Almost 13 years ago, an eight week old black kitten came into my life. He didn’t have a name for several weeks and then my eldest daughter named him Diddy. Because he loves the spotlight and women.
Diddy is a naughty critter. Fuck it, he’s bad as hell and although he is considered a senior cat, he still be running around starting shit. Yowling like a damn fool, doing the crab walk although he’s 17 pounds, and taking off running like the hounds of hell are chasing his bad ass. But I wouldn’t have him any other way.
During the almost 13 years he’s been a part of my life, we have had many adventures. When I moved to Minneapolis eight years ago, he rode in a carrier on my lap. We have lived like Gypsies over the years and not one time have I thought about leaving him behind. Well except one. I was going to be living with my sister friend Trena when I moved to Minneapolis and I didn’t know if she was going to welcome Diddy so I started looking for a no kill shelter but when I talked to her, she told me that he was welcomed too. My boo is an ancestor now and I wish she was here so I could tell her how wonderful she was for allowing me to bring my critter with me.
I got Diddy from my girl Angela. Her cat Silver had a set of kittens who were born May 17, 2009 and when they got old enough, they would be given to loving homes. And I put my bid in because at the time, I was living in an apartment complex with a mice problem. Those mice were some bold fuckers too. Straight squeaking and partying when the lights were turned off at night.
He became a part of my family officially on August 1, 2009. I went to her home to pick him up and he was laying in a box with his sisters. His mama was laying on Angie’s bed looking at me anxiously because she knew I was coming for one of her babies. I rubbed and comforted her, telling her that he would be loved and would always have a home. For almost 13 years, I’ve kept my promise to Silver because as long as I have a home, Diddy will always be there.
We have gotten old together, Diddy and I. I’m 51 and he’s 64 in human years and sometimes, we be fussing and fighting with each other. And then we be chilling out on the bed. He’s my booga cat, my fleabag. I know that cats don’t live as long as humans but the little girl that is in me wants him to be the world’s oldest living cat because I’m not ready to let him go. But as long as he’s here, he’s going to be loved and cherished.
I’m sure that any folks who come across my blog and read my work is probably thinking “Man she morbid as hell!” And I don’t mean to be but so much has happened to me in such a short time. Loss of loved ones, health issues, all kinds of shit. But someway, somehow, I manage to persevere. The way I go about it might be puzzling to some but it makes perfect sense to me.
American culture shames people for having emotions outside of being constantly happy all the time. Even through times of immense grief, people are expected to put on their best faces and pretend that they aren’t hurting in order to not offend anyone. How selfish and inane is that mentality. How cruel and heartless. And utterly American.
So as I dwell in the valley of the emotion called grief, I’ve decided that the best way to deal with it is facing it squarely in the face. I look at pictures of my lost ones, laughing on some days and on other days crying. But I have to see their faces so I refuse to stop.
I’ve started a collection of pictures on my Facebook page called “Blackness Personified” and it’s filled with pictures of Black people from various decades. Some of the pictures are of celebrities and some of the pictures of regular Black folks. I chose those pictures because they reminded me of simpler times, when I was a little girl and my family was still alive.
I reread books that I read when I was a much younger woman and marvel at how much I’ve grown as an individual. Certain passages in those books I didn’t get in 1989 I understand totally now in 2021.
I talk to my ancestors too. I’m not a religious person. I’m downright heathenish for the most part but I do believe in the power of the ancestors and that they watch over us from wherever they happen to be.
I talk about them constantly because I have to keep them alive, if not in body but spirit because if I don’t, they will truly be dead and I cannot face that. It’s enough that I will never be able to see them again in the physical but to pretend that they never existed just because they died is beyond cruel: it’s sick.
So I will continue to tell their stories. Like the time my mother and I beat up my older brother because he was drunk and ignorant and we had to let him know the true power of Black Girl Magic by whupping on that ass. My memories is all I have left of them and I will continue to tell their stories. And when I become an ancestor, my children will do the same for me. Or I will haunt their asses.
My first introduction to Ida B. Wells-Barnett was during Black History Month when I was in grade school. Other than that, her history was alien to me as someone from Mars. Of course her name was familiar to me; there used to be a housing project on 39th and King Drive Boulevard that was named after her and although I recognized her name, I really did not know anything about her history or achievements until I read a book by Tonya Bolden entitled, African-American Women: 150 Crusader, Creators, and Uplifters. Only then, did I find out about the true history of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and what her accomplishments meant, not only for Blacks in this county but for anyone has been oppressed and marginalized in American society.
Her story gnawed at me. A woman born in slavery, she would grow up to become one of the great pioneer activists of the Civil Rights movement. She was a precursor of Rosa Parks, and was a feminist, newspaper editor and publisher, investigative journalist, co-founder of the NAACP, political candidate, mother, wife, and the single most powerful leader in the anti-lynching campaign in America.
She made major contributions to the field of sociology although her role was later obscured and marginalized. Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley (1998) further commented on her contributions as well as the contributions made by another African-American woman sociologist, Anna Julia Cooper: “Cooper and Wells-Barnett were not lone voices, but part of an enormous, segregated tradition of social analysis by African-Americans that included a rich discourse by African American women. Cooper and Wells-Barnett created a social theory morally and passionately centered in a standard of justice derived from Judeo-Christian religion and American demographic and republic claims. This theory of the intersection of race, class, and gender added a vital strand to the feminist tradition of sociology” (pp.171-172).
She was dynamic, controversial, temperamental, and uncompromising. She stood up for what she believed in, even at her own expense. However, even with all of her achievements, she is rarely mentioned in the history textbooks. For this reason, this is a love story dedicated to the life and achievements of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, particularly her crusades against the anti-lynching of Black folks during this particular era in time.
In the latter part of nineteenth century, sociological theories from Ida B. Wells-Barnett were groundbreaking. She was born on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi and she was to two freed slaves. Her mother, Lizzie Warrenton, was a cook; and her father, James, was a carpenter and they believed that an education was very important. After the Civil War ended, they enrolled their children in Rust College, the local school set up by the Freedmen’s Aid Society (Hine 1993). Founded in 1866, the Society established schools and colleges for recently freed slaves in the South, and it was at Rust College where Miss Ida learned to read and write.
When she turned sixteen, her life changed forever. Both of her parents and her infant brother died during a yellow fever epidemic, and Ida was left to care for her remaining five siblings. She began teaching at a rural school for $25 a month and, a year later, took a position in Memphis, Tennessee in the city’s segregated black schools. Upon arriving in Memphis, she learned that teaching salaries were higher than Mississippi, and she learned that even though there was a stronger demand for literate individuals to teach, there was a stronger need for qualified ones. According to Salley (1993), because she needed qualifications in order to teach, she enrolled into Fisk University and gained her qualification in under a year.
While returning to Memphis from a teaching convention in New York, she was met with racial provocation for the first time while traveling by railway. Ida was asked by the conductor to move to the segregated car, even though she had paid for a ticket in the ladies coach car. She refused to leave, and bit the conductor’s hand as he forcibly pushed her from the railway car. She sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, and was awarded $500 by a local court. Even though she won the case, the headlines read, “DARKY DAMSEL GETS DAMAGES,” and the decision was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court and was reversed (Bolden, 1996). She was ordered to pay court frees in the amount of $200. This incident infuriated Ida and spurred her to investigate and report other incidents of racism.
Outraged by the inequality of Black and White schools in Memphis and the unfairness of Jim Crow segregation, Ida became a community activist and began writing articles calling attention to the plight of African Americans. She wrote for a weekly Black newspaper called The Living Way.
Wells-Barnett’s teaching career ended upon her “dismissal in 1891 for protesting about the conditions in Black schools” (Salley, 1993, p.115). During her time as a school teacher, Wells-Barnett along with other Black teachers was said to have gathered and “shared writing and discussion on Friday evening, and produced a newspaper covering the week’s events and gossip.” (Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1998, p.151). The newspaper was officially established and published and distributed under the name Memphis Free Speech and Headlights throughout the Back community a year after she was dismissed.
It has been said that her motivation to become a social analyst was the results of her involvement with the Memphis Free Speech and Headlights both as editor and columnist under the pen name Lola and as part owner. Unfortunately, her printing press was destroyed and she was run out of town by a White mob (Sally, 1993).
After getting dismissed from her teaching position, her attention then shifted from schools to the issue that would dominate her work for most of her life; lynching. Lynching was the brutal and lawless killing of Black men and women, often falsely accused of crimes, and usually perpetrated by sizable violent mobs of Whites.
It was during this Reconstruction Era, after the Civil War, that Black men made immediate civil gains such as voting, holding public office, and owning land. Yet, groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) developed at the turn of the century as a response. They made it difficult for Southern Blacks to vote or live in peace, attempting to maintain White supremacy through coercion and violence, including lynching (Salzman, 2004) .
Infuriated by the Memphis lynching in 1892, which involved a close friend, Ida expressed her grief in an editorial: “The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the White man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are outnumbered and without arms. There is therefore only one thing left we can do; save our money and leave town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, when accused by White persons” (Hine, 1993).
At the same time Wells saw what lynching really was; an excuse to “keep the nigger down” and execute Blacks “who acquired wealth and property.” (Duster, 1971) This sparked her investigation into the causes of lynchings. Since Whites could no longer hold Blacks as slaves they found in mob violence a different means of maintaining a system of “economic, psychological, and sexual exploitation” (Duster, 1971).
In addition, the result of her investigation and editorial sparked the Black community to retaliate and encourage all who could to leave, and those who stayed to boycott the city Railroad Company. Ida saw the success of the boycott, and asserted, “the appeal to the White man’s pocket has ever been more effectual than all appeals ever made to his conscience.” (Duster, 1971.)
As mentioned earlier, because of Well-Barnett’s racial identity, her social theory was well shaped by the events unfolding within her community as experienced by the first generation of African-Americans after Emancipation (Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1998). According to Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley (1998): “This community took as one assumption that White dominance and its accompanying doctrine of White supremacy had to be confronted. American social Darwinists were giving doctrine of White intellectual legitimacy to Whites, which at this time meant Anglo-Saxon, imperialism abroad and supremacy at home, providing dogma such as that in James K. Hosmer’s“Short History of Anglo-Saxon Freedom”(p. 159).
Wells-Barnett’s social theory is considered to be a radical non-Marxian conflict theory with a focus on a “pathological interaction between differences and power in U.S. society. A condition they variously label as repression, domination, suppression, despotism, subordination, subjugation, tyranny, and our American conflict.” (Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1998, p.161).
Her social theory was also considered “Black Feminism Sociology,” and according to Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley (1998), there was four presented themes within the theory: one, her object of social analysis and of a method appropriate to the project; two, her model of the social world; three, her theory of domination and four, her alternative to domination. Although those four themes were present in her theory, one could assume that the major theme above the four was the implication of a moral form of resistance against oppression, which is not farfetched seeing that oppression was the major theme in her life.
She used an amazingly straight-forward writing style to prove a very bold argument against lynching, discrediting the excuse of rape and other excuses. Wells used specific examples and sociological theories to disprove the justifications of lynching made by Southerners. Within her pamphlets, Wells portrays the views of African-Americans in the 1890s.
Southerners allowed widespread lynchings while hiding behind the excuse of “defending the honor of its women.”(Jones-Royster, 1997). The charge of rape was used in many cases to lynch innocent African-American men. The victim’s innocence was often proved after his death. Wells states that the raping of White women by Negro men is an outright lie. Wells supports her statements with several stories about mutual relationships between White women and Black men. White men are free to have relationships with colored women, but colored men will receive death for relationships with white women (Duster, 1971).
As shown by Wells, the excuses used by Whites to torture and murder African-Americans were false. In no way can these kinds of crimes ever be truly justified because of the victim’s crimes. Perhaps the most obvious reasons these crimes happened are hate and fear. Differences between groups of people have always caused fear of the unknown, which translates into hate. Whites no longer depended on African-American slave labor for their livelihood. When African Americans were slaves they were considered “property” and “obviously, it was more profitable to sell slaves than to kill them”(Jones-Royster, 1997). With all restraint of “property” and “profit” lifted, Whites during and after Reconstruction were able to freely give into their fear and hate by torturing and killing African-Americans.
Wells’ investigations revealed that regardless of whether one was poor and jobless or middle-class, educated, and successful, all Blacks were vulnerable to lynching. Black women, too, were victimized by mob violence and terror. Occasionally they were lynched for alleged crimes and insults, but more often these women were left behind as survivors of those lynched. Up to this time, African-Americans had almost never been free from some form of persecution; the period of Reconstruction was particularly difficult. With the occurrences of lynching steadily increasing with no hope of relenting, their new found freedom ensured little safety.
Eventually, Wells was drawn to Chicago in 1893 to protest the racism of the exclusion of African Americans from the World’s Fair. With the help of Frederick Douglass, she distributed 20,000 pamphlets entitled “The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the Columbian Exposition.” On June 27, 1895, she married Ferdinand Lee Barnett, lawyer and editor of the Chicago Conservator, and continued to write while raising four children with him (Duster, 1971).
Ida believed firmly in the power of the vote to effect change for African-American men and women. She saw enfranchisement as the key to reform and equality, and she integrated the Women’s Suffrage movement by marching in the 1913 Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., with the all White Illinois delegation (Sterling, 1979).
She continued to write in her later years, and remained one of the most widely syndicated Black columnists in America. She published articles on race issues and injustices that were printed in African-American newspapers nationwide. Toward the end of her life, Ida worked to address the social and political concerns of African-Americans in Chicago. She made an unsuccessful run as an independent candidate for the Illinois State Senate in 1930, and died the next year of the kidney disease uremia (Duster, 1971).
Wells-Barnett’s influence was profound. When the federal government built the first low-income housing project in Chicago’s “Black belt” in 1940, it was named in her honor (Sterling, 1979). Her autobiography was published posthumously by her daughter, Alfreda Duster in 1971.
In Chicago, she helped to found a number of Black female and reform organizations, such as the Ida B. Wells Club, the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, and the Chicago Negro Fellowship League. She also served as director of Chicago’s Cook County League of Women’s Clubs. These clubs were a means for Blacks to join together for support and to organize to effect change (Duster, 1971). At the national level, Wells-Barnett was a central figure in the founding of the National Association of Colored Women, a visible organization that worked for adequate child care, job training, and wage equity, as well as against lynching and transportation segregation.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s passion for justice made her a tireless crusader for the rights of African Americans and women. She was a social reformer, a suffragist, a civil rights activist, and a philanthropist. Her writings, regardless of the risk to her safety and life, raised public awareness and involvement to address a number of social ills resulting in the oppression or murder of African Americans.
Her service of time through the creation of myriad clubs and organizations improved the lives of her people. Her work in Chicago, in her final years, focused on providing for the needs of the city’s African American population. Modeled after Jane Addams’ Settlement House efforts, Wells created urban houses for Black men, where they could live safely and have access to recreational amusements while they searched for employment (Hines, 1993).
Ida B. Wells-Barnett is sometimes referred to as the “Mother of the Civil Rights movement.” She refused to be moved from the Whites only railway car eighty years before the famous Rosa Parks held her seat on an Alabama bus. She encouraged the Black community to take steps to gain political rights, using the same means that would successfully be used much later during the Civil Rights movement such as economic and transportation boycotts (Hines, 1993).
In similar fashion to Margaret Sanger (of the Birth Control movement) and Susan B. Anthony (of the Women’s Suffrage movement), Wells-Barnett was a woman who dedicated her entire life to upholding her firm beliefs about social reform. She began by writing about the disparity in education and school conditions for Black children and spent much of her life working to abolish lynching through public awareness (Hines, 1993). Ida, through her example, writings, speaking, and service in various organizations, elevated the voice of women’s equality and suffrage. She was a pioneering Black female journalist, and led a very public life in a time when most women, Black or White, did not actively participate in the male political realm.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was connected to many prominent leaders and reformers, male and female, during her lifetime. Among them: Jane Addams (1860-1935) was a social reformer, social worker and the founder of Chicago’s Hull House, the most famous of the settlement houses. Addams and Wells-Barnett successfully worked together to block the segregation of Chicago’s public schools (Sterling, 1979).
She was also connected to W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) who was a famous Black scholar, sociologist, researcher, writer, and civil rights activist who voiced opposition to the accomodationist views of his contemporary, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). Washington urged African Americans to focus on self-improvement through education and economic opportunity instead of pressing Whites for political rights.
Ida B. Wells outwardly disagreed with Booker T. Washington’s position on industrial education and was mortified with his implication that “Blacks were illiterate and immoral, until the coming of Tuskegee.” (Hine, 1993) Outraged by his remarks, she considered his rejection of a college education as a “bitter pill.” (Hine, 1993). She wrote an article entitled “Booker T. Washington and His Critics”regarding industrial education. “This gospel of work is no new one for the Negro. It is the South’s old slavery practice in a new dress.” (Hine, 1993).
She felt that focusing only on industrial education would limit the opportunities of aspiring young Blacks and she saw Washington as no better than the Whites that justified their actions through lynching. Wells-Barnett joined DuBois in his belief that African Americans should militantly demand civil rights, and the two worked together on several occasions, most substantially as co-founders of the NAACP.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), of which Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a founding member, is still a thriving organization with thousands of members nationally. The association continues to advocate for the advancement of African Americans.
Two of the primary issues on which Wells-Barnett worked on, anti-lynching and women’s suffrage, are now defunct issues. Lynching is a federal crime and women received the vote in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. For this reason, related groups that arose at the time, such as the Anti-lynching League, the Freedmen’s Aid Society, and the National Association of Colored Women are no longer in existence. Yet, the League of Women Voters was created as an outgrowth of the suffragist movement, and is an organization that still educates men and women about their responsibilities as voters.
Wells-Barnett’s contribution to the field of sociology is so significant that her work “predates or is contemporaneous with the now canonized contributions of White male thinkers like Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, George Simmel, and George Herbert Mead, as well as the contributions of White female sociologists like Adams, Gilman, Marianne Weber, Webb, and the Chicago Women” (Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1998, p.171).
Ms. Wells-Barnett is an inspiring example of the power of the written word and the determination to succeed despite the odds. She was an African American woman, the daughter of slaves and considered the lowest of the low on the historical totem pole in American society and her tenacity, ambition, courage and desire for justice changed history. She was direct and possessed strength during a time when this was unheard of by a woman, especially a Black woman. A reformer of her time, she believed African-Americans had to organize themselves and fight for their independence against White oppression. She roused the White South to bitter defense and began the awakening of the conscience of a nation.
Through her campaign, writings, and agitation she raised crucial questions about the future of Back Americans. Today African-Americans do not rally against oppression like those that came before. Gone are the days when Blacks organized together; today Blacks live in a society that does not want to get involved as a whole. What this generation fails to realize is that although the days of Jim Crow have disappeared, it is important to realize that the fight for equality is never over.
In the preface of On Lynching: Southern Horrors, A Red Record and A Mob Rule in New Orleans (a compilation of her major works), she writes, “The Afro-American is not a bestial race. If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service. Other considerations are of minor importance” (Wells, 1969).
Barnett, Ida. B. Wells. (1969). On Lynching: Southern Horrors A Red Record and Mob Rule in New Orleans. New York, New York: Arno Press.
Bolden, Tonya. (1996) The Book of African-American Women: 150 Crusaders, Creators, and Uplifters. Avon, MA: Adams Media.
Duster, Alfreda M. (1971).Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida. B. Wells. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Hine, Darlene Clark, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, & Elsa B. Brown, Eds.(1993). Black Women in America. Vol. 2. Brooklyn, New York: Carlson Publishing.
Jones-Royster, Jacqueline. (1997). Southern Horrors and Other Writings; The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Lengermann, P. M. & Niebrugge-Brantley, J. (1998). The Woman Founders: Sociology and Social Theory, 1830-1930. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Salley, Columbus. (1993). The Black 100: A ranking of the most influential African-Americans, post and present. New York: Carol Publishing Group.
Salzman, Jack, ed. (2001). African-American Culture and History. Vol. 4. New York, New York: Macmillian Reference USA, 2001, 881-83. .
Sterling, Dorothy. (1979). Black Foremothers: Three Lives. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill Feminist Press, 1979, 60-117.
The Bronzeville neighborhood means so much to me because much of my family’s history has been entwined in this area. My family started migrating from Mississippi during the 1930s. My Uncle Joseph was the first Allen to make the trek to the Promised Land and for him, the journey was bountiful. He started a Ma and Pa grocery store on 45th and Wabash with the help of his wife, my Aunt Edna, who worked as a laundress. With the proceeds of both their earnings, they purchased two buildings, including the one where his store was located. After that, the rest of my family, including my grandmother, with hope high in their hearts came to Chicago to make their fortunes. Some succeeded and some did not. However, that was not really important. What was important is that they had the opportunity to succeed, an opportunity that had been denied to them in their hometown of Itta Bena, Mississippi because of the rampant racism that existed. My own experiences with Bronzeville started in 1989, when my mother, my daughter and I moved to 49th and Prairie. We lived there until 1992, and despite of what anyone says about that area, I had a ball. I never knew such colorful characters actually existed outside of the many books I had read.
Bronzeville got its name because of the mass influx of African-Americans who came to Chicago that settled in the areas between 29th and 51st Street, during the Great Migration from 1915 to the 70s. Bronzeville was once a city within a city, with its own stores, several newspapers and strong churches. This neighborhood was dubbed the Black Metropolis because of the many opportunities offered to blacks. It became a magnet for African Americans, who migrated from the South in droves. Jobs were plentiful and there were many black-owned businesses such as banks, insurance companies and funeral homes. There were many social institutions to help the disadvantaged and activities for people to immerse themselves in. The nightlife was fantastic. Musicians came from all over America to play at the Regal Theater and The Savoy. There were several famous blacks who lived in Bronzeville and they include: Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Ferdinand Barnett, Robert Abbott, Lionel Hampton, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, George Cleveland Hall, T. K. Lawless, Jesse Binga, Anthony Overton, and Richard R. Wright. These African-Americans contributed many gifts that would stand the test of time.
However, despite of its rich history, Bronzeville has faced a severe reversal of fortune. The losses of the stockyards and steel mills to different cities have pushed thousands of people out of the job market. Public housing projects – Stateway Gardens, Robert Taylor homes and the Ida B. Wells homes, created to give people better housing, trapped people in poverty and fear. The middle classed has moved to the suburbs. Retail businesses and lending capital have fled to safer pastures. This once proud Black Metropolis is now one of the poorest in the entire nation. The majority of its young people drop out of high school. Joblessness is the norm. Drugs and violence are rampant.
Even with all the adversity Bronzeville has faced in recent years, this community still has several strengths – beautiful old mansions, a great location near public transportation and the Loop, many churches, and a history so thick that you can feel it. This blog will discuss two things that were very important to the Bronzeville area during its heyday: housing and religion. It will discuss the hard time black migrants had getting decent housing due to overcrowding, segregation and what solution was taken to correct it, but ultimately caused a bigger problem. It will also discuss the religious wars that took place between the old guard blacks that had already settled in Chicago and the new immigrant blacks. There has been a great deal of renewed interest in the Bronzeville area because of its rich history, so hopefully, some of the money spent on other areas in the city of Chicago will be spent on this beautiful city within a city, the city called Bronzeville.
The Great Migration forced the established African American community in Chicago to make major adjustments and accommodations for its new inhabitants. Historically, black churches had, like their counterparts in the South, resisted any involvement in social issues. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants, however, simply could not be ignored and churches, being the black community’s richest and most influential institution, were quickly called to action in the effort to help migrants properly adjust themselves to life in Chicago.
African Americans already living in Chicago were known as the Old Settlers and they were aware of the major implications the Great Migration would have on their lifestyle. The Old Settlers had striven to establish respect from whites and a sense of equality within the city’s socioeconomic system. With the arrival of the Southern blacks, most of whom unfamiliar to city life, the Old Settlers feared that the progress they had achieved would be dashed. White people would probably equate them with the thousands of uneducated, fresh from the country migrants. Most importantly, the Old Settlers realized the enormous strain placed on many of the migrants who, having fled the South for better opportunities arrived in Chicago lacking housing or a sense of direction. From the migration’s outset, African American Chicago area churches bore the brunt of the responsibility for helping guide the migrants.
The Old Settlers also worried that the temptations of Chicago’s nightlife would be too much for the green as grass migrants. Down South, the church was the center of social life. Chicago, on the other hand, provided numerous outlets for entertainment (bars, nightclubs, taverns, gambling halls), many of them deemed by the ministry as deviant and destructive. African American social activist Richard Wright, Jr. emphasized the importance the church played in welcoming migrants to Chicago. He said, “Get these Negroes in your churches; make them welcome; don’t turn your nose and let the saloon man and the gambler do all the welcoming. Help them buy homes, encourage them to send for their families and to put their children in school” (Sernett, Promised Land).
One of the first churches to help the immigrants was Olivet Baptist Church which is located on 31st and King Drive. This church assumed a major role in the process of aiding migrants. The Rev. Lacey Kirk Williams, the minister at that time, sent members of his church to several Chicago train terminals to meet incoming passengers. Church members greeted the newcomers and immediately directed them to places of assistance. Olivet quickly transformed itself into a social service center for migrants, providing them with food and clothing, while assisting them in the obtainment of housing and employment. They also hosted a wide variety of social, educational, and recreational activities, and soon gained a reputation throughout the South “as an oasis of mercy in the urban desert” (Sernett, Promised Land).
There would be major clashes between the migrants and the established Old Settlers, some of which concerned religion but most of which had to do with class status. The new migrants did not like the Northern churches. They felt that these churches were cold and impersonal. They were used to the expressiveness of the churches down South and to them; the Northern church services were restrained. The established Northern blacks felt that the new migrants were countrified and embarrassing. They liked the calmness of their church services and did not want change. They were also concerned about their own hierarchy in Chicago.
Some churches compromised their traditional religious practices in order to accommodate their new members. They incorporated gospel choirs, and added new, more vibrant songs to their traditional church hymns. Ministers livened up their sermons by interjecting “shouts” and encouraging emotional responses from the congregation. Still, the migrants still found themselves set apart by their class status, appearance and demeanor. The condescending attitudes toward the migrants by the predominately upper-class church congregations did not help the situation. They made fun of the migrants’ clothes, accents, and lack of education. It always amazes me that in spite of all the racism and contempt we have endured from other cultures that we would treat each other so shabbily.
Some of these migrants eventually left these churches and started their own denominations. The churches came to be known as Storefront Churches. These churches tried to recreate the Southern rural churches that the majority of the migrants were used to. E. Franklin Franzier explained that the storefront churches “represented an attempt on the part of migrants, especially from the rural areas of the South, to re-establish a type of church to which they were accustomed” (Sernett, Promised Land).
Of course, the established black churches felt that these churches were a slap in their faces. They felt that these churches were a disgrace to the African American race and nothing more than a minstrel show. The preachers from these churches were derided for their lack of formal training and were subjected to accusations including defrauding their flock of money, being agents in the numbers racket, and of immoral sexual behavior (Sernett, Promised Land). However, despite the criticisms, storefront churches persisted, and exist to this very day, their presence a testament to the strength of the Southern migrants willingness to keep their heritage and an unwillingness not to bow down to those who looked down their noses upon them.
Decent Housing but At What Cost?
The new migrants having settled the issue of religion now had to deal with housing. The majority of people lived in tenement housing and there were many horror stories about overcrowding, rats and insects. However, living conditions in Chicago, though overcrowded, were similar to housing conditions in the South. Down South, most migrants lived in three or four room cabins. It was not uncommon for as many as five people to sleep in one room.
But this was The Promised Land, and things were supposed to be better. As soon as they were able to get themselves together, they moved. Living conditions were used as a measure of the success or failure of migration. A family succeeded when they secured a place of their own.
One of the most popular living spaces for migrants were kitchenette apartments. These apartments were called that because everything was enclosed in one room, including the kitchen and are similar to what is called an efficiency apartment today, except a bit smaller and housing more people. Families of four and up lived in these small spaces. Many families took an apartment like this, dreaming of the day when a better life would come along. I came to know this type of apartment very well. My mother, my then-baby daughter and I lived in a kitchenette apartment from 1989 to 1992. We had been burned out of our previous apartment and lost everything we owned. We needed to start off from scratch and save some money in the process.
Unlike the migrants, we did have two separate rooms. The kitchen was actually pretty large and so was the bedroom/living space but we had to share a bathroom with the other tenants. It was a unique experience living in that building. There was a pimp and his two ladies of night living down the hall, and they would fight everyday. Sometimes, the girls would fight each other and on other days, would join forces and beat up the pimp. A lady named Dorise lived across the hall and she would get drunk everyday. Her boyfriend was a drunk too, and one time when he was laid out across the lawn in a drunken stupor, someone stole his brand new Reebok gym shoes off his feet. When the first of the month came (check time), the tenants of 4949 South Prairie would party like it was New Year’s Eve. It was truly an experience I will never forget.
By the 1940s, as more migrants flooded Bronzeville, there was less and less space for them to move into. Already decrepit apartments became overcrowded and the living conditions became worse. To alleviate this overcrowding, many blacks attempted to move to into neighboring areas and out to the newly emerging suburbs. However, they were met with massive white resistance, both political and violent, forcing them to stay confined in the overcrowded and dilapidated slums of the South Side. The City of Chicago needed to do something about these conditions; there was a serious housing shortage and the migrants either did not have the money to move elsewhere, or could not because of white resistance. The Chicago Housing Authority, a government agency, attempted to solve the housing problems of the South Side by building affordable housing projects.
The first of these housing projects to finished were the Ida B. Wells Homes, and they were completed in 1941. The next to be finished were The Dearborn Homes, which are located from 27th to 30th streets and from State Street to the Rock Island Railroad tracks. They were completed in 1950. They were designed by Loebl, Schlossman and Bennet and represented the CHA’s first “high-rise” public housing project. They ranged from 6 to 9 stories. The most notorious of the housing projects built by the CHA were The Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago’s (and the country’s) largest housing project. They were completed in 1962. They were named after Robert R. Taylor, the commissioner of the CHA from 1938-1950. Robert Taylor resigned from the CHA in 1950 after realizing that the political forces in Chicago would prevent the CHA from building unsegregated public housing. These political forces wanted blacks isolated and segregated from the rest of Chicago. And it worked.
The Robert Taylor Homes, consisting of 28 identical sixteen-story buildings practically guaranteed segregation because it was built in the middle of the slums of Bronzeville, keeping its over 28,000 residents isolated. By stacking people literally on top of each other, the CHA was able to house many people on this two-mile piece of land. The architects, who designed this madness, had hoped the open space surrounding the Robert Taylor Homes would give its residents a sense of closeness to the outdoors, making The Robert Taylor Homes a suburbia within the city. However, the land surrounding the buildings served more as an isolating factor Because of its isolation, these projects became a hot seat of criminal activity, which included drug trafficking, gang wars and murder. Public housing, instead of giving the poor an outlet of hope, continued the vicious cycle of poverty and turned Bronzeville into a ghetto.
Bronzeville was once a bustling center of activity for African-Americans who wanted to better their lives. Once the jobs left the community, it took the heart out of Bronzeville. The projects took its soul. What is left now is an empty shell of broken beer bottles and shattered dreams. There has been a great deal of renewed interest in Bronzeville, and some of the old, abandoned buildings have been rehabbed. New businesses have come back and put money in the community. If this interest continues, this neighborhood can be great again, but two key ingredients are needed to make this dream come true. The churches of Bronzeville have to take a more active role in the lives of its inhabitants, like they did in when the Migration first started. The ministers cannot turn a blind eye to the gang violence and drug activity that still plagues this area. The residents of Bronzeville also have to take a stand and not allow their neighborhood to continue its descent into the gutter. The residents have to teach their children about Bronzeville’s rich history. Bronzeville was built on the blood, sweat and tears of black migrants who came to Chicago with nothing in their pockets but dreams and a hope for the future. The children of Bronzeville should never be allowed to forget this. Bronzeville is the proverbial diamond in the rough. Let’s hope its shine will come through.
One of the biggest misconceptions in American culture is that welfare recipients are living large at the taxpayer’s expense, receiving thousands of dollars per month while driving Cadillacs and other expensive cars. This myth is so not true and how do I know? Because for the past two months, I have been on welfare and let me be the one to tell you: being on public assistance sucks.
August 3, 2011 will be a day in infamy I will never forget because it was on that date that I received my last unemployment check and officially became one of the 99ers, a term for unemployed people in the United States, who have exhausted all of their unemployment benefits, including all unemployment extensions. After applying for over two thousand jobs, I found myself in the position of having to apply for Public Aid or be faced with disconnection notices and phone calls from bill collectors who cannot speak English. If someone had asked me five years ago would I be in this position, back on welfare, I would have laughed because I went back to school and received a Bachelor’s degree and people who have degrees are supposed to be protected from economic turmoil. I graduated five years ago from Roosevelt University with a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a 3.6 grade point average and I am proud of myself for that accomplishment. I know that some folks turn their noses up at people who pursue a liberal arts degree but I learned valuable critical thinking skills, how to analyze and solve problems in a creative manner, and most importantly about social stratification and inequality and I have no regrets. I also have over ten years of transferable experience in the administrative/clerical field and an ability to work with all types, fools and all. However, even with all those wonderful qualities, I cannot find a job to save my life.
When I made the decision to apply for welfare, I tried to keep positive about my situation. Millions of Americans are suffering from either being unemployed or underemployed so at least I was not alone in my troubles. But I cannot lie: Feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy run through my veins on a daily basis and a rage is building in me. A rage against a society that tells individuals that a college degree is the path to a economic prosperity, but does not disclose how centuries of social inequality have kept and will continue to keep the best and brightest out of the workforce. A rage against rich, clueless politicians who believe people that receive unemployment and welfare benefits are sitting on their butts swigging alcohol and smoking dope. A rage against myself for waiting so long to get my life together and having to deal with the consequences of perhaps being considered passé in the workforce.
I was a teenage mother who did not get my GED until I was twenty-six and my Bachelor’s degree until I was thirty-five. The entire time before both these changes took place, I was told by society that if I educated myself, I would get myself and my children out of poverty. Guess what? It did not work because I am back on welfare receiving $318 dollars per month. I did everything society told me to do and I am in the same position I was in nine years ago when I made the decision to attend college and that is a shame.
If I did not have children, there is no way in hell I would have applied for welfare. But when you are a mother, one has to make sacrifices, so I swallowed my pride and applied for cash benefits. By signing the Personal Responsibility contract in return for public assistance, a welfare recipient in essence signs her rights to being an adult away. Recipients must work for their cash and going to school is not an option.
Yes, welfare recipients must WORK for their cash benefits. I know that people believe in the myth of women laying up on welfare, eating bon-bons and spitting out a baby every year while collecting those fat government checks but that is a load of malarkey.
On August 22, 1996 in the Rose Garden of the White House, President William Jefferson Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, better known as welfare reform, dismantling the sixty-one year program of federally guaranteed cash assistance to needy families or what is known as welfare. Welfare recipients have five years to receive cash assistance and after that, it is a wrap. The debate surrounding welfare reform was dominated by white male politicians and journalists and focused predominately on minority women and their families living in poverty because minority women are the only ones in America who received Public Aid (sarcasm). Although President Clinton had the right idea, he and others did not take into account what would happen if the economy collapsed and finding a job would be the equivalency of hitting the lottery.
It burns my soul that I am back on the dole, working for $318 per month which is equal to $79.50 per week at six hours per day after everything I went through to better myself. If I refuse to go to any of the job sites my caseworker sends me to, I will be sanctioned, meaning that my monthly benefits will be cut in half to $159. So the next time, a hardworking tax payer complains about welfare recipients and how they are living good, eating lobster and shit, think about me, the college educated single mother who took care of her children, saw two of them graduate from high school, one from college, only to find herself and youngest child still poverty-stricken and broke as hell.
Also, if anyone knows of any job opportunities in the Chicagoland area, please let me know.