Denise Ferguson

The People Issue

The West-Sider

Denise Ferguson has lived most of her life in a two-flat across the street from Douglass Park. Through three generations of her family, she’s borne witness to the changes overcoming her front yard, an evolution that’s become increasingly personal. When three private music festivals threatened the sanctuary of her neighborhood, she was all but quiet. 

I met Denise at the park one summer afternoon when she showed up with a list of questions for an arrogant Riot Fest representative who had no answers: Will the playground be off-limits? Will the basketball court stay open? How about the tennis court? Will we know in advance about any closures? 

I learned that she had been sending letters to the mayor and her alderperson for years about her concern that the music festivals violated the nearby quiet hospital zones—including zones for a Level 1 trauma center and a children’s hospital. She’s never heard back. 

Over the months that followed, I learned a lot about Denise and the memories she has of Douglass Park, a centerpiece of the west side where families would gather on Sundays to watch baseball. But she also remembers a Douglass Park in which Black people were not allowed to walk through. Before Riot Fest there were the 1968 riots. She can still picture the west side burning as Mayor Richard J. Daley ordered police to “shoot to kill.”  

Today Denise serves as a board member for Crossroads Fund and spends her time volunteering in the community. Before that, she had a career in the public sector—working in the Public Guardian’s office, Chicago Public Schools, and finally as a women’s director for the Commission on Human Relations, a job she was appointed to by Mayor Richard M. Daley. Since retiring in 2011, she’s continued serving the community that raised her and has also been traveling (she’s on a mission to visit all 50 states). Denise had plenty to say about the wonders of growing up in North Lawndale and also the moments that filled her with deep rage, like the murder of Fred Hampton. Those memories are still clear as day for her, so I’ll let her tell you about it.

Interview by Kelly Garcia

Photos by Olivia Obineme

During the Great Migration, my grandmother Daisy came to Chicago from Chester, South Carolina, following the music scene. She determined that Chicago was the best place for her in terms of employment, so she moved with four of her kids to the west side. In 1953, I was born in Mount Sinai. 

The west side was bustling. We had watch shops, three grocery stores, and two movie theaters. There was a lot of live music and clubs. It was a beautiful place to be in. 

The first time I saw Michael Jackson in the Jackson Five it was at the Central Park Theater (now it’s a church). They were practicing that day in a garage up Roosevelt Road. There was nothing about North Lawndale that didn’t make it exciting and wonderful to grow up, except for what I thought was a very punitive position against Black people on the part of the city. 

I went to seven elementary schools and moved three times during high school, and all of this was because of poor housing in the city of Chicago. I used to tell people we were west-side gypsies. Dr. King moved to my neighborhood when I was 12 years old because of the poor housing. The conditions in which he found it in 1966 are the same as it is now. But what was beautiful about being on the west side for me was that all of my cousins and family were only walking distance. I watched my mom and her three sisters feed 15 kids with one chicken. Everybody had a piece of chicken breast, everybody could get whatever piece they wanted. I was never hungry. I saw not just my family, but lots of families cooperating with each other. When someone went to work, the lady next door watched all the kids. It’s the same thing that happens on my block today. 

Denise Ferguson has plenty to say about the wonders of growing up in North Lawndale and also the moments that filled her with deep rage. Credit: Olivia Obineme for Chicago Reader

I remember staying home for the 1963 school boycott, because parents were protesting the conditions of schools. I never had a brand-new schoolbook until high school in 1971. We would get used schoolbooks from the north side of the city filled with profanities written by white students. But it wasn’t until I was 16 that I became active in my community when I participated in a walkout at my high school to protest the murder of Black Panther members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. 

At six years old, I was hit by a car between Lexington and Central Park. I remember not being able to move. My mom rushed over with my neighbors. Someone called the ambulance, but the ambulance doesn’t come for Black people. Instead they sent a police wagon. The two police officers got out of the car and struck my mother. They put us both in the back of the wagon and told us they were taking us to the Garfield Park Hospital, across the Eisenhower Expressway. The neighbors were worried, but as a six-year-old I didn’t know why. When they dropped us off at the hospital, my mother was crying because no one would attend us. It was a private hospital and they didn’t see Black people. My mom begged the nurse to call the police wagon to have them drop us off at Mount Sinai, one of the few hospitals that would see Black people on a regular basis. When I finally got to Sinai, the whole left side of my body was fractured. 

I remember when the west side burned to the ground. The city deemed it a riot. It’s one of my biggest challenges with a festival named “Riot Fest.” I remember standing on my porch and seeing fire from every direction. The fire was not set by Black people. As looting occurred, Mayor Daley ordered a “shoot to kill.” Once everything had burned down, the city said it wouldn’t rebuild it and it still hasn’t been rebuilt. From Kedzie to Pulaski, you’ll see so much blight in a neighborhood that used to be bustling. 

“I remember when the west side burned to the ground. The city deemed it a riot.”

Denise Ferguson
Credit: Olivia Obineme for Chicago Reader

After graduating college, I took a job at the Douglass library branch where I was tasked with increasing youth circulation of books. I went to the nearby high schools and promised to get them copies of whatever books they wanted. All I needed their students to do was get a library card. The school warned us that the students wouldn’t bring the books back, and I told them we didn’t care. We wanted them to read and use the library. 

After getting married, we moved to Maywood and stayed there for a year. We started looking for another house, but I wasn’t interested in going back to North Lawndale. There was nothing wrong with it, I just felt like I had already spent enough time there. But then one day the mailman told my mom that the house across the street from her near Douglass Park was up for sale. So, that’s how I got back on my block. 

The only precautionary tales in my community growing up were centered around race and avoiding the police. There’s a lot of work that goes into building a Black child so that he is strong, independent, resolved, and hopeful. You don’t want to break that. But I found myself as a parent telling my nine-year-old son to hold my hand as a police car drove by. When he asked me why, I had to look him in the eye and tell him that I needed him to stay close to me because the police could take him. I needed him to pay attention so that I could keep him safe. I’ve seen men and boys in my neighborhood be accosted, stopped, and harassed. I’ve seen too much of that.

The People Issue 2022

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