When Blanche Suggs-Killingsworth looks around North Lawndale, all she sees is home. Though she’s lived in other parts of Chicago, she often finds herself right back on the West Side – back to the place that raised her, surrounded by the people who care for her.
“You didn’t do wrong as a kid because the next-door neighbor would tell your mom,” said the 67-year-old Suggs-Killingsworth, who moved in and out of the neighborhood since 1962.
Even after all these years, she still thinks about how Roosevelt Road used to be a bustling business district, or stopping by her uncle’s busy store over on Kedzie Avenue. She also remembers the important role that St. Agatha Catholic Church played in her life. After losing her stepfather at a young age, staff at St. Agatha welcomed her family right in, offering light in the darkest of times.
In fact, it was through the church that Suggs-Killingsworth discovered a youth group, which led her to her first job and an opportunity to teach African dance. “The news media only showcases the crime here,” she said. “They don’t showcase the love that we have for each other. They don’t show it, and it’s here. It’s here.”
In the last 20 years, Suggs-Killingsworth has worked to put that love back into the spotlight with the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society. As an organization, she and her board members – most of whom are a collection of close friends, colleagues and longtime North Lawndale residents – are dedicated to helping their fellow residents see, experience and understand the wealth of North Lawndale through historical preservation and education.
On June 29, Suggs-Killingsworth pushed that message further at an intimate event, Hattitude, held at St. Agatha, marking another memory for the books. Though Hattitude primarily served as a fashion show for ladies’ hats and a fundraiser for the NLHCS, it gave organizers and attendees an opportunity to reflect on what North Lawndale means to them.
Board member Diane Odell said the concept behind Hattitude is to pay tribute to African-American women, particularly their tradition of wearing church hats. “During the time of slavery, black women would wear doughtyclothes on the weekend,” said Odell, a real estate attorney by trade who once had a firm North Lawndale. “They always dressed up on Sundays, and their crown was their hat.”
Ariel Walton, another board member and North Lawndale native, chimed in: “It has ‘attitude’ in the word, and also, I think of ‘gratitude.’ It brings a sense of pride to the culture of North Lawndale.”
By the same token, the fundraiser looked to draw a focus on North Lawndale’s upcoming 150th anniversary. Like Suggs-Killingsworth, Walton, Odell and attendee Lenrow Felton talked of North Lawndale’s long, rich history. Felton pointed to the Sears, Roebuck and Co. complex – which sits at the heart of North Lawndale on South Homan Avenue – as a stark reminder of its past economic prosperity. Housing inequality, redlining and racial segregation are other issues that impacted – and continues to affect – North Lawndale today, he said.
“We still got to move forward,” Felton said, adding that NLHCS leaves a larger footprint than some realize. “By educating us, it lets us know what we’re capable of and where we came from.”
In between bites of food, chit-chat and a live music performance, guests came together on that late Saturday afternoon. Bound by fellowship and friendship, they mingled, danced and sang along, leaving behind a trail of love that continues to move North Lawndale’s community forward.
“It’s important to know where you come from because if you don’t know where you come from, it doesn’t make a difference where you’re going,” Felton said.