The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
Laverne Williams would have turned 50 years old this year. But she was killed by a fire in her West Garfield Park apartment on January 27, 1988, when she was just 19. Before she died, she managed to pass her two younger children through the window to her brother, who was standing outside in the alley. They were badly burned, but they survived.
At the funeral, mourners talked about how devoted Laverne had been to her kids. “Laverne, she always watched her kids,” said her mother, Gloria. “If she didn’t have nobody to watch ’em and she goin’ somewhere, she’d take ’em with. The ones who go off and leave ’em, ain’t nothin’ happen to them.”
Steve Bogira’s story about Laverne’s death, “A Fire in the Family,” was ostensibly about the high incidence of fires in West Garfield Park: many apartment buildings were old and uncared-for, and residents had to resort to portable heaters and leaving ovens and stoves on to stay warm in the winter. It was, in fact, a kerosene heater that had caused the fire that killed Laverne Williams. But the story very quickly expanded into something much more.
Bogira tells the story of Laverne Williams’s life in almost novelistic detail, from her birth to her death, what it was like to be a girl in West Garfield Park in the 70s and 80s, growing up without a father, moving from apartment to apartment, sleeping cuddled up with your siblings to keep warm, ditching school to hang out with the boys by the viaduct, trying to figure out how to develop a marketable skill to get a job, hoping your own kids will be boys so you won’t have to raise your grandchildren.
Laverne’s story was tightly intertwined with the story of her family. It was a close-knit matriarchy, full of women who’d had babies too young—Laverne and her twin sister Lavette had been 13 when they’d gotten pregnant for the first time; Gloria had been 14—and dropped out of school to take care of them. It took some time, but they learned how to be good mothers. They lived on welfare. They spent any extra money they had on their kids.
Occasionally Bogira breaks into the narrative to throw in some statistics for context, or to describe the reaction of the neighbors to a strange white man parking on their street (they assume he wants sex or, more likely, drugs). Laverne, as it happens, was born on July 30, 1968, the day the city’s “open housing” ordinance, a gesture at ending redlining and housing segregation.
Garfield Park then was 98 percent black, 34 percent of its residents lived below the poverty line, and the area was marked by high rates of both early birth and early death. Nineteen and a half years later, Garfield Park is 99 percent black, more than 40 percent live in poverty, the early birth and death rates still soar, and Laverne Williams is a statistic, having contributed to both.
But in this story, Laverne is much more than that. She was a human being, sharp and rebellious and loving and devoted to her children, complicated like all of us, and very much a part of the neighborhood she was never able to leave while she was alive.