In the early 1900s, editor and founder of The Chicago Defender Robert Sengstacke Abbott urged Blacks to come to the north, especially Chicago, by advertising successful Black individuals in the city with many job opportunities and a boisterous social and entertainment life as inspiration for Blacks to leave the South.
The communities were robust and self-sustaining with vibrant business districts that anchored the neighborhoods, like Madison and Pulaski in West Garfield Park, Pulaski and 16th – 22nd Streets in North Lawndale and the Central and Lake Street corridor in Austin.
Drawn by the lure of jobs in the many factories that lined industrial districts like Lake Street, Western Avenue and Roosevelt Road, the newly arrived Black migrants settled in communities like North Lawndale, East and West Garfield Park, and eventually Austin becoming a thriving people who created their own churches, community organizations and businesses, including grocery stores and schools.
By the 1940s, when the second wave of Black migrants began coming to Chicago, U.S. Census data reported that a half gallon of milk was $.26, a dozen eggs $.33 and round steak was $.36 per pound. Rent was $30 per month and annual earnings were $1,761 for Black males 20-years-old and above, and $992 for a Black women 20 and above.
The median income for a state and local government worker was $1,479, $1,435 for a schoolteacher, $1,330 for the building trades, and $927 for a health care worker.
The Chicago Defender asked the question: What happened to the foundation and strong sense of pride that the West Siders always had? Our connection and love of oneself and our neighbors and communities?
According to the 1946 Garfieldian publication, Garfield Park was home to the world’s largest Catholic parish. It was also home to middle-class Italians, Germans, and Russian Jews. It’s shopping district – the iconic Madison and Pulaski – rivaled downtown, and there was plenty of entertainment, hotels and theaters.
Ninety-year-old Juanita Tharpe is quite familiar, she told the Chicago Defender. She left Paris, Tennessee, at the age of seventeen “There was nothing for us to do other than pick cotton in the fields. I wasn’t going to do that, and I wanted more out of life.”
She caught the train with a quarter in her pocket and a Snickers candy bar the entire trip; the year was 1944. She moved in with her aunt Susie Teague, a homemaker, and her husband, Robert Teague, a steel mill worker at 233 N. Fairfield in East Garfield Park.
Her first job was working at a coffee pot manufacturer at 33 N. Des Plaines Ave. “I packaged the coffee pots and the tops in boxes. We shipped to restaurants around the country and overseas due to the war,” she recalled. “I made $1.50 per hour, about $60 per week. I paid $5 a month for rent.”
“There were nice ma and pa stores like Ms. Tilly’s on Fulton and Fairfield who sold pop, candy, ice cream and stuff like that. Beauty shops. Churches – there were five churches within walking distance – Methodist and Baptist.” We went to Gammon Methodist Church she stated.
For entertainment, Tharpe liked going to the movies. “Theaters were everywhere. The Empirical was on Madison and Western. The American on Ashland Avenue, the Four Stars – it was beautiful, just like downtown, before King got killed.”
According to Tharpe there was little to no crime. “It started getting bad in the 70s after the Vietnam War when young people came back already using drugs. That’s when things started changing.”
Samantha Bates — a 40-year-old tireless activist — rattled off a list of stores her family shopped at: Community Center, Woolworth, Black Giant Food Mart, Goldblatts, Zayres, Giles Food Market, and recalled when the neighborhood she grew up in was quiet and peaceful.
“Everybody knew each other, and the youth had respect for the adults. If the youth did something, the adults would chastise them and send them home to be disciplined again.” Bates doesn’t mince her words and says the pride that West Siders once had was “ . . . stolen by the aldermen, the churches and government officials that used the people for their advancement.”
When jobs started disappearing is when she first noticed the attitudes of the people started changing. People then turned to the government to subsidize their rent, bills and to feed their families. And then “drugs infested the neighborhood,” she shared.
Bates says it’s going to take a widespread multilateral movement to win back the trust of the community. “A trust fund or West Side grant needs to be created to rebuild our communities so we can offer the youth jobs and lifetime skills.”
A West Garfield Park resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity talked about the lure of “fast money.” In his first year, at the tender age of sixteen, Brown dropped out of High School to “hustle,” he shared in a late-night interview. “My parents complained for a minute, but they really didn’t do much.”
“I had a mentor,” he proclaims “ . . . but they were showing me how to get the money. It wasn’t those that tell you to stay in school. Once l saw the money, I fell in love and wasn’t trying to hear that stay in school stuff.”
At his high point, Brown was making $500 on a good day using his God-given talent: his charisma. He told the Defender that he spent the money on food, clothes, liquor, partying and helping his sister, who had small children.
After close to a decade of dealing, Brown had had enough; the former A and B student decided to call it quits and was fortunate to not have any felonies or major arrests on his record, other than being arrested for public intoxication.
The now 30 something-year-old looks back and self-reflects with wisdom “I understand why they do it. The young people don’t want to work because the jobs not paying right. But you couldn’t sell drugs or shoot people if the white man didn’t bring the drugs into the community. And the guns – a lot of straw buyers go out of town to buy them and bring them back. They also rob the freight trains for the guns being shipped through Chicago late at night.”
When asked what can be done to help today’s youth, he said: “They need to do more listening than running their mouths. It starts with the parents. If your parents not anything then the kids will most likely not be anything. If they see something positive, then they’ll do something positive. If they see something negative: Then what do you expect them to do? Everything is taught and nobody can be something they can’t see.”
Geraldine Blair, being aware of the power of the media, echoes Brown’s opinion in that Blacks need to pay attention to what they allow themselves to watch and listen to. “The media controls what we see and hear. Whatever message is communicated is what people eventually act out,” she asserts.
Blair says her parents Jeremiah and Hellen Walls came to Chicago in the 1940s. Their first stop was in Bronzeville but was brief because they soon saved money for a down payment and brought a frame house on the West Side, on 14th Street, in Lawndale. “Blacks weren’t allowed to take out mortgages at the time because of Jim Crow laws,” she said. “You had to buy under contract.”
The term ‘contract’ meaning the person who legally owned the property could sell the property usually at inflated values under complicated contracts until the property was paid in full. If you missed one payment, the owner would evict the Black family, keeping all the money they spent on previous payments, including maintenance and repairs. Owners would then find another Black family to exploit, thus repeating the process.
Blair, an award-winning Broker for Coldwell Banker who lives in a gray stone 3-flat in East Garfield Park, says today “major gentrification” is taking place. “It looks like Jim Crow in reverse. Blacks are moving out to the suburbs and wealthy whites are moving into our blighted communities,” she told the Defender.
North Lawndale started out as a suburb of Chicago and was annexed in 1869, according to Block by Block author Amanda Seligman. The Great Chicago Fire shifted large manufacturing businesses westward, transforming the area in 1871 because of its proximity to the railroads and service yards.
This, in turn, attracted Polish, German, Irish and Czech immigrants who poured into the area looking for factory jobs. By 1906, Sears Roebuck and Company opened its huge mail-order operations, headquarters, and later a flagship store on Homan Avenue employing roughly 8,000 at its height.
By the mid-1900s, North Lawndale became home to an estimated 75,000 Russian Jews who reportedly lived in cramped housing “in relatively poor condition,” according to Seligman.
Ninety-year-old North Lawndale resident Elbert Fox, a WWII veteran migrated from Yazoo City, Mississippi, in 1952. “The landlord was Jewish,” he stated. He and his wife, Minnie Grady, lived at 1516 S. Springfield and raised their 10 children in a single-family home. There were a few whites who lived on his block but “The fact of it is, this area was changing,” he said.
“When I came here in 1952, right there on Springfield, there were whites across Pulaski mostly. There were some in this area but very few.” He said that he would go to work and come home and didn’t have much time to socialize with them, but “they treated me all right.”
Fox confirms the once vibrant business districts that serviced the community “you didn’t have to go to the loop area or out to the mall to shop,” he told the Chicago Defender. “At that time, there were businesses up and down Roosevelt Road, Pulaski and 22nd Streets. Everything was in the area you lived. If you couldn’t find it anywhere between Madison and 22nd, it’s not in Chicago,” he declared.
He shared what brought him to Chicago: work. “I came to find a better job, to make a better dollar.” Fox worked long hours at Burton Auto Springs factory while his wife took care of the house and their 10 children. He admits that the long hours created tension in the relationship and things weren’t always smooth between him and his wife.
His church, Mercy Seat Baptist, played a key role in keeping him centered. As a deacon, “I turned to the church for strength when things got rough,” he stated. Out of necessity, Fox started his own livery cab business in 1964, which was “Easy to do. You didn’t have all those rules back then.” At its height, he employed about a dozen drivers who provided transportation to Black workers who worked in the factories and downtown.
“It was work taking care of all the kids, but you could make it because everything was cheap. Gas was $.25 a gallon. Groceries, I would spend around $200 a month. You could buy a house for under 30,000. You could make it then. We stuck together. Nowadays, everything is so expensive and we don’t own our own businesses. And everyone is out for themselves.”
The largest community in Chicago, in terms of square miles – Austin – started out as a wealthy suburb that was initially part of Cicero Township. Austin’s annexation to Chicago was the result of a court battle that went to the Illinois Supreme Court over the extension of the Lake Street El all the way to Austin Boulevard.
Oak Park residents feared that the extension would make it easier for working-class people to move into their area and sued the Austin residents to detach them from Cicero, the township.
As a result, Austin was annexed to Chicago in 1899, and developers were careful to market it as a good place to live, good transportation, and good neighbors. This attracted a diverse mix of European immigrants, namely Swedish, Irish and European Jews, among others. The area consisted of a mixture of two-flats and large, single-family homes and some multi-unit apartment buildings.
“What kept the community together were the churches, they were a big influence. And we weren’t obsessed with celebrity culture, we had pride back then,” says 52-year-old James Morgan, a Cook County employee whose family moved into Austin in the early 70s.
“It was a mixed community of Caucasians and Blacks, about seventy percent white and thirty percent Black. There were so many businesses and things to do. I learned how to play the piano at the church on Central and Iowa – from a white guy – back then they (white people) took an interest in you. Everything was great. And that was after school.”
“You had more of the family – grandmother, grandfather. The family lineage was more intact. Morgan whose parents stayed married for over 50 years says his father was always a part of him and his two sisters, Yolanda and Lisa Morgan’s lives.
“I grew up with resources. We had mentors that looked out for us,” he added. Morgan, a graduate of Westinghouse High School, said one of his mentors – an Italian teacher named Frank Loleno — was instrumental in him going to college. He pushed me to go.”
“Mark Aguirre, a Westinghouse alumnus, who played for the DePaul Blue Demons, and later the Dallas Mavericks, would come back every year and tell us how important we were and that we could be successful.”
“My first job in high school was through Mayor Jayne Byrne’s summer program as a youth counselor at the local YMCA. I made $5 per hour, and that job helped me to appreciate work, accomplishing something in my life,” Morgan insisted.”
One thing that Morgan attributed to the success and stability of the neighborhood were the precinct captains. “The precinct captains kept order in the neighborhood. They came and talked to you at your door and asked what concerns did you have. And everybody would contribute money on a monthly basis.”
They disappeared in the 70s after the King riots, he said. And so did a lot of the stores on the main retail corridors like Madison and Chicago Avenues and Division Street. This took out a huge economic chunk of the neighborhood’s vitality, and its effects are still visible today, he said.
Morgan went on to tell the Defender that today’s youth have very little one-on-one mentoring and people counseling and talking to them about education, and the value of work. “I don’t see that anymore. The adults are afraid of the youth because they’re carrying weapons, selling drugs and looking for fast money. They’re not listening to adults. We don’t have their ear anymore,” he tells the Defender. “They have each other’s ears and it’s the blind leading the blind.”
George E. Manning II grew up in the ABLA Homes and moved to his present home in 1975. He lives in the lavishly decorated, 18-room, Queens Anne and Prairie-style mansion named Frederick Beeson House in the Midway section of Austin. Built in 1891, Manning’s home has been featured in numerous publications and won many awards.
Manning retired in 2012, after 42 years of tireless service as the Director of Research and Surveillance and the Director of Clinical Compliance at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois.
He says the West Side community is still the same (geographically), but the people have changed. And goes on to relay the story of what happened when he first arrived: “It (Austin) had gone through Dutch Elm disease, and so all the old trees that had been planted at the end of the century were dying. And eventually, all of the trees in the Midwest were gone – and all over the world.”
His story is philosophical in nature as much as it is a metaphor and befits the man his colleagues refer to as a “Renaissance Man.”
A staunch believer in education, Manning has fathered and mentored many young Black men as well as other nationalities and allowed many to stay free of charge in his home while earning their master’s and doctoral degrees.
In the 70s he witnessed what he called “panic peddling.” “Basically panic peddling says to the present population: The British are coming. The British are coming. This says to the present white occupants that Black people are coming and trying to move in and take over. And white people moved out.” This happened over a period of 10 years 1975 through 1985, now he says “they’re coming back.”
Dr. Phalese Binion, president of the Westside Ministers Coalition, believes that businesses are vital to the survival of a community. The Coalition — a self-help organization whose mission is to improve the Austin community – says the community no longer has that sense of camaraderie.
“Back in the day, there was a sense of camaraderie as a whole community,” she said. “The businesses were more vested in us, as we were in them. That’s why the businesses were flourishing — and we had a lot of them including banks — and the community too,” Dr. Binion said. “The problem with that is that when people have taken from our community, they have never given back. And after so much taking and never putting back, what you see today is what you’re left with.”
“That reinvestment — be it from an individual, business, organization or members of the community — is a main reason as to why the Austin community isn’t flourishing today,” she says.
Manning insists that today technology is driving a portion of us to pursue identities outside of ourselves. And that some Black people have become “lost in the shuffle.” There are no computers in his mansion and he still owns a rotary phone.
He reserves the hope that things can get better if Black people “understand how fabulous we are. But technology has gotten in the way of the brain functioning creatively,” he told the Defender.
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