This article originally appeared in the Chicago Reader Volume 16, No. 11 on Friday, December 5, 1986. This online version has been updated to represent the Reader’s current style guidelines as of July 17, 2020.
Forty years ago last month, Ida Turner’s phone was ringing off the hook. “I understand you have a new baby,” the callers usually would begin. “If you love your baby, stay where you are.”
Some of the calls were more specific: direct threats on the life of Ida Turner, her husband, Theodore, and two-week-old Theodore Jr. The calls started coming as soon as word got out that the Turners, a Black family, were moving into West Lawn, an all-white neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side.
Like the vast majority of Chicago’s Blacks in 1946, the Turners were living in the “Black Belt,” a stretch of exhausted and teeming housing on the south side. Deaths from fires were common in these hazardous buildings, as were rats and roaches, rotten staircases, and crumbling plaster. The Turners were staying in a one-room kitchenette in a dilapidated converted hotel at 42nd and Wabash. Their bed folded into the wall; they shared the bathroom down the hall with the nine other families on their floor.
Theodore Turner had fought in Europe, and when he heard that temporary apartments were being built for veterans by the Chicago Housing Authority, he applied. The apartments were modest—four rooms in barracks-style from buildings slapped together on vacant lots. But they were inexpensive, and compared to places available in the Black Belt, they were dream houses. When the Turners were told there was a place for them at “Airport Homes” near Midway Airport, they did not hesitate to sign a lease. The area around the two-square-block project at 60th and Kedvale—all of West Lawn (bounded by Cicero and Central Park, 59th and 76th)—was as white as the driven snow, the people at the CHA office reminded the Turners, and there might be trouble. But the Turners weren’t worrying much; they’d show their new neighbors how friendly and responsible they were, and then surely they’d be accepted. If the Turners weren’t thinking straight, it’s because they were giddy with anticipation: how nice it was going to be to have four rooms and their very own toilet, sink, and tub.
But the Turners never got to live in Airport Homes. When Theodore Turner visited the project to check out the family’s new apartment, he was turned away by a mob of West Lawn residents who wielded baseball bats and hurled rocks and insults. Two other Black veterans and their families actually lived in Airport Homes for two months—before the West Lawn welcoming committee finally convinced them life could be finer elsewhere.
The city’s newspapers, fearing citywide rioting, gave Airport Homes only limited coverage. Still, word got out on the southwest side about how a neighborhood had turned away the Blacks; West Lawn’s successful resistance became a model for other white neighborhoods. “Everyone said, ‘That’s one of the things about the people out there—they stuck together and they got ‘em out; it could happen anywhere if people just stuck together,’” says a woman whose late father-in-law passed petitions and helped organize neighborhood residents against the Black veterans. (She prefers anonymity.)
“I think the people said, ‘Good—stand up for your rights, that’s what you’re supposed to do, that’s what we fought wars for,’” says Joseph Rogul, 58, who in 1946 was living with his parents down the street from the project, and who lives in the same house today. “Somebody’s got to respect the damn public’s opinion—you people [in the media] don’t, the government don’t.”
Following West Lawn’s lead, whites in Roseland revolted the following year when the CHA moved Blacks into a veterans’ project in their neighborhood. That disturbance, though more violent, was less successful: the neighborhood wasn’t able to toss out its unwanted new residents.
But the confrontations in West Lawn and Roseland ultimately accomplished something more important for Chicago’s whites. The city was about to embark on a massive public housing program that threatened to alter Chicago’s segregated status. The displays of racial hatred by whites helped persuade city officials to keep that public housing, and its Black occupants, quarantined in the ghetto, where it wouldn’t infect the city’s good, white neighborhoods, or anger their voters.
Quite an achievement for the neighborhood that led the way—West Lawn, then and now a modest community of single-family, owner-occupied brick homes. “We love peace and quiet, don’t want nobody to bother us—leave us alone, everything is fine,” Rogul says. Less notorious than nearby Marquette Park, West Lawn is rarely in the news and likes it that way. It makes headlines about once a decade, when a small plane misses Midway and crashes into the kitchen or living room of one of its homes, lowering the property’s value almost as much as new Black neighbors would. The Airport Homes affair was West Lawn’s brief moment in the limelight: the neighborhood’s stand against Blacks catapulted it into the national affairs columns of Time magazine. Soon after, West Lawn slipped gladly back into oblivion.
The stand against Blacks could have been taken in almost any southwest-side neighborhood, really—in West Elsdon, Archer Heights, Brighton Park, McKinley Park, Clearing. Like the others, West Lawn is predominantly Polish, Catholic, and blue-collar. It votes regular Democratic, dependably and heavily (in ‘83, its ward—the 13th—gave Washington 1,500 votes and Epton 35,000). Most important, these neighborhoods have long been as white as they come. They ranged between 99.4 and 100 percent white in the 1940 and ‘50 censuses. The proportion of Chicago’s population that is Black has more than tripled since (from 13 percent in 1950 to 41 percent today). Yet these six communities remain 99 percent-plus white, according to the 1980 census. That census showed more than 113,000 whites living in these areas, along with 111 Blacks. You could put all the Blacks in these six communities on two buses—which a southwest-sider might be inclined to do, and send them back to Mississippi (though I no longer live there I was raised in West Lawn, and found such sentiments to be rude and not the exception).
West Lawn’s Hispanic population, though minuscule (2 percent in the ‘80 census), is growing. “I don’t know exactly the houses,” Rogul says, “but they’re close, very close.”
In the years right after World War II, Chicago’s leaders were making decisions that would entrench the city’s housing patterns for decades. “The postwar era provided, theoretically at least, an opportunity for dismantling, instead of expanding, the ghetto,” wrote Arnold Hirsch in his ‘83 book, Making the Second Ghetto. When Chicago’s elected officials used their powers to sanction and support segregation, noit eradicate it, they could say accurately that they were merely following the wishes of the vast majority of their constituents. But even more progressive leaders would have trouble selling whites on integration because of the fervency with which it was opposed, as demonstrated in West Lawn.
Chicago remains almost completely segregated 40 years later; in October, a University of MIchigan demographer who has been studying neighborhood population patterns in major cities ranked Chicago and Detroit as the nation’s most segregated cities. On a scale of zero to 100, with zero representing complete integration and 100 complete segregation, Chicago and Detroit got 88s.
The need for changing this pattern remains great, in terms of housing alone. Many Blacks are living in overcrowded or substandard housing in Chicago today, according to a study published in September by the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities; this, even though the city has a surplus of decent housing. The problem is decent places are in white areas, whose residents either won’t rent or sell to Blacks or have persuaded them not to look in their neighborhoods. Because of this discrimination, middle-class Black families are as likely as poor as white families to living in substandard housing.
In some ways, Chicago today is again ripe for change. Whites aren’t streaming out of Chicago as rapidly now and Blacks aren’t streaming in, and the Black birth rate has slowed; so the proportion of Blacks in the city is growing at a slower rate than at any time this century. (It rose just 2 percentage points, from 39 to 41 percent, in the first half of this decade, according to city estimates. The city now is 43 percent white and Asian and 16 percent Hispanic.) Social scientists have suggested that when Black migration and population growth diminish, the pressure for rapid racial change may ease and the chances for integration might rise.
A University of Chicago study in 1984 showed Chicago actually had a few stably integrated census tracts—tracts with a small or moderate proportion of Blacks in 1970, whose Black population was still moderate in ‘80. HIstorically, tracts with a few Blacks in one census have always been nearly all-Black by the next.
But most of these census tracts were near downtown or college campuses. If more than a token amount of integration is to succeed in Chicago, it will have to be accepted by whites who live in neighborhoods like West Lawn—where Blacks are still “coloreds”—have racial attitudes changed any since Airport Homes?
Joseph Rogul’s late father, Anton, was arrested with three other West Lawn residents during the Airport Homes disturbance for allegedly stoning a truck occupied by two of the Black veterans who were moving in. The disorderly conduct charges were later dropped, and Rogul says his father, though absolutely opposed to Blacks in West Lawn, was innocent of the charges. But Joseph Rogul feels no less strongly about Blacks moving into West Lawn today. “Why couldn’t they live here? Because they are quite different. They live differently. I don’t want my next-door neighbor roasting a pig in his bathtub, for instance. Hey, why don’t you take a couple in to live with you? And adapt to their style. I associate with people who live like I do.”
But surely some Blacks want to live the kind of quiet, clean, respectable life that Rogul says is the norm in West Lawn; the Blacks who were chased out of Airport Homes were veterans, after all, one of them with four battle stars. Rogul: “Ok, that’s one. How about the 39 others that would cut my throat when I walk near 63rd and Cottage Grove, huh?”
Forty years ago, Blacks and whites lived separate lives by day as well as night. The schools were as segregated as the neighborhoods, and, except for menial jobs, so were workplaces. Blacks couldn’t get served in some restaurants in white areas, and in downtown movie theaters they were confined to the balconies. They shopped in their own neighborhoods.
Today, the public schools are a little more integrated because of busing (though plenty of whites ditched those schools for white parochial ones). Blacks have advanced in the workplace, and are more likely to work alongside whites. They shop and dine almost everywhere.
You’d expect that whites might be more comfortable around Blacks by now, perhaps a little less scared by them. And maybe that has happened somewhat.
But on the southwest side this has been offset by four decades of evidence of the harm that usually results when Blacks move into a neighborhood. Southwest-siders have watched white neighborhoods topple like dominoes—Woodlawn, South Shore, Greater Grand Crossing, Englewood, and West Englewood to name a few; watched them change from white to Black, from middle-class to poor, from safe to dangerous, from neat and trim to eyesores. “Take a ride down 67th Street,” Rogul suggests. “Start at Pulaski and go east, and keep an eye on the homes as you go. Go to Ashland at least. And watch the hedges, how these people you defend and I loathe—I don’t loathe them, they deserve a place to live, but—they don’t cut their hedges the same way we do. Now, you’re gonna tell me you can go to 72nd and Damen [a middle-class Black area] and see the nice, well-kept bungalows there—yes, there are some. . .” His voice trails off.
Don’t waste your breath making socio-economic excuses to Rogul; he wasn’t born yesterday. The deterioration in Chicago’s south-side neighborhoods wasn’t caused by panic-peddling realtors ot the panicky whites who fled, nor by years of discrimination and poverty. “Oh, come on, come on—poverty my foot. Their welfare checks are more than I make, for chrissake.” I asked if he made less than $154 a month—Illinois’ general assistance grant. “Yeah, and what else—how many checks are they gettin’? Hey, they’re driving better cars than I am.”
West Lawn is not today on the verge of racial change. The houses there are still worth something, the streets still clean, the alleys graffiti free (except for an occasional swastika).
But West Lawn residents have lost that comforting feeling of having several whole communities between then and the encroaching Black tide. Blacks long ago crossed Halsted; then Racine, Ashland, Damen, and now—God!—Western. They’re just a mile and a half from West Lawn now; when you hear “It’s just a matter of time” here, they’re not talking about nuclear devastation. “You know, Kedzie Avenue’s giving in,” Rogul says. “Yeah, east of Kedzie’s deteriorating fast. Central Park will be the last barrier, and then slowly we will all fall, and you people will be happy as a lark, and you can live right with everybody there. No, I won’t go to the south suburbs, I don’t know where I’ll go—go to some little isolated spot where there ain’t no local government, where I can live in peace with very few people.”
Before the turn of the century, Blacks in Chicago were few in number—14,000 in 1890, or about 1 percent of the city’s population—and scattered throughout the city. From 1890 through 1930, though, southern Blacks flocked to northern cities. The boll weevil had depressed southern agriculture, and Blacks headed north looking for work, particularly when World War I and immigration restrictions caused labor shortages in the cities. By 1930, Chicago’s population had swelled to 234,000.
As early as 1900 a Black Belt was identifiable, with the vast majority of Blacks living in a south-side ghetto three miles long and just a quarter mile wide, hemmed in by railroad tracks. By 1920, 85 percent of the city’s Blacks lived in the Belt, which then stretched from 22nd to 55th, between Cottage Grove and Wentworth. Smaller colonies of Blacks lived farther south and on the west side.
The Depression slowed the rate at which Blacks moved to Chicago, but the huge influx resumed in the 40s. The number of places for them to stay, however, wasn’t increasing at all. The building industry had been idled by the Depression; the few houses that were built in Chicago went up in white areas on the outskirts of the city, while in the Black Belt only bulldozers were active, leveling several thousand dilapidated tenements.
By 1946 the Black Belt stretched from 22nd to about 67th, still roughly between Cottage Grove and Wentworth. Housing was scarce citywide even before the war ended, and the shortage was exacerbated by the return of veterans, but the problem for whites was mild compared to that of Blacks. An estimated 375,000 were living in the Black Belt, which was equipped to house 110,000. The infant mortality rate was 16 percent higher in the area than the median for the city; the Belt’s tuberculosis rate was twice as high. Garbage collections did not keep pace with the need, and rats proliferated.
The housing was old and deteriorating. There was such a demand for it, though, that landlords didn’t have to make repairs to get or keep tenants. Many of the apartments lacked plumbing, cooking facilities, and dependable heat. The only thing not substandard about the apartments was the rent: because of the demand, welfare recipients in the Black Belt were charged rents two and three times as high as white welfare recipients had to pay elsewhere in the city.
Realtors kept Blacks sealed up in the Belt; segregation was their avowed policy. College real estate courses and texts emphasized that Black families hurt property values when they were allowed to move into white neighborhoods. From 1935 to ‘49, the Federal Housing Administration and the Home Loan Bank Board advocated restrictive covenants.
Since white neighborhoods elsewhere were closed to Blacks, Chicago’s burgeoning Black population was left mostly to expand the Belt, notch by notch. Blacks moved into adjacent neighborhoods to the south, west, and east, where they were usually greeted with bricks and bombs. Housing had become the chief cause of racial friction by the late 40s, and most incidents occurred on the fringes of the Black Belt. Then violence typically peaked in the spring and fall—the traditional moving seasons.
Whites who aided Blacks were also targets of violence. In September of ‘46, a white Army officer allowed a Black Army office to stay overnight in his home at 80th and Parnell. The two had served together in the war, and the Black officer was visiting from out of town. Word got out in the neighborhood, and soon a mob was stoning the home, smashing windows, and yelling, “Lynch the nigger lover.”
In 1946, circumstances forced Chicago to change its Jim Crow housing, albeit slightly. Responding to the dearth of housing for returning veterans, and public pressure to do something about it, the City Council authorized the Chicago Housing Authority to build and manage, under a federal contract, temporary housing for veterans. Since the housing had to be built quickly, only sites already vacant could be used, and most of these sites were in white neighborhoods. But 20 percent of Chicago’s veterans in need of housing were Blacks, and the federal government insisted that Blacks get a fair proportion of the temporary housing. The city had no choice but to offer some apartments in the projects in white areas to Blacks.
The projects were built on 21 sites in 11 wards. The CHA decided to house Blacks only in the larger projects—with 150 units or more—to reduce the number of potential trouble spots. Although CHA administrators and city officials were concerned about the reactions in the white areas, some of them believed there’d be a minimum of opposition. The housing was only temporary, and it could be presumed that the Blacks would move away after a few years; even in the largest projects, the number of Blacks would be small; prospective Black tenants would be screened with special care; and they were, after all, veterans.
The first biracial project, Sauganash Homes, opened early in ‘46, at Foster and Cicero. Word got out before the project opened that Blacks would be among the tenants, and neighborhood groups complained, but the first two Black families moved in in March without incident. By the end of the year, there were 13 Black families among the 180 in Sauganash Homes; all was peaceful in the project and the neighborhood. A second biracial project—Ashburn Homes—opened in mid-‘46 at 79th and Kostner. Again, there was grumbling in the neighborhood but there were no incidents once the few Black families moved in. The project was in an isolated area of the neighborhood, not adjacent to any residential streets.
When plans were announced for Airport Homes, the same racial concerns quickly surfaced in West Lawn. Neighbors passed petitions opposing the project. The city’s Commission on Human Relations (CHR) talked to union leaders, veterans’ groups, and local ministers, trying to enlist support for the project in the neighborhood, but this effort was in vain; hardly anyone could be found in West Lawn who was sympathetic to the idea of Blacks living there, even if they were veterans, even if it was only temporary.
The project was mostly finished in September, and by the end of October, 127 of the 186 apartments were occupied, all by white veterans and their families. The CHA hadn’t finished screening Blacks for the project, and therefore delayed assigning the remaining apartments.
On the night of November 4—the eve of an election day—a group of veterans who were living in the neighborhood—most of them doubled up in the homes of parents or in-laws—walked into the office of the project’s caretaker, took the keys to the vacant apartments off a wall rack, and began opening doors. According to Time: “Two cops drove up, observed the proceedings, and went into the caretaker’s office to keep warm. Since the veterans were deserving 13th Ward boys, no 13th Ward politician was inclined to disturb them. In fact, a few precinct captains hurried around to help. Nobody interfered as the squatters began bringing furniture and clothes and getting their wives and children settled.” It was, according to Time, “the first organized outbreak of squatting in the U.S. since the housing crisis began.”
Most observers at the time felt the squatters were motivated primarily by their own housing needs, but that the neighborhood and its politicians supported the action because it kept Blacks out. The police made no attempt to remove the squatters. The CHA tried to persuade them to leave, but they didn’t move out until several were served with warrants in mid-November.
As the squatters left, the CHA began renting the vacant apartments. One of the veterans who was notified he could have an apartment was Theodore Turner. He signed a lease and said he planned to move his things in on Saturday, November 16.
Early that afternoon, Turner, accompanied by several other veterans, white and Black, came to the project to survey the situation. A small crowd was waiting in front of the apartment he and his family were to occupy; as soon as Turner showed up, the crowd began to swell. Turner and his friends went to the apartment of Ernest Masur, chairman of the project’s tenants’ council, whio allowed them to take cover there. The crowd waited outside, shouting insults. Turner said he wanted to leave the area and asked for police protection. A police guard escorted him and his companions out of Masur’s apartment, through a screaming mob that was pushing in on them. According to the story in the Chicago Defender written by Vernon Jarrett (now a Sun-Times columnist), members of the mob were shouting, “Hitler was right!” and “Run the Black bastards out of the country!” Turner, Jarrett wrote, told the mob: “I fought fascism three years in Italy and I was glad to risk my life for my country. And you won’t stop me from having a home.”
Police squad cars then escorted Turner and the veterans who had accompanied him out of the neighborhood. Soon after, a CHA official who was trying to drive away from the project had his car tipped over by members of the mob. Police officers stood nearby, but didn’t interfere and arrested no one. (The official was shaken up, but not injured.) Only when it started to rain heavily and turn cold did the crowd disperse. But some remained, keeping an eye on Turner’s apartment from their parked cars, because rumor had it Turner would return after dark to move in. In truth, Turner had decided he wanted no part of Airport Homes. He returned his key to a CHA official that night.
Warmed by bonfires, neighbors guarded the Turner apartment throughout Saturday night and Sunday. Sunday evening, a new squatter moved in. A crowd gathered in front of the Masurs’ apartment and yelled anti-Semitic taunts; Masur and his wife decided to leave for a few days.
Two weeks later, the CHA had made no new attempts to move Blacks into Airport Homes. But some apartments remained vacant, and neighbors expected it was just a matter of time before the CHA tried to move in another Black. Mayor Edward Kelly had said as much; in response to requests from several race-relations groups, Kelly had on November 20 released a statement fully supporting the CHA’s policy of selecting families for the veterans’ projects “on the basis of need. . .without regard to race, creed, or color.”
On Tuesday, December 3, four busloads of West Lawn residents attended the regularly scheduled City Council meeting. Their alderman, Michael Hogan, introduced resolutions calling for the CHA to be brought under the authority of the mayor and City Council, and for the council to investigate the dispute at Airport Homes. The resolutions were referred to the council’s Housing Committee. The West Lawn delegation threw the council chambers into an uproar and forced the chair of that committee to schedule an emergency hearing for that afternoon.
At the hearing, Alderman Hogan and several leaders of neighborhood groups presented the West Lawn point of view: that only neighborhood veterans should be selected for the project. Leaders of several citywide progressive groups followed, supporting the CHA’s tenant-selection policy amid boos and catcalls from the West Lawn contingent, and saying hatred of Blacks was at the root of West Lawn’s opposition. CHA Executive Secretary Elizabeth Wood testified that it wasn’t possible to reverse the project for neighborhood veterans, since 39 wards had no such projects. There were only 3,400 units in the program citywide, Wood said, and the CHA had received 25,000 applications for them.
The committee’s chair said the committee would consider the testimony, but no vote was taken on Hogan’s resolutions. West Lawn residents went home disappointed; the threat of Blacks moving in still hung over their neighborhood.
The day after the City Council meeting, the CHA authorized 30 families, including 6 Black ones, to move into Airport Homes.
Some of the white families began moving in on Thursday morning, December 5. A crowd of 200 gathered across the street from the project office—housewives primarily, some with small children, along with elderly men; most of the younger men in the neighborhood were at work. The crowd booed and cussed the police officers who were on hand. According to a report later filed by the Commission on Human Relations, rumors were circulating in the crowd that day that greedy Jewish realtors, who wanted to profit from rapid racial change in the neighborhood, were behind the attempt to bring Blacks in.
Just before noon, John Fort and Letholian Waddles, two of the Black veterans who had been authorized to move into the project, arrived in a truck. Fort, 29, had earned four battle stars in the war and had fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He and his wife were living in a one-room apartment in the Black Belt, and they were being threatened with eviction because they were expecting a child imminently. Waddles, 20, had served in the Philippines. He and his wife and two small children were living in a five-room flat with seven others.
The truck carried some of their furniture and four of their friends—all Black—who were planning to help with the move. The truck was quickly pelted with rocks and its windshield smashed. The driver, Waddle’s brother-in-law, pulled it into the project and parked it, and Waddles and Fort, escorted by CHA officials, went to the project office to get the keys to their apartments.
The crowd pressed against police and pushed its way across the street, continuing to shower rocks, sticks, and clumps of mud on the truck. “A great many women were in the front ranks of the mob and began to fight with the policemen, kicking and scratching and slapping at them,” according to the commission’s report. Police reinforcements were called for. Several white ministers, on hand because trouble had been expected, volunteered to carry in the furniture for Fort and Waddles, since it would have been impossible for the Blacks to do so safely themselves. The ministers unloaded the truck and moved the furniture in under a continuing hail of rocks and slurs. The police made no arrests.
Behind a police escort, Fort and Waddles and their companions made it safely out of the project. But the crowd trapped another Black, a leader of a veterans’ organization, in his car on a street bordering the project, tipping his car over before police intervened. The car’s occupant injured his back and was shaken up, but not seriously hurt. A Unitarian minister who had helped move the Blacks’ furniture later found his car on its side where he had parked it, several blocks away.
Even though Fort and Waddles were gone from the scene, the mob swelled to several thousand that evening, and 200 police officers had to surround the project to keep the crowd out. The Fire Department stationed equipment at the project, because of widespread rumors that an attempt would be made to burn it down. Rain finally helped disperse the crowd.
By Friday, the four other black families had informed the CHA they would take a pass on Airport Homes. But Fort and Waddles hadn’t surrendered; they returned to the project on Friday to arrange their furniture. Again, the crowd grew rapidly after their arrival (by police escort), and stoned the police wagon that carried them out of the project a short time later.
That evening, the mob—several thousand again—watched quietly as a four-foot-high wooden cross was doused with gasoline and burned in a vacant lot across the street. Members of the mob tried tipping over a squad car, and police fought them off with nightsticks. Six members of the mob and two police officers were treated at hospitals for minor injuries.
Fort and Waddles returned Monday afternoon with the rest of their belongings. Their truck and several police cars were stoned once again on the way out. The police arrested five in the crowd—the only arrests they were to make during the entire Airport Homes disturbance—and charged them with disorderly conduct, charges that were later dropped.
On Tuesday Fort and Waddles began living at Airport Homes, and on Wednesday they were joined by their families.
With each passing day, the crowds at the project grew smaller. But life was hardly normal for Fort and Waddles and their families. Their main problem was not the veterans inside the project but the people in the neighborhood, who continued to scream epithets when one of the Black residents stepped outside. Fort and Waddles and their families always needed a police escort to leave or return to the project, and required an around-the-clock police guard near their apartments. Some determined neighbors continued to gather nightly and march noisily around the project, carrying signs that read “Down With Communism” and “Fight for Americanism.” Milk and coal companies that made deliveries to other project residents refused to deliver to the Forts and Waddleses, until the city intervened. They could not shop in the neighborhood; store owners would not wait on them.
Newspaper editorials and civic and religious groups hailed Fort and Waddles and their families for their courage. But there was no applause in West Lawn. To remind the civic leader and city officials that there had been no change of heart in the area, a neighborhood businessmen’s group sent them a resolution it had recently adopted. The practice of mixing “colored” families with white, the resolution said, was “sponsored by persons who are attempting to foment race riots to break down our form of government and substitute their form of totalitarianism, and. . . by over-zealous idealists who lack realism, such as the white minister who, on Sunday, calls upon his church members to contribute to a fund for enlarging the church and, on Monday, personally carries the furniture of a colored family into a home in the midst of the homes of his church members, thereby depreciating the value of the home of the members if his church whom he expects to furnish the money to build the new church.” It recommended that “colored people. . .be encouraged to practice thrift and become members of their own Savings and Loan Associations and thereby learn the reasons why the white people place such great emphasis on the maintenance of the value of their homes.” And it recommended that overcrowded “colored” areas be allowed to expand, but only into adjacent neighborhoods, and only with the “coloreds” buying white homes a whole block at a time.
At about 2 AM on Saturday, February 15, four bullets crashed into the Forts’ apartment. The shots shattered a window and a glass table lamp, the fragments and shards splattering on the Forts’ six-week-old baby’s crib. A few minutes earlier, Mildred Fort had happened to take the baby out of the crib and into bed with her. (John Fort—a railroad dining car waiter—was at work out of town.) Another bullet penetrated the wall right above her bed. Eight police officers were supposed to be on duty nearby and paying special attention to the Forts’ apartment, but the offender sped away in a car and was never apprehended.
A few days later, Fort and Waddles and their families moved out of Airport Homes. West Lawn residents did not interfere with their leaving.
“It all seems like a bad dream,” Ida Turner says about her brush with the southwest side 40 years ago. “I felt terrible—I was angry and hurt. I had heard about prejudice—I had read about things happening to other people—but nothing had ever happened to me. It left a cold, harsh feeling for a while—for quite a while I carried a grudge against all white people.”
Turner, 60, lives with a son in an apartment in Englewood. Her husband died in ‘68. She is a light-skinned, blue-eyed Black who speaks softly and smiles regularly. She works half-time, visiting sick and elderly shut-ins for a YMCA. Turner is a Mennonite, and her living room walls hold small banners with inspirational messages: “Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence,” reads one. “As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.”
The hostility at Airport Homes stung her, but she felt even worse for her husband. “I thought of my husband returning home from the war, and of so many of my schoolmates who fought and didn’t come back, or who came back but were never the same. And then to have people tell you, ‘You can’t live here,’ because of your color—it left a worse scar with him, because he was a veteran.” The Turners were aware some white organizations elsewhere in the city were trying to support them, “but they didn’t succeed, and even though they tried, what really stood out was the evil and hatred that the whites were able to get away with.”
After they were shoved away from Airport Homes, the CHA found an apartment for the Turners in another veterans’ project at 96th and State, this one all Black. They lived there two years, then moved to the west side. In ‘67 they moved to the three-flat in Englewood in which Ida now lives. The block was mostly white then, but it became Black overnight. “It changed for the same reason they all changed,” Turner says. “When Black people move in, the white people split.” Wieboldt’s, Sears, and the other name stores split too; the neighborhood quickly declined. Her building and block are in good shape, but there are abandoned buildings and poor families all around her.
Ida got to know whites in church, and worked with them at Western Electric, 22nd and Cicero (where she tested resistors). “We worked side by side, we talked, we laughed, we got to be friends,” she says, “and eventually I got over that old grudge—I began to look at people as people.” Her husband, though, never put Airport Homes behind him. “He carried that scar all the way through life. He would say to friends: ‘Man, this country’s no good—you go to war and you fight, and what happens when you come home, you’re not even a first-class citizen.’ Even to death he wasn’t crazy about white people.”
The Turners never told their children what had happened to them at Airport Homes. “It wouldn’t have helped any,” Ida says. “It would have only made them bitter. We have enough prejudice and evil thinking—it doesn’t do any good to kindle it.”
Does she see much change for Blacks in 40 years? “Blacks have gotten better jobs, they’ve joined unions,” she says. “We have more organizations now working against segregation. We used to not be able to push—everything turned out like Airport Homes did. Now, if somebody wants to fight, the fight is a little easier.
“But it’s nothing that’s been done voluntarily—it’s not better as far as the feelings are concerned,” she says. “Because as soon as we move next door, they go farther.”
John Fort died in 1981. According to his death certificate, he jumped in front of a CTA train on New Year’s Day. He had been living at the Washington Park YMCA on South Indiana. The death certificate says his wife is also deceased.
Letholian Waddles, 60 now, lives in Chaparral, New Mexico. He left Chicago in 1950 and rejoined the Army, working in food service. His Army career has included tours in Korea and Vietnam. Today he is a food service sergeant at an academy for noncommissioned officers in El Paso, Texas.
What he remembers first about Airport Homes is the heavy accent of many of those who were screaming at him to leave. “A lot of the people were Polish refugees. I was saying to myself, ‘I was born and raised in this country, and a lot of them ain’t never done anything here, and they standin’ there tellin’ me where I should live.’ I figured they should know how I felt because of how they had been treated by the Germans. But they forgot about that when the shoe was on the other foot.”
He and his family were treated decently by most of the veterans in the project, he says; some, knowing the Waddleses couldn’t shop in the neighborhood, picked things up at the store for them.
The police weren’t as kind. “If it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t have to be out here in the cold,” those standing guard outside often told him. “Why don’t you just go on back where you came from?” Having to rely on a police escort in and out of the neighborhood was an indignity he felt he didn’t deserve: the neighbors were committing crimes, her thought, but he had to ride in the paddy wagon.
One night, he recalls, he was called to the phone at the stockyards, where he worked. It was his wife; her voice was shaky. The lights had gone out in their apartment—the fuse box was outside and apparently someone had cut their electricity. Now she was hearing an occasional pounding on the front door from someone trying to break in. She had called the police, who were at the project office a hundred yards away, but no one had come to help. Waddles left work and rode two streetcars to his mother’s house, where he tried to convince friends to give him a weapon. “They wouldn’t give me anything because they figured I was gonna get in trouble,” he says. “I’m glad now they didn’t—I was so mad that night, I probably would have done something I’d be very sorry for today.” He didn’t bother calling police for an escort; he rode the streetcar all the way into West Lawn. When I got off that night, I was determined that if anyone messed with me, I was going to either hurt them or get hurt myself—because they were messin’ with my family.” He didn’t run into anyone, however. His family was OK, although his wife was terrified. When he arrived home, the police hadn’t yet made it to the apartment.
In some ways Waddles hated to leave; it meant the West Lawn residents and their hatred had triumphed. “We had fought a losing battle, that’s what it felt like,” he says. “It made us feel empty, that they could do what they did, and nothing’ be done about it.”
The CHA found a place for the Waddleses in Ashburn Homes on 79th. Waddles joined a dozen other Black families on the predominantly white veterans’ project. They had no trouble the year and a half they lived there.
Waddles didn’t care for Poles much after Airport Homes. The animosity dissipated over the years of working with whites, some of them Polish. “You can’t go around years and years with a chip on your shoulder,” he says.
There are Poles in the area where he now lives, as well as Japanese, Mexicans, Italians, Germans, and other Blacks. “You don’t have a Black side of town and a white side of town like in Chicago,” he says. The people get along fine; he likes living in an integrated area.
He still has family in Chicago, and visits about once a year. “I like seeing that there are neighborhoods in Chicago now where Blacks live that they wouldn’t dare live in when I was there—South Chicago, some places on the north side. I believe that some of that stems from what I did. We weren’t successful at Airport Homes, but in other places after us people did stand up for their rights and they did break through. So I figure it wasn’t a complete waste—at least we brought it to the attention of the people.”
The biggest change in 40 years, he thinks, is not among whites but Blacks. “Blacks understand a lot more now—they’re not gonna take as much as I did,” he says. He didn’t get much backing from other Blacks when he was being harassed at Airport Homes—most told him he shouldn’t be over there in the first placed. “Somebody has to break the ice,” he’d respond.
“I wasn’t asking for the world,” Waddles says. “I just wanted some better housing for my family.”
No Blacks ever again attempted to move into Airport Homes. But Blacks continued to apply for subsequent CHA projects in white neighborhoods. Some were crusaders who wanted to force the discrimination issue; most simply needed housing desperately enough to risk the violence whites might aim at them.
In the first half of 1947, several more biracial veterans’ projects opened peacefully on the north and west sides. But the CHA’s next project—Fernwood Park, near 103rd and Halsted, in the Roseland neighborhood—promised trouble months before it opened in August. Roseland residents made clear their feelings about the project in letters to the editor in local newspapers. “If we have to have a chowdown with them [Blacks] to protect our home and families, I’m in favor of it,” wrote a Chicago police officer to the Calumet Index. “God knows I wouldn’t want one alongside me.” Blacks “want the bright lights and a bottle—not a quiet life,” the police officer wrote.
“We all want to protect our home, and the people of this community will put up a stout fight,” warned the area’s alderman, Reginald DuBois of the Ninth Ward, at a community meeting.
Eight of the first 52 families to move into Fernwood Park were Black. The night the project opened, it was surrounded by a jeering mob of 5,000; the next night, violence broke out. Unable to shove their way past and enter the project, members of the mob headed into the streets to the east, north, and south, stoning cars with Black occupants, pulling Blacks off of streetcars and beating them. Rioting continued for two more nights, with 1,000 police dispatched to the area. A group of Blacks planning to march into the area to retaliate were persuaded not to at last minute by church leaders. “Few Chicagoans know how close to the disaster of unrestrained rioting the city stood during those trying nights,” the Commission on Human Relations later reported. More than 100 arrests were made; no confirmed figures were released as to the number injured. A force of 700 police officers patrolled the area for two weeks, and a heavy police presence had to be maintained for six months to safely establish the Black families in the project.
Just as Airport Homes had emboldened the people of Roseland, the confrontations at Airport Homes and Fernwood Park, together, emboldened south-side aldermen, who were in control of the council. Their constituents had spoken: they wanted Blacks for neighbors about as much as they wanted lepers. The aldermen were only too glad to follow this dictate.
Thus, in early ‘48, when the federal government was finishing plans for a huge federal housing program to be administered by local housing authorities, the City Council included Springfield to grant the governing bodies of “all cities having a population of 500,000 or more” veto power over the location of public housing sites. The CHA had been brought under the thumb of the council.
The Housing Act of 1949 provided for the construction of 810,000 low income units nationwide. Because the housing shortage here was so acute, the federal government reserved 21,000 units for Chicago—more than for any other city in the country. The CHA in 1950 proposed a variety of sites throughout the city for the new housing; the City Council blocked nearly all proposed sites in white areas. If the CHA was going to provide a lot of new housing for Chicago’s poor, it would have to build it in high-rise, high density projects in the slums. Because of the plight of residents in the Black Belt, the CHA reluctantly chose to do so.
West Lawn residents eventually got what they had wanted: an all-white Airport Homes, and a CHA bossed by the more trustworthy City Council. Even the trouble-making Elizabeth Wood was forced out of her job as head of the CHA in ‘54, when she persisted in trying to foster integration in CHA projects.
The slum-site, high-rise projects really were a product of the disturbances at Airport Homes, Wood told an interviewer in ‘53. Had whites in West Lawn, and then in Roseland, shown less animosity toward the handful of Blacks who tried to live there, the CHA might have retained its independence, picked its own sites, and avoided building the ghetto monstrosities. But the whites didn’t react that way. Robert Taylor Homes, Cabrini-Green, Henry Horner, Rockwell Gardens, and the other projects that were built in the 50s and have festered for decades in Chicago are then, in part, a legacy of Airport Homes—West Lawn’s gift to the city.
The temporary veterans’ homes had outlived their need by the early 50s, and were torn down. The onetime site of Airport Homes is a park today, owned by the Board of Education and unnamed. It mostly sits idle; there aren’t many children in the neighborhood to use the swings and slides. The population of West Lawn, like that of most of the southwest side, is aging: the median age is 40, far above the city median of 29; 16 percent of West Lawn residents are 65 or older, compared with 11 percent citywide. Houses here used to be kept in the family, handed down to sons and daughters who raised their own families in them. But since the 70s, the children have been deserting for the suburbs, following the jobs, moving to where the schools are white.
Some of those who live near the former site of Airport Homes were here 40 years ago. None I spoke with acknowledged playing an active role on the disturbance, but all recalled it—though their recollections weren’t always accurate. “You had an awful lot of colored trying to get in here at the same time, I remember that,” says Henry Gornman, a retired tool and die worker in his 70s who has lived for 50 years on the 5900 block of South Kedvale down the street from where Airport Homes was located. Why was the neighborhood resistant to blacks? Gorman finds the question astonishing. “Why? You want to have Blacks move in with you? This is a white neighborhood. Always was!”
Raymond Gornicz, 61, has lived on the 5900 block of South Karlov for 40 years. His parents bought the house on Karlov during World War II, while Gornicz was in the service. He agreed with the neighborhood protestors who organized to expel the Black veterans; he didn’t want his folks’ new investment to go sour. The Black veterans “had places to live before the war like everyone else,” he says. “They could’ve gone back home where they came from.” He’d be even more opposed to Blacks moving in today. “I learned a whole lot since then. They say everybody got to live alike, but still, how many hundreds of thousands of people all over the country lost their shirts because their neighborhoods changed? They couldn’t live with ‘em, they had to board up and move out and leave their property behind, give it up for half-nothin’. The proof is there.”
Tom Kowalski (not his real name), a 56-year-old construction worker who grew up near the Airport Homes site and still lives nearby, recalls his late father circulating petitions opposing the project. Kowalski says he probably is more accepting of Blacks than his father was because he has worked with them. “But living with them? I prefer not to. Did you read in the newspaper about those people that died in the fire on the south side because they had bars on the windows and the doors? They have to have that in their own neighborhood—they can’t trust their own. I don’t want them to live here because I don’t want no bars on my windows.”
Ellen Sendak (not her real name), 78, lives four blocks east of the former Airport Homes site and has lived there for 48 years. She says she wasn’t concerned about Blacks moving into the project. “I figured, well, they’re people too, they have to live. I was one of the small minority—I had to keep my mouth shut.” She laughs. “Because otherwise maybe my house would have been bombed.”
Had she lived closer to Airport Homes, she doubts she would have felt as comfortable about Blacks moving in. She certainly doesn’t want a Black next door to her now. “There might be one goof Black family, I’ll grant you that. They could move next door to me and be great. But it’s the others that follow that bring down the neighborhood.”
In the late 40s, Sendak suffered an unprovoked attack by a Black man in a Loop department store. The man slashed her hip with a knife. The wound was superficial; the impression it left with her about Blacks was not. “Before, I was never bothered by Blacks, believe me—maybe I’m a queer duck, but religion or color never bothered me. But after that, I was deathly afraid of them. And to this day, I will not let a colored man into my house, even if it’s the meter reader. There’s still a lot of people in the neighborhood who won’t let a colored meter reader in their house.”
Those West Lawn residents who have moved in since the Airport Homes disturbance expressed the same feelings about Blacks as the 40-year-plus residents. Their attitudes might not square with the basic tenets of their religion—or of their country—but they’re not losing sleep over the contradictions. Some of them don’t even consider themselves prejudiced. “I work with a couple of colored guys—we get along fine,” says Thomas Lisnic, 47, a janitor who lives at 60th and Keeler, across the street from the old project site. Lisnic came to Chicago from Yugoslavia in ‘69; he moved into West Lawn six years ago. “Black or white, Mexicano—any kind, I don’t care. But I no want together live. It not supposed to be.”
“There’s a lot of good Blacks, that I understand,” says Chester Hetman, 65, a retired printer who lives at 60th and Karlov. “I worked with them, and the ones I knew I was friendly with. I don’t have anything against them—as long as they live on their side of the street.”
Greg Mokrzycki, 25, who has lived on Karlov across from the old project site since he was two, works on a newspaper delivery truck. “There’s some that are nice, don’t get me wrong, but I really wouldn’t want to live with them,” he says.
Growing up in West Lawn, Mokrzycki had little direct experience with which to form an opinion about Blacks: his judgments developed out of what he heard from his parents and other grownups. What he heard, he says, was “Oh, those goddamn niggers, they’re bad. I’d never want to live next door to one.” Now he is grown and has worked with Blacks, and discovered “that they’re just like everyone else”; but the idea of them living in the neighborhood is still too hard to accept. “Your parents’ attitude rubs off on you. I really wouldn’t know what to expect if Blacks lived nearby. When you’ve had something a certain way all your life, you just don’t wanna see it change.”
Alexis Leslie, 38, was the only West Lawn resident I talked with who would prefer an integrated neighborhood to the present West Lawn. She was raised in the area, not far from the former Airport Homes site; she is a program director for Southwest Women Working Together, an organization that serves women and their families, whose office is at 63rd and Kedzie. Personal circumstances forced Leslie to return to West Lawn five years ago after having lived elsewhere; she doesn’t intend to stay. “It’s hard to get close to your neighbors when you hear them talking about niggers and spics and kikes,” she says.
She has lived in integrated areas and appreciates their “diversity”; but she’s well aware that view is considered odd, if not crazy, in the neighborhood. If Blacks were to move into West Lawn, “I think what you’d see is a lot of people putting their home for sale,” she says. “There’s a few people who would say, ‘Oh, big deal’—but not many. The assumption of most people here is that it would automatically totally destroy their way of life if Black people moved into this neighborhood in any numbers—that they cannot live the same life. There are very few people who would consider staying and working to make the change as positive as possible.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP-Wide World