Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived in North Lawndale on Chicago’s West Side in 1966, and he galvanized the neighborhood in a campaign against redlining and housing discrimination. Two years later, he was assassinated. In the wake of his death, riots erupted in North Lawndale. Local industries abandoned the neighborhood, population plummeted, unemployment ballooned, and today the area is still trying to rebuild from the ashes of ‘68. In this episode, we meet elders who remember the turmoil of that era, and we hear from a younger generation that’s seeking to breathe new life into North Lawndale.
Multiple Voices: From WYPR and PRX, it’s Out of the Blocks. One neighborhood, everybody’s story.
This neighborhood has, like, a deep history. From Martin Luther King living here, and then there being, like, riots, the white flight.
You can imagine me as a young girl, seeing soldiers marching in the street that have been trained to kill in war is now in my community overseeing me.
The trauma and the pain, maybe, that we have experienced in our community… sometimes can sprout beauty.
Golden brown, honey vanilla, chocolate, smooth, toffee, tea. Ivory, lemon, midnight blue, ask of all the colors in this black rainbow and that’s how I’d answer you.
From producers Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick, in collaboration with Bashirah Mack and WBEZ, Out of the Blocks: North Lawndale in Chicago’s West Side, right after this.
Louise Harper: Breakfast—I got pancakes, I got sauce, I got ham, I got French toast. They want hot biscuits, they want sausage, egg and cheese, bacon and egg, ham and egg…
Aaron Henderson: On any given day, we can have breakfast sandwich, we can have sausage, bacon, ham…and we can also have twenty burgers on the grill at one time.
LH: I got it all here. Greens, short ribs, sweet potato pie…seven days a week. I start at 3 in the morning and close at 5:30 in the evening. That’s every day. My name is Louise Harper.
AH: My name is Aaron Henderson.
LH: New Pine Valley Restaurant.
AH: 1600 South Pulaski Road.
LH: We both been here a long, long time. Aaron came here when he was eight years old.
AH: Back in 1958.
LH: And he’s been working with me ever since.
AH: She’s the sweetest person that I know. She’s like an angel sent from heaven.
LH: I came here from Lexington, Mississippi. I started here when I was 16 years old. Now, I am 75 years old. Dr. Martin Luther King, I waited on him. I served him, Dr. Martin Luther King.
AH: That was the greatest feeling, seeing Dr. King and his group. He was living right here on 16th Street.
Aaron Henkin: Do you remember what Dr. Martin Luther King ordered?
LH: Yeah, breakfast! He had ham and eggs and hash browns. 1962—a cheeseburger was $1.35, coffee was 35 cent. The cheeseburger’s still $1.35 and I can’t keep enough cheeseburgers! It runs out because they buy my cheeseburgers faster than I can put them in.
A Henkin: You don’t think about raising the prices?
LH: No. Sometimes, kids don’t have the money. They scrap up, they shove a penny or two. I let them go, because they don’t have the money. I wouldn’t take nothing for Lawndale. I grew up over here. I’ve been here. I love it. Kids—they watch out for me. If anybody go out of here, they come back and say, “Did they pay you?” They know I’m they mama. “Mama, you okay? Everybody okay with you?” Every morning, they come to the door, “Mama, you okay?”
AH: Now, I’ve seen it go… It’s had its ups, and it when it was up, man, it was up, it was booming! But man, when that riot of 1968 after the death of King—Martin Luther King—man, people just went stark raving mad and it’s been down ever since. But it’s still a lovable area because we have a lot of memories.
LH: It wasn’t peaches and cream all of the time. It was rough. Sometimes it was rough. But I’m telling you, I’m telling them kids, they watch me. Some of them say, “I don’t see how you do it.” They say, “Mama, how do you do this?” And they young, young under me. But I tell them that I can handle it. Keep the good work up, watch me, you’ll be okay.
Blanche Suggs-Killingsworth: Once you know your past, you know where you’re going. My name is Blanche Suggs-Killingsworth. We’re in the Nichols Tower, which is the old Sears Tower at 906 South Homan. You’re currently in the office of neighborhood housing services where we help people buy, fix, and keep their homes. It’s kind of awesome that I’m back here, because I worked here as a young lady when I was 14. I worked in the basement selling needles, threads, and thimbles. I’ve been North Lawndale since 1962. When I came from Hazlehurst—Hazlehurst, Mississippi is a small town south of Jackson. It was a very racist town when I left there. Blacks lived on one side of town and whites lived on the other side of town, and blacks were told to “stay in their place,” if you will. And when I had the opportunity to come to Chicago, my first experience here was not a very good one. My mom had took me to [?], and as the train got ready to pull off, this little Caucasian boy let the window down and spit in my face, and I was like, why? Why is what I left right here in such a big city?
A Henkin: Let me ask you about the chapter of history—I’ll ask you as a historian and just personally what it was like to experience the assassination of Dr. King and the unrest that followed. Talk about that chapter. What happened here?
BSK: Our mayor at that time decided to bring in the federal government, the National Guard. I was still on 15th and Kedzie and they were on top of the building that’s called the Kedzie building that’s on 15th and Kedzie with rifles. Now, you can imagine me as a young girl seeing soldiers marching in the street that have been trained to kill in war is now in my community overseeing me. You don’t… We were afraid to come out of the house, and the after-results of seeing the stores burnt down and Roosevelt Row used to have every store you could think of up there, Madison Street, every store you wanted to. The buses literally stopped. They didn’t want to come in and out and fear for their lives. And then after the smoke cleared, what’s next? What’s gonna happen? Because you don’t know.
A Henkin: I guess there’s no overestimating the impact of that moment, because now—like, 50 years later—the neighborhood is still sort of trying to come out of the ashes of that experience, isn’t it?
BSK: You’re absolutely right. But once again, it’s the disinvestment. There’s no development. All these vacant lots that we have over here, stores left… They’re not coming back here. We don’t have the big box stores anymore. So, it’s a complete rebuild. But I want to make sure, as a historian, that you don’t forget the value of the people that have stayed, resisted the devastation of the riots, the disinvestment economically. They stayed and they will remain. That gives you a real good neighbor. It really does, because to me, you got a neighbor living next to you that will stand with you on issues. I pray and I ask God, and I do, to help this community rebuild itself, and become stronger, and become recognized for who it really is. North Lawndale is—tell everybody—we are the cream of the crop.
Bernard Jennings: I lived in Lawndale for one day. Back in 1950, when I was yet to be a year old, my parents actually moved to Lawndale to K Town and the first night we were there--the neighborhood was in a racial change—someone threw a firebomb through the front window. And I am told that I was in my bassinette in that room and my father came and grabbed me and got me out of there, and we in fact moved the next day. So, yeah, I lived in Lawndale—but not for too long. But I now find myself here realizing that I’m assisting in the revitalization of a community that I have family roots in. I never envisioned that this day would come but that’s always in the back of my mind now. My name Bernard Jennings. We’re currently in the Nichols Tower, which was previously the original Sears Tower. I’m the executive director of Lawndale Business Renaissance Association, which is an economic development engine maintaining the industrial companies in the area which hires a considerable amount of people. Lawndale was once the home of major manufacturing and retail operations… Companies such as International Harvester, Sears, Zeenit, Sunbeam, and West Electric at one point occupied the area, but unfortunately, in 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, there were riots that led to the loss of approximately 75% of the businesses, both commercial and industrial. In fact, Lawndale was once referred to as an industrial slum without an industry. Within the last year, our organization did 8.6 million dollars of economic development projects in the year 2018. Last year, we had a company Able Electropolishing, which we assisted in doing a one-million-dollar expansion in warehousing space, and from that expansion, the owner ended up putting another shift of business on which meant he hired 90 people from the area. So, that’s kind of the focus of what we do, assisting in getting the project done but the hope is that it will do job-creation.
A Henkin: If your parents were around today and had an opportunity to see what you were doing in this neighborhood, what do you think their reaction would be? What would they say?
BJ: I think they’d be very proud of me. I think that they would be very happy to see that a community that once we could only spend one night in is changing, that one day people will hopefully have many a night of the rest of their life in a very fruitful and vibrant community.
Willie Pearson: That picture was taken in my hometown in Georgia at the Holiday Inn. We were there for a family reunion.
A Henkin: You came from Georgia?
WP: Georgia! Dublin, Georgia. My name is Willie Pearson and my address is 1912 South Avers Avenue. I’m 85 years old and I’ve lived in North Lawndale ever since 1954. Well, this was a Jewish neighborhood and it was totally different from how it is now. In 1956, I guess it was, the first black alderman was elected in this neighborhood. You could say it made the change, you know what I mean? Because there hasn’t been another white alderman in this ward since, but he was the first black alderman here. That’s me and wife. This was taken in 1962. My wife’s name is Ella. We met on the job. I worked for the Board of Health. I worked in food service for 35 years. I met my wife when she started working there, got married, and was married for 56 years.
A Henkin: 56 years. What’s the most important lesson about marriage that you learned in 56 years?
WP: It’s a give and take game! [laughs] That’s the secret to being together for 56 years: being able to give and take. We had ups and downs but didn’t anybody else know about it. If we were having an argument or something like that and the phone rang, I’d be glad the phone rang or something like that because that was the end of the argument. We wouldn’t even let anybody hear us arguing over the phone.
A Henkin: Saved by the bell.
WP: Saved by the bell! [laughs]
A Henkin: She’s gone now?
WP: Yeah, she is. Lost her in 2017. All good things have to come to an end. One of us had to go first, and I don’t feel bad because I stuck with her ‘til the end. We had a good run.
Multiple Voices: It’s Out of the Blocks: North Lawndale in Chicago, West Side. It’s one neighborhood, everybody’s story.
Azadi De La Sol: Golden brown, honey vanilla, chocolate, smooth, toffee, tea. Ivory, lemon, midnight blue, ask of all the colors in this black rainbow and that’s how I’d answer you. My name is Azadi De La Sol, also formally known as Ariel Williams. I grew up in North Lawndale but I had parents that were very concerned about my safety, about my exposure, so my mom would take me outside of the community a lot on the weekends, she would make sure to really monitor what I was watching on TV, what I was listening to, and I think that lended itself to my being able to really be in a space and recognize how important my education was. So, I took school very seriously. Straight A student, and I was like, “I’ve got to be perfect on paper because I want to go to college and I want to get out of this community.” I almost saw college as an escape plan because I wanted so badly to get out of North Lawndale. I felt like such a unicorn, I felt, like, consistently unsafe and I felt like I was in a box all of the time. Like, I could not do anything. My mother was very strict and it just angered me daily. So, I was just a very focused, determined, angry young woman. Like, I was just like… And no one really knew I was angry, but I was very angry on the inside and just sick and tired of being scared for my life. So, when I got to Lawrence, college was a different experience for me. I was like, I’m here to explore and to get to know myself. So, that is then how I fell into this whole path of being a teacher, and then I began to develop my own drama-therapy, trauma-informed curriculum at North Lawndale College Prep, where I ended up teaching and continue to teach right now. So, that’s what’s landed me here: my work in the classroom and really being up close and against scholars who are really crying out for help. There’s a lot of self-hate within the community as a result of the lack of resources that we have in the community, as well as a lack of education—quality education—in the community. So, it’s this really painful generational, systematic structure that our scholars are dealing with and myself had to deal with, but I think the only thing that really saved me was the arts. “Our ancestors couldn’t read, they sing Christian hymns coded with escape plans and communal messages. What seemed to be sorrow filled soundscapes, layered and colored the barren fields of cotton. Souls led with the higher hope and the heavenly healing rose up out of the desolate land and ascended to a place of vastness. Tirelessly, they dreamt of a day unbound. Now, we sing songs of a collective song across many generations.”I decided to start an anthology of poetry when I turned 20. I’m going to be 30 next January, 2020, and that’s when I plan to publish it, and it is an anthology that’s a direct recollection of my experiences throughout my entire lifespan of the last ten years—all of my travels, all of my epiphanies… I don’t know if I am going to publish all of it. I’m going to probably hand pick some things, and I really want to be… I haven’t been, like, stressing about, “Oh, I’ve got to kind of like, make sure I edit.” I really want it to be raw, and I want it to be just as it was when I wrote it. I don’t want to do a lot of that. But yeah, it’s definitely felt like, “Man, when I was 25 it felt like so long…” but it’s already here. “While being in this black body is no easy feat, please know that we are here 365 days, and every day we fight to celebrate our blackness, and that alone. We are remarkably vast and infinitely powerful. Don’t you ever question it, or hold it up to anything else other than gold.”
Bobby Price: This is the Andis Pulse ZR. My name is Bobby Price. The name of my barber shop is Principle Barbers, 3820 West Ogden Avenue. This neighborhood has, like, a deep history from, you know, Martin Luther King living here and then there being, like, riots and the white flight. I mean, just a huge, deep history. A lot of blacks migrating here, and my family migrating here, moving to North Lawndale. I mean, they were coming straight from the south, too. 16th and Christiana. We’ve lost a lot of the population, but before that there were a lot of businesses here, a lot of things booming and turning, but right now we’re at the turn where a lot of people are realizing, like, what the neighborhood is worth. So, there’s a slow return in population here and economic development. At the same time, it’s still slow. So, yeah, I have Mizutani shears and this is the adjustable blade clipper. I was able to have an opportunity to open a business here. I left a very comfortable barbershop position at Soho House.
A Henkin: And that’s somewhere in downtown Chicago?
BP: Yeah, it’s in West Loop. So, I had an opportunity to open a shop here and just to start and spark economic development in the neighborhood. This is the Andis LI. It’s a liner. Man, talk about a leap of faith. It was faith and works. It was not just faith alone or anything blind. Everything was timed out, you know? I spoke to clients almost a year prior before opening about needing their support and folks traveling here. Most of my clients come from the West Loop, North Side, and downtown areas, River North, to come and support me and to continue to keep me as their barber getting their haircuts. So, the plan with that, even with my investors and friends involved, was to bring people to North Lawndale in order to help them see it and as things develop, they’re not afraid to come to the West Side, even though we have a bad reputation for violence and things like that, which is really real. However, it’s not as crazy as the news may make it, and so when you do come in—and we do need people to come into the communities—that lessens the violence and you know, when you bring in money to the community, that helps. The real science behind what helps a business is population and people, expendable income. You know, I price everything based on the population, how much the average price is, how much I need to survive here as a barber, what I was charging in the West Loop downtown to what’s being charged over here. I did down-price myself because haircuts were $42 where I worked, and so I decided to take a pay-cut to open up in my neighbor at $33. You know, that price came about just being above freezing, just so I can stay warm enough to make it. I’ve been wanting to do something different for so long, and do something that comes from me, because I know I’m from the neighborhood. Like, I can add to it too, so this is a pivotal moment for the community I think and I wanted to be a part of that and I had an opportunity to do it, and I’m grateful enough that things have not gone in the negative end. You know, I’ve been consistent and slowly growing, and just taking my time with understanding the time it takes to grow.
Alexie Young: I am Alexie Young. I’m the director at the MLK Exhibit Center, which is located at 1558 South Hamlin Avenue. In the 60s, Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife took up residency here at an apartment that, long ago, was knocked down. However, we’re at the same coordinates where that building was when he was fighting for housing equality and fighting against redlining, and he was here for a substantial amount of time, and a lot of people don’t know that he does have roots on the west side of Chicago in that way. What happens in this space is we get lots of visitors from all over Chicago to come and learn more about Dr. King’s time here, especially on the West Side. Alongside of the availability that we have to be open to the public for tours, we often host social events here for micro-entrepreneurs who are often looking for spaces to pop up and they need a venue. And the beauty is that North Lawndale is an up and coming neighborhood, but there’s not a lot of places that people can just come together and celebrate and enjoy each other’s company. Especially, I know millennials for certain, we’re often traveling outside of the neighborhood to find those cultural amenities such as galleries, you know, shops, you know, even things such as bars and pubs, those types of places. They’re not readily available inside of this neighborhood and we’re often economically taking our dollars outside of the neighborhood. So, it’s kind of cool when you have a micro-entrepreneur that’s utilizing this space to generate some income for themselves, generate visibility for their brand, but then it also provides an opportunity for people to come in and see what the West Side has to offer, and I think people quite pleased when they come into this space, they’re always leaving feeling like there was a sense of home, familial feeling.
A Henkin: This space is visually stunning. It’s like a one-room museum. You’ve got floor to ceiling black and white photos of Dr. Martin Luther King and other people from his era all over the walls. You have maps, you have informational plaques all over the walls. But it’s also a very smart, functional, multi-purpose event space, and one of the events you had here recently was karaoke night. Talk to me about karaoke night. I would qualify that as a success.
AY: [laughs] Yeah, we had an opportunity to host karaoke night and we had about fifty people in the space and what was beautiful is that there were a lot of people from the neighborhood but there were a lot of people that were not from the neighborhood, and to see people smiling, having fun… It is definitely inspiring. I was really blown away by some of the people who came to this space to really show up and show out. There was a lot of talent and seeing people get on stage and perform Etta James and all sorts of you know, Stevie Wonder, some really amazing, classic hits… You know, I think about what it means to be in this space in terms of history and how they always talk about his legacy. But I think a part of his legacy is bringing people together to celebrate what they all fought for.
Johnny Jones: I think it’s important to enjoy yourself. For instance, the karaoke night. It’s really simple and gets people out of their shell. My name is Johnny Jones. I am a resident of North Lawndale. I was born and raised in North Lawndale. So, I started a production company. It’s called The Lingo Chicago, and basically what we do is curate these experiences. We host pop ups in different parts of the city. It’s hard in this neighborhood to get people to actually come to events who actually live in the neighborhood because they’re so used to not having things go on in the neighborhood. And so it’s like when you’re trying to curate an event, there’s a lot of things you’ve gotta do well, like marketing, word of mouth. I mean, sometimes you’ve even gotta go out and put out fliers. There’s no bars here, there’s no bowling alleys here, there’s no whatever shopping centers here. Like, we don’t have that choice to even have any social component as far as going out to hang out with friends in my neighborhood, or inviting people to the bar on the corner, you know? Like, there’s not an option to do that. So, for me, I wanted to figure out ways to give people that choice back in the neighborhood, and even if that just meant making sure that we had an event going on in North Lawndale, you know, once a month or whatever the case may be that people know that this neighborhood isn’t forgotten about, you know, in a sense. People really look forward to the next event because life is full of stressors, so if you can come and let off some of that steam and come to an event where you’re just relaxed and you get to watch other people and perform and enjoy yourselves and meet new people and everybody’s like-minded, it’s a win-win.
Haman Cross: My name is Haman Cross III, and I am a resident artist, instructor, community member of North Lawndale. We’re on the west side of Chicago. We’re at Homan Square Foundation in the Nichols Tower, which was originally the Sears Tower on Arthington and Homan.
A Henkin: So, we’re about to head out of the tower here, take a walk around the neighborhood. Talk about where we’re going to go and what you’re going to show up.
HC: We’re going to go out on the Homan Square campus. Out here, we’re going to see an urban garden in North Lawndale, we’ll see some murals that were created by School of the Art Institute and DRW, which is a high school here that I’ve worked with. We’re also going to see Holy Family Christian School which is right here on the campus. There’s a YMCA, there’s Family Focus, which is another organization that serves the community. We’ll walk through and kind of see how this block is really a place where all of the community members here in North Lawndale can kind of come and find some type of service for their family.
A Henkin: As soon as we walk out of the door of the tower, you see you and your students’ work everywhere you look.
HC: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. It’s been another opportunity for us to beautify our neighborhood, something that we walk past every day, and take responsibility for what we see, be able to make a mark, be able to communicate messages through line and color and form. Right here, next to the parking lot, there’s a mural that we worked on where we were able to kind of make a comment about how sometimes, you know, there’s tears coming down and the tears are watering flowers and the flowers are growing, kind of like the trauma and pain maybe that we’ve experienced in our community sometimes can sprout beauty. Something beautiful can come from it. Right now, we’re behind Holy Family. You can hear the kids in the background over here, playing. Again, it’s a nice day in Chicago and when we get them—we go through some brutal winters—but when we get them, we take advantage.
A Henkin: Those kids sound like they’re having fun.
HC: Oh, yeah! I’ve lived all over Chicago. So, I’ve lived up north, I’ve lived down south, I’ve lived further west. Here, in North Lawndale, it’s been the first time it really felt like family, and as a result of working here and walking the streets and working with the students, I’ve been embraced as a family member and welcomed and they take care of me, you know, and in return I like to take care of them and shout them out. I love you, North Lawndale! I love you, Chicago! I love you, Homan Square! And I love the direction we’re going in.
Multiple Voices: You’ve been listening to Out of the Blocks from radio producer Aaron Henkin and music producer Wendel Patrick in collaboration with Bashirah Mack and WBEZ, with production assistance from WYPR Katie Marquette. You can podcast this series and check out photos online at wypr.org/outoftheblocks. Aaron and Wendel want to thank all of us who took a leap of faith and shared our stories and our lives. For WYPR and PRX, this is North Lawndale in Chicago’s West Side, signing off.
A Henkin: Coming up on the next episode of Out of the Blocks: Chicago, North Lawndale, part two.
Voice 1: I have kids in my classes who carry guns and, you know, they have their “ops,” right? The people they’re in conflict with, but at the end of the day, they want to pass their chemistry test.
Voice 2: Bullets have missed me by just a few inches. One of my childhood friends was murdered in front of me when I was twelve years old.
Voice 3: We decided to form the group Men Making A Difference, and said we wasn’t going to tolerate it no more. You see people coming through the alleyway with artillery? That’s when I stopped everybody, said, “Hold up.” Heaven and hell better open their gates because there’s gonna be a lot of us going, because we’re serious about this. They decided at that moment, it was time to talk.
A Henkin: More voices from North Lawndale on Chicago’s West Side, next time on Out of the Blocks. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts, the NEA, for making these Chicago episodes possible and thanks also to all of you who have left us reviews on Apple Podcasts. Your comments mean a lot and they help spread the word about Out of the Blocks and encourage new listeners to try out the podcast. We’re grateful to have you along with us, and we’ll do it again so. Thanks for listening. Out of the Blocks is supported by PRX and produced with grant funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Cohen Opportunity Fund, the Hoffberger Foundation, Patricia and Mark Joseph Shelter Foundation, Inc., the Kenneth S. Battye Charitable Trust, the Muse Web Foundation, and the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Portfolios, online at bakerartist.org.