In October 1949 Aaron and Louise Bindman moved into a house with their friends Gussie and Bill Sennett. The Sennetts had two young girls, and the Bindmans were planning to have children soon. The house was in a close-knit neighborhood in Englewood, which was then a working-class community–more prosperous than Back of the Yards, less expensive than Hyde Park. “We had been living in Kenwood in a one-room apartment,” remembers Louise. “We couldn’t afford to move to Hyde Park, which is where we wanted to live.”
Aaron Bindman, then 32, worked as an organizer for the International Longshoremen’s union, and Louise, who was 26, was an occupational therapist at Drexel Home, a south-side facility for the aged run by the Jewish Federation. Gussie Sennett, then 28, worked as a secretary for a small business, and Bill, who was 36, had just started as a tool-distribution clerk for Strick Corporation. Aaron and Bill had become friends through their union work.
Three weeks after moving into the house at 5643 S. Peoria, the Bindmans and Sennetts had spoken little to their neighbors. “That was our first mistake, I suppose,” says Louise. Aaron adds, “All they could see was that we were doing construction on the house–we were bringing in plasterboard and all sorts of wood. We were in the process of dividing the house into a two-flat, so that might have gotten some of the neighbors nervous. Who knows?”
Many people in moderate- to low-income white neighborhoods were nervous in those days. In the years following World War II, Chicago went through a severe housing shortage as hundreds of thousands of people moved to the city–immigrants from war-ravaged Europe, soldiers returning to civilian life, and blacks from the south. According to the Local Community Fact Book of 1950, there was almost no building in Englewood between 1930 and 1940, yet the population grew by 4 percent. The population of African-Americans, who’d lived in Englewood since 1885, grew from 2,008 to 9,857 between 1940 and 1950. Whites in Englewood feared that as the small “Negro districts” expanded, blacks would begin moving into their neighborhoods.
Chicago witnessed six major race riots just after the war, all of them sparked by racist whites. The riot that happened on South Peoria Street in 1949 was unusual only in that its targets, the Bindmans and the Sennetts, were white.
On Tuesday, November 8, 1949, Aaron and Louise Bindman went to work as usual. “The only thing I knew that morning,” says Louise, “was that Aaron had invited some union people over. I thought it would be just another party. I went off to work just like every other day.”
Aaron had invited 16 stewards from his union to his house that night for an informal union meeting and party to celebrate the victory of striking sugarcane cutters in Hawaii; two of the strikers, who were touring the country telling their story, had also been invited. The stewards worked in warehouses for Walgreens and Goldblatt’s. Half of them were white, half were black.
It was unusually warm that night–70 degrees. “Just think,” says Louise, “the whole thing might not have happened if it wasn’t so warm that night.”
“At about nine o’clock we ran out of drinks, and two of the white workers went out to buy some more liquor,” says Aaron. “As they got outside, they were stopped by a group of men who said, ‘You better get out of that house because we’re going to burn it down.’ These guys got frightened out of their wits. They ran into the house and grabbed their coats. Immediately I knew what was the issue. I went outside, and five men were there. They were representatives from the neighborhood group, kind of like a block club. I said, ‘My name is Aaron Bindman, and I’m the secretary-treasurer of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union. I understand you threatened two of our people. What seems to be the problem?’ They said, ‘What are the niggers doing in the house?’ I replied, ‘These are members of our union, and we’re having a discussion in the house.’ They then warned me again, ‘You better get them out of here because we’re going to burn this house down.'”
Aaron went back into the house, and when the black stewards heard what the men had said they quickly left. “There wasn’t much of a crowd yet,” says Aaron, “but I figured something was up. So I asked Louise and Gussie to go to the store and call some friends.”
Louise and Gussie slipped out the back door and walked to a nearby drugstore. “I remember going down that alley thinking, ‘I can’t believe we’re still waiting for the telephone to be installed,'” says Louise. “I think I was so focused on that phone because I didn’t want to think about what was going to happen next.”
When they got back they saw police outside the house. Aaron went out to talk to them and quickly realized that they were friends of the five block-club leaders. “They were shaking hands and joking around,” he says. “They even called these guys by their first names. The five guys told the police they wanted me arrested for disturbing the peace, and I told the officers that the neighborhood guys had threatened me and I wanted them arrested. The police took us all down to the Englewood station.”
When Aaron returned home an hour later, the crowd in front of the house had grown to 50 or more. According to a later report, a rumor was spreading that blacks were moving into the house. “We weren’t totally naive,” Aaron says. “We knew that some people wouldn’t want blacks in the neighborhood, but I thought, the hell with them. When the thing actually happened I was totally taken off guard. If I would have walked down the street that night, they would have lynched me.”
“Fear,” says Louise. “I just remember the fear. And the first night was a tea party compared to the rest of the week. By midnight the small crowd broke up. Most of the men in the neighborhood worked factory jobs, so they had to get to bed. We knew it wasn’t over though.”
Aaron got to work early the next day, Wednesday. “I started calling around, and everybody had heard about what happened,” he says. “We had a meeting later that morning. All sorts of people showed up–people from different unions, including the head of the local CIO; the American Jewish Congress; the National Lawyers Guild; maybe even the ACLU. They had to put the word out for help, because we didn’t expect much help from the city or the cops. If we hadn’t organized people to pay attention and raise a ruckus, that house would have been razed to the ground.”
At 7:15 that evening Aaron called the Chicago Commission on Human Relations from a telephone booth and reported that a crowd was gathering across the street from his home. The commission sent over a staff lawyer, Maynard Wishner, who’d just graduated from the University of Chicago’s law school and was working in the commission’s civil rights department. “My job was to calm intergroup violence,” says Wishner, now retired and living in Wilmette. “I was supposed to act as a liaison between the community and the authorities–in this case, the police.”
Wishner called the Englewood police station at 7:30, and the lieutenant on duty told him everything was all right. “He said most of the people out on the street were neighbors, and it was very difficult to tell them they had no right to be on the street.” Wishner arrived on the scene at 8:30. He would write in a report the commission issued a month later: “By 9:00 p.m. the crowd had grown to close to 200 people. Several groups of teen-agers had appeared on the scene. The tone and temper of the crowd had become much more tense….At about 9:30 I saw a 10 – 12 year old boy who stood in a passageway throw the first rock. More rocks followed. With each rock there was an increasing frenzy in the crowd. As each rock would land, the crowd would applaud and cheer.” Every window in the house was soon broken. Wishner called the Englewood police station and asked for more police.
Both families knew about other recent riots and race-related assaults in Chicago. From May 1944 to July 1946, 46 black homes had been attacked, 29 of them firebombed. At least three people had died. In 1946 white mobs had taunted African-Americans who’d moved into Airport Homes, a historically white public-housing project near Midway Airport. For two weeks in 1947 crowds of 1,500 to 5,000 whites battled police outside Fernwood Park Homes, another historically white project, near 103rd and Halsted. Roaming white gangs attacked blacks, pulling them off streetcars and out of stopped automobiles, in an area that ran from 98th to 111th and from Michigan to Vincennes. More than 35 blacks were injured. In July 1949, just months before the incident on Peoria Street, a crowd of 2,000 descended on a two-flat bought by an African-American, Roscoe Johnson, at 7153 S. Saint Lawrence. Police didn’t let the people into the house, but they didn’t disperse them until the next day. After the Fernwood Park Homes riot the Reverend Daniel Cantwell addressed the National Association of Housing Officials, saying, “Though this violence has been the work of a few, it has been silently approved, when not sanctioned and abetted by the multitudes…including too many churchmen, too many aldermen, too many community leaders.”
Knowing about these riots hadn’t prepared the Bindmans or Sennetts for what happened to them. “Some of the mob was actually up on our porch, pushing on the door,” says Louise. “We were terrified. We put empty bottles on the floor to slow them down if they actually got inside. We had already barricaded the doors, and I remember breaking the table legs off our kitchen table to defend ourselves. We started boiling water to throw on anybody coming in. We were pretty defenseless. We didn’t expect help from the police, who were obviously assisting the hoodlums.” Aaron adds, “Remember, we had two young girls in the house at the time.”
Barbara Sennett, who was eight at the time, says, “I remember the sound of the windows being broken to this day–and all the lights turned off in the house so we could hide. We had to whisper so the people who were so close to the house wouldn’t know where we were. I still remember the crowd yelling stuff like ‘commies,’ ‘dirty Jews,’ ‘nigger lovers.'”
At around 11 PM more police finally arrived. “For two nights the police had encouraged the crowds to be more belligerent,” says Louise. “It was only toward the end of the second night that they cordoned off our house. Even at that point they refused to disperse the mobs.” Wishner says, “The way the police under Commander Prendergast handled the incident still has the capacity to enrage me. Can you imagine, the police wouldn’t issue an emergency order to get the Bindmans a telephone?” A week later the Chicago Defender would run an editorial that said, “We agree with the Chicago Daily News when it states: ‘Mayor Kennelly should be deeply disturbed by the continuing manifestation of police incompetence in handling riotous mobs.'”
Eventually the crowd began to clear, and by 2 AM it was quiet. No arrests had been made.
Early the next morning, Thursday, Gussie Sennett took Barbara and her sister, Judy, who was two, to a friend’s house, where they would stay for almost a month.
As it happens, the Bindmans and the Sennetts were Jewish, though Aaron and Louise don’t think that would have been an issue if they hadn’t had black friends. The Sennetts were also members of the Communist Party, and Bill would remain in the party into the 50s. The Bindmans had been members, though by the time they moved into the house on Peoria they’d dropped their affiliation. “In 1949 I signed the Taft-Hartley noncommunist affidavit so I could retain my office of secretary-treasurer of Local 208 ILWU,” Aaron says. “From then on my connection with the party was only through trade-union activities that the CP supported and some friends who had stayed in.” Aaron and Louise believe that members of the police department’s Red Squad told the crowds in the street that they were all communists. Aaron says, “They probably figured all of us were Reds and thought they would make it harder on us by spreading this around to our neighbors.”
At noon on Thursday, the third day, Wishner met with one of the five neighborhood leaders and asked him to help calm the neighborhood. That afternoon the Commission on Human Relations met with representatives of 40 civic groups, including the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, the American Jewish Congress, unions, and churches. The CHR asked the organizations to keep their members away except for CHR-approved observers. The representatives wrote a letter that was sent to Mayor Kennelly stating that people had the right to live where they chose, the right to associate with anyone they chose in their own home, and the right to travel where they chose. It asked that the Chicago Police Department defend these rights.
But the opposition was organizing too. “There was an anonymous leaflet that went around the community the third and fourth afternoons saying we were communists and listing all the meetings that we had gone to and what organizations we supported,” says Aaron. “It was a pack of lies. It even said my father sold property to blacks. He’d never been to Chicago in his life and never owned any house of his own, let alone sold them. He’d been dead for a few years. The leaflet had all these misspellings, so we joked it had to be the local civil servants who wrote it. Whoever wrote it, it got a lot of people agitated, and I think it was a critical factor why the crowds got so large the following three nights.”
The CHR report states, “On Thursday, November 10, a crowd began to gather by 6:30 p.m. A squad of 5 police officers and a sergeant were on the scene, but made no attempt to disperse the crowd. By 8:30 p.m., the crowd swelled to 200 and began moving toward the Bindman-Sennett house shouting ‘Let’s get them out’; ‘Burn the house’; ‘Dirty kikes’; and ‘Communists.'” People moved onto the porch. The windows had been boarded up, and one police officer was standing at the front door, another was at the back door. Neither officer tried to get the people to leave.
As the crowd grew to more than 500, police arrested a few people, most of them friends and supporters of the Bindmans and Sennetts who’d come to Englewood to show their support. When they’d arrived, organized youth gangs had descended on them. “Groups of young men, 19 – 25 years old who were known to the crowd appeared on the street,” states the CHR report. “Also groups of older men and women and small groups of two or three young men who looked like students appeared on the scene on Thursday night. The groups or ‘gangs’ of community youths would spot these ‘strangers’, approach them, engage them in conversation and ask for identifications. Arguments would start and attacks began.” Supporters of the Bindmans and Sennetts who appealed to the police were arrested and put in a paddy wagon. Sometimes some of the gang members were arrested too, then put into the same paddy wagon, where they beat up the Bindman and Sennett supporters again. “Anyone showing up from outside the neighborhood or wearing horn-rimmed glasses was labeled a communist,” says Louise. “To the people in Englewood, all the pinkos from the University of Chicago wore horn-rimmed glasses.”
Leon Despres defended Bertram Horowitz, one of the Bindman and Sennett supporters who was arrested for disturbing the peace. “Everybody got off in the end,” he says. “The people wrongly accused but also their assailants. The intensity of the hatred was depressing for those of us working on civil rights at the time.”
“The gangs had been organized by the local Catholic parish to intercept people who were coming into the area,” says Louise. “I was told this by a Polish seamstress at Drexel Homes.” Aaron adds, “Everybody knew the parish was behind the gangs–they had their hands in everything in the community. It had a huge congregation and lots of programs.”
Visitation Parish had been built at the turn of the century specifically for the Irish, and it had prospered. It had a grammar school, high school, social center, and 120-acre summer camp in Palos Hills. Members of the tight-knit congregation of 4,000 were particularly afraid that their community would be broken apart if non-Catholics or blacks moved into the neighborhood, and their fears had been encouraged by their pastors. According to The Irish in Chicago, Monsignor Daniel Byrnes, who served Visitation Parish from 1932 to 1952, often reminded his congregation at Sunday mass that it was the “largest and greatest parish in the diocese” and that “if Irish families remained in the neighborhood Visitation would continue to flourish.” Realtors also encouraged fears by talking about all the bad things that would happen if blacks moved in–a stagnant market, lower sale prices, white flight.
Those fears may have been even greater at the time because the year before the Supreme Court had struck down racially restrictive covenants, clauses in land deeds that barred the sale of property to minorities. Those covenants had become widely used in Chicago by the 1920s, largely in response to a riot in July 1919 that began after a young black boy drowned at the 29th Street beach and police refused to make any arrests despite claims that he’d been stoned by whites. Twenty-three blacks and 15 whites died; 340 blacks and 178 whites were injured. That August the Chicago Tribune editorialized in favor of stricter racial segregation: “So long as this city is dominated by whites…there will be limitations placed on the black people….A rebellion by Negroes against facts which exist and will persist will not help.” At a special meeting of the City Council one alderman introduced a resolution to consider “segregating the races within certain established zones,” and that November the Kenwood and Hyde Park Property Owners’ Association called for “segregation by mutual consent.” Allan Spear writes in Black Chicago: Making of a Negro Ghetto 1890-1920 that state’s attorney Macly Hoyne was soon prosecuting blacks simply for searching for housing outside the south side’s Black Belt, which ran south from Roosevelt Road along a narrow corridor between State and Cottage Grove to 47th.
Thirty years later fear ran deep on both sides. Thursday night the police again refused to disperse the crowds milling around the house on South Peoria, but they couldn’t do much more damage. Slowly they drifted home, and by early morning everyone was gone.
“We were more frightened the third night than any other night,” says Louise. “We were frightened but not hysterical. Several of our friends came over to spend the night with us. We knew that there were a thousand more willing to come to our defense.”
“Without any assurance of police protection, the tension in the household was pretty bad,” says Aaron. “I decided to do something about the situation. Friday afternoon I went down to the union hall and got a shotgun and some sound equipment. When I got back two policemen suspected I had a shotgun rolled up in my sleeping bag and tried to confiscate it. I told them they couldn’t search me without a warrant and went quickly in the house. Later I came out and told the cops I had a shotgun. I said, ‘First, I’m gonna warn them to back off, and if they don’t I’m going to blast them out of here.'”
Some supporters of the Bindmans and Sennetts had threatened violence too. “These black jitney drivers had a meeting in which they decided to drive through the neighborhood and shoot the damn place up,” says Aaron. “Bernie Lucas, who was the president of our local and who was black, and Ishmael Florie, who worked for the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers’ union, went down to see these guys and pleaded with them not to do it.” According to the CHR, the Progressive Party and other political organizations had agreed to meet at 56th and Peoria, then march to the Bindman and Sennett home. The CHR persuaded them to stay away.
The largest crowds came Friday night. It was November 11, Veterans Day–ironic because Aaron Bindman and Bill Sennett were World War II veterans. Aaron had intended to use a loudspeaker to talk to the crowd, but too many people surrounded the two-flat. Estimates of the number ranged from 5,000 in the Defender to 10,000 in the Daily News. They spilled over onto Halsted Street and several side streets. “Word must have got back to City Hall that all these people were swarming around and maybe even that we were armed,” Aaron says. “I’m sure all the political pressure helped. Sometime that night a whole bunch of cops arrived and started moving the mob away from our block. It couldn’t have come much later or I fear something would have gotten out of hand.”
The CHR report states that an order came from City Hall for the police to cordon off a wide space in front of the Bindman and Sennett house. “More than one hundred police were called in November 11th,” it states. “At 1:30 a.m. early Saturday morning, police took emergency security measures by closing the neighborhood bars and the streets adjacent to 56th, 57th, and Peoria Streets.”
“By the fourth night,” says Louise, “we knew of the tremendous pressure from civil rights groups; the trade-union movement, whose CIO coordinator, Michael Mann, was involved; some churches and influential people. And that made us feel much safer and better.”
“By the morning of the fifth day,” says Aaron, “we felt that we had inadvertently stimulated citywide opposition to racism and housing discrimination.” That evening, Saturday, all efforts to organize a crowd were quickly stopped by the police, though gangs of whites continued to attack anybody from outside the neighborhood. Mary Springer and her husband, University of Chicago students at the time, had gone to a movie that night with her cousin, David Brainin, who was visiting from New York City, and his brother-in-law. After the movie someone announced that there was a disturbance on Peoria Street and said that “calm people were needed to break up the atmosphere.” Springer and her husband and relatives drove over. “We were naive,” she says. “We immediately were identified as outsiders, and these young men started jeering at us and calling us communists. A group of six young girls said, ‘If you people are not members of this neighborhood, you should get out now.’ We tried to make our way to the car when a group of young men told me, ‘Step aside while we beat up your friends.’ We started running down the street toward a paddy wagon to get some protection, but as we reached the paddy wagon we were arrested for disorderly conduct.” The brother-in-law had run in another direction, but a few minutes later the police delivered him, badly beaten, to the paddy wagon.
They were all taken to the Englewood police station. The men were put in cells; Springer was left in the public waiting area. Brainin remembers feeling lucky that their cell was filled with students and sympathizers: “Others were put in cells with some of their attackers and beaten again.” Eventually other students heard of their arrest and made bail. According to an article that ran in the New Republic that January, bail was $25 for the students and sympathizers, $10 for their attackers. Ira Kipnis, who taught then at the University of Chicago, remembers calling around trying to raise hundreds of dollars for bail that night. “I went to the Englewood station at about 2 AM,” he says. “It wasn’t easy to raise cash at night.”
A little after midnight whites pulled three young black men off a streetcar at Halsted and 56th. Two of them managed to escape, but 20-year-old Garnes Cummings was beaten and ended up in the hospital. The CHR report concluded that an all-out riot might have started “had this event occurred on Friday night, when mob action was at such a high level.” Over the five nights 13 people had been beaten so badly they had to be hospitalized. Surprisingly, only one, Cummings, was black.
Both the Bindmans and the Sennetts believed they had to stay in the house. Aaron says, “We decided to endure the inconveniences in order to let others know that we wouldn’t be forced out of the neighborhood because we had black friends.”
The police never again allowed a crowd to gather in front of the house. The beating of Cummings seemed to have finally persuaded city officials that they would have a full-blown riot on their hands if they didn’t crack down.
As the weeks passed, friends and supporters could come to the house and not be threatened, but many of the neighbors remained hostile. The Bindmans and Sennetts never again invited any of their black friends over. They regularly received hate mail. From time to time someone threw a rock at the house, and once someone tried to set the house on fire. And something was always going wrong with the telephone, electricity, or gas.
As part of his job, Aaron regularly visited the plants his union represented. “After the riot I made sure to explain to the workers what happened on Peoria Street those five days,” he says. “As I left one plant, a black woman worker in her late 50s came over and offered me a gun. I’d never met her before. Other workers said, ‘Let us know if you need some help. We’ll come out there.’ She wasn’t the only person who offered me a gun. We had several very close black friends at the time. One was John Gray, the head of the National Negro Congress, who also came to me and said, ‘Here’s a gun.’ I carried a gun for the next two months.”
It was almost a month before the Sennetts felt safe letting Barbara and Judy come home. “I could never get any answers when I would ask about my father and Aaron and when we could go back home,” says Barbara Sennett. “I couldn’t make sense of anything that was happening. You don’t think of eight-year-olds having anxiety attacks, but I had them for months.”
Gussie Sennett says, “One of my strongest images is that whenever it would thunder Judy would ask, ‘Are the police coming in again?’ Judy was so little at the time, but she had come to associate loud crashing sounds with the police–because whenever someone would throw rocks through our windows the police would have to come in to see if everybody was OK.”
Bill Sennett’s autobiography, From Communist Functionary to Corporate Executive, describes how Barbara was forced to leave a Brownies meeting. “A policewoman told the mother of the house, ‘Barbara Sennett is one of those commie kids over on Peoria Street.’ So the mother said, ‘I don’t want her, and Barbara came home crying.’…Our kids were not able to play on the street except under supervision because some of the parents of other children in the neighborhood forbade their children to play with our kids. We took the time to cultivate certain people and found a number who abhorred the violence and with whom we became friendly. Some of them openly let their kids play with ours, but some of them also would do it under cover of secrecy in their own house. They didn’t want their neighbors to see their kids playing with ours.” Barbara says, “As a child, I developed an intense dislike for Irish Catholics and a great respect for Seventh-day Adventists [the religion of the only girl who would play with her]. But I came to realize this was the same kind of intolerance that sparked the riot on Peoria Street, and I no longer feel that way.”
The Sennetts and Bindmans contacted ten insurance companies but couldn’t get insurance on the house. Their bank took steps to foreclose on their mortgage. Fortunately Gussie had a friend whose father owned a mortgage banking house, and he agreed to take over their mortgage.
Now and then the families would hear one of the rumors that circulated about them. “The one that shocked me the most,” says Louise, “was one that came out at the trial of the hooligans who had beaten up some of the students from UC. They claimed our house was a house of prostitution.”
The city had stationed officers in front of and behind the house and on the two adjacent corners. “The whole police deal got to be pretty ridiculous after a few months,” says Aaron. “It was like the Keystone Kops. If you can picture this–we’ve got round-the-clock police protection by these cops who hate us. Barbara, the Sennett’s oldest girl, gets a police escort to and from school, and at the same time I’m being followed by the plainclothes guys in the Red Squad. They were tripping over each other.” One afternoon as Aaron approached his block, a policeman said hello to him. “I hadn’t seen this guy before. He came over to chat and said to me, ‘Why don’t you people get rid of those son of a bitches?’ And I said, ‘I’m one of those son of a bitches.'”
Aaron says he was regularly followed by the Red Squad cops. “Every time we had a strike or we were trying to organize a shop, whenever I was distributing leaflets, the Red Squad was there,” he says. “I got to know those guys by name. I used to say to them, ‘Why are you following me? If you want something, just call me up and ask me. I’ll tell you. I have no secrets.'”
“At one point,” says Louise, “the director of the Drexel Home called me in and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on? The FBI was here, and they wanted to know what kind of a person you were. I told them you were wonderful and a good worker.’ And as I left his office he said, ‘Be careful.'”
Barbara Sennett remembers playing tricks on the officers assigned to protect her. “They had to stay with me until I walked into my house after school,” she says. “Then they could leave. But instead of going inside, I would wait outside for a cab and then go over to a community center, where my mom would pick me up. They had to follow us around until we actually went inside. I took great delight in doing this.”
Though the Bindmans wanted to stay, a year was enough for the Sennetts. In the fall of 1950 Bill Sennett went to Visitation Parish and told church officials that the two families wanted to sell the house for the purchase price plus improvements–$12,000. The church promptly arranged to have a local bank buy the house.
The Sennetts left Chicago in 1957 and moved to southern California. Bill worked for a short time in Hollywood as a lighting technician, then moved on to the San Francisco office of the Strick Corporation, where he eventually became an executive in charge of two of its trailer-leasing divisions. He and Gussie divorced in 1967, and she moved to Oregon, where she still lives. He remarried and now lives in San Francisco with his wife.
The Bindmans moved out of Chicago in 1959. Aaron had left the union in the mid-50s to work as a carpenter, then he and Louise moved to Champaign so he could get his doctorate in sociology. He began teaching, ending up as a professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Louise continued to work as an occupational therapist, then became a teacher of children with multiple disabilities. They had two children and remained activists, participating in the civil rights movement and working with peace and environmental and women’s rights groups. They’re still activists, though they’re now retired, dividing their time between New York and Oaxaca, Mexico. Aaron, who’s been a wood sculptor for years, also teaches sculpting classes in Oaxaca.
In the summer of 1998 the Bindmans visited Chicago and drove around the neighborhoods where they’d once lived–Jeffery Manor, Hyde Park, Lawndale. Fifty years ago all of these neighborhoods were white, a mix of middle-class and working-class families. Now they’re predominantly African-American, except Hyde Park.
Then the Bindmans drove into Englewood, where they hadn’t been since they moved out in 1950. The first two black families had moved into the neighborhood in August 1963–one in the 5600 block and one in the 5700 block of Morgan. That sparked a week of racial strife, during which 158 people were arrested. White flight followed. Visitation Parish is still at 55th and Peoria, but it merged with Saint Basil in 1990 and is now known as Saint Basil-Visitation. The parish is now mostly African-American and Puerto Rican.
When they drove up to 5643 S. Peoria they were shocked to discover an empty lot. They got out of the car and stood looking at the weed-filled parcel of land. “At the time we were scared as hell,” said Aaron. “But I’m glad we stuck it out a whole year.” Louise shook her head. “That’s crazy,” she said. “I don’t even remember a lot of it. I can’t. We all know psychological trauma–you can blank out, block it out.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Rebecca Jane Gleason.