. So I listened.”