South Side Venus by Mary Ann Cain
240 pages – Northwestern University Press
No matter how long or how far Dr. B and I continued to walk in the humid August heat, we did not go unrecognized for more than brief moments. The litany of gratitude and praise surrounded us in a cloud of hero worship that I had never before experienced. As Dr. B and I approached the next historical landmark, I began to see her with newly appreciative eyes, wondering what it would be like to be beloved by so many for the impact one had on others’ lives.
Growing up in the south suburbs of the city, far away from the daily lives of the famous, wealthy, and powerful, I had had little firsthand contact with individuals of any public stature. Even into my adult life, the only times I crossed paths with any notables were in fleeting glimpses at O’Hare Airport or, in New York, on the streets of Greenwich Village, gawking at some remove at the appearance, gestures, and expressions of well- known faces. Chicago as a rule has always struck me as less a paparazzi stakeout and more a get your-hands-dirty-and-rise- through-your work sort of place than other major cities. Even now, when I frequent Chicago’s downtown and its close-by neighborhoods, the last thought I have is whether I might run into Oprah or (these days) Jennifer Hudson, Rahm Emmanuel, or the Obamas. Chicago is the kind of place where the well- known can easily disappear, whether because the harsh weather discourages much strolling about or because, like me, few really expect to spot any “names” without going to great lengths to find them.
So to have witnessed these endless expressions of gratitude, which continue even beyond Dr. B’s passing in 2010, remains a true marvel. For instance, in fall 2014, as I walked back to my table near the hotel breakfast buffet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a couple stopped me to inquire about the T-shirt I was wearing, emblazoned with Dr. B’s image and the DuSable Museum’s logo. Once they knew I was writing about Dr. B, they invited me to pull up a chair and listen to their Dr. B stories. Another such incident had occurred earlier that year at Soul Veg restaurant on South Indiana Avenue on Chicago’s South Side. Accompanying Dr. B’s longtime friend, the prison minister Queen Mother Helen Sinclair, for her weekly luncheon, I discovered that many patrons had a story to tell about Dr. B, who was also Queen Mother’s companion on weekly trips to the Stateville and Joliet prisons. One enthusiast even handed me his cell phone at one point, urging me to talk to his sister in Jacksonville, Florida, for her recollections of that teacher who wore a “natural” at a time when such styles marked one as “crazy.”
Dr. B continued to accept the recognition on our walk with smiles and nodding head, pausing only briefly before moving forward. Maybe it was the intensely humid, sun-drenched heat that spurred her on, but more likely she was determined to fulfill our mission of visiting local landmarks, including those housing her own historical heroes. She led me across the refurbished walkways and green spaces of Wendell Phillips High School, an institution which, founded in 1904, had survived even longer than she had. It was the first predominantly African American high school in the city and carries that legacy even today. Its graduates include notables such as Nat King Cole, Margaret’s own friend and “fellow traveler” Timuel Black, Dinah Washington, and the founder of Johnson Publishing, John H. Johnson. Another icon, Alfreda Duster, daughter of the anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells, was also a graduate, as well as a friend of Dr. B. As always, Dr. B’s focus remained on historical education. Heroes mattered little without understanding their impact on the lives of others.
Clearly those who stopped and greeted Dr. B that day knew her as a teacher, a neighbor, and, to a lesser degree, as someone who had done a lot for folks on the South Side. But as her grandson Eric Toller observed, many in the neighborhood, including her students, did not know her work as an artist and activist, work that placed her not only on a national but an international stage. To most of them she was just Dr. Burroughs, emblazoned primarily in the memories of her DuSable High School students as that teacher who had worn a natural and taught them to take pride in their unique histories as African Americans. She did not do much to alter these impressions, since she was less concerned that people know her work than that they should know the leaders of African American history. For example, her conversations during our Bronzeville tour always focused on whoever greeted her; self-promotion was simply not something she embraced. At the same time, the numerous published and videotaped interviews with Dr. B over the years attest to how much it mattered to her that she provide a positive role model and source of inspiration for others. Furthermore, she was deeply concerned and motivated to document and preserve her generation’s legacies for younger people in years to come.
Some blocks later as we continued on Pershing Avenue and then up to Thirty-Seventh Street, we arrived at a cluster of four-story brick row houses. A sign in the lawn announced the “Ida B. Wells Garden Apartments.” I found myself suddenly glancing around, breath quickened, mind alert. The name on the sign registered as one of those I distantly remembered hearing on the local news as one of the public-housing “projects,” and “projects” were, in my white flight suburban understanding, never a good place to be. Yet, as I continued to take in the scene, the ordinariness of it had a calming effect— the grass was trimmed; laundry was hung and drying; kids’ toys were scattered here and there. Dr. B noted how these homes, when first constructed in 1939, were much sought-after places with vibrant, active communities. And of course, a public- housing project being named after the anti-lynching activist and journalist Ida B. Wells was no small feat in 1939, in this city of heated political and racial struggle.
This was not a stop on the tour that I had anticipated and, in hindsight, I’m not sure I would have chosen it, given the haunting, even horrific images of public housing I carried from my childhood. But seeing the place firsthand, I was able to readily imagine how, once upon a time, this had been a beacon and refuge for so many African Americans who were otherwise steered by housing covenants and widespread racism into low quality housing. This allowed me to perceive how “those people” in housing projects lived everyday lives, wanting many of the same things I wanted, namely a safe and comfortable place to call home. These sturdy, well- designed townhomes were a far cry from the more notorious high-rise projects that sprang up along the Dan Ryan Expressway during my childhood and that gave rise to even more menacing media images: children falling out of unsecured windows; broken elevators; hallways littered with broken glass. The Ida B. Wells “gardens” in their prime looked like a place I could have imagined living. In addition to affordable, well-constructed and maintained buildings, many social services, cultural events, and educational opportunities were available on the premises. A newspaper, Community News, was published by and for the tenants of “Wellstown.” Teenage girls were crowned queens of Wellstown, while young children formed bands in music classes taught there. Classes in radio operation were among the wide variety of on-site offerings. A youth government elected its own mayor. A nursery provided day care, while a hospital offered residents much-needed medical care. Far from the images I had grown up with regarding public housing projects, the Ida B. Wells apartments provided much more than subsistence living; in fact, the place supported a standard of living that my own South Side ancestors likely would have found enviable.
Seeing this place firsthand only reinforced Dr. B’s insistence on truth coming from experience: “Find out for yourself,” she liked to say about countries such as Cuba and the Soviet Union that carried less-than-stellar reputations as communist strongholds. She, of course, had very different stories to tell stemming from her own educational tours of those and dozens of other countries around the world. But that’s what she was about— finding out the truth for oneself, never mind what the so-called “mainstream” had to say, whether fellow African Americans or white-dominated culture.
“Where next?” she asked.
It was only a few blocks more to Thirty-Sixth Street and King Drive, where we reached the home of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Unlike the Ida B. Wells apartments, this was a scheduled stop on my tour, an official Chicago architectural landmark as well as a source of Bronzeville pride. I was gratified to see a city historical sign marking the house from the curbside. Such markers existed all along King Drive, all part of a push to maintain Bronzeville’s identity in the face of a two- fisted opponent— empty lots and wealthy developers eager to extend the ongoing South Loop gentrification into the heart of the South Side. Dr. B had earlier commented on the newly built police station at Thirty-Fifth Street and Michigan Avenue as a bellwether of things to come; the police, she asserted, were not there to protect the current residents as much as those future ones with expensive new investments.
The Wells home itself, built in 1895, on what was then known as Grand Avenue, exuded the solidity and grandeur of similar castle-like row homes on the block, built during a blossoming of white wealth and business that generated an early Gold Coast environment. King Drive’s broad boulevard still possessed a parklike atmosphere despite signs of decay all around. Dr. B’s own home a few blocks away on Thirty-Eighth Street and Michigan held an even greater majesty as a larger residence on a grander lot. However, the pervasiveness of vacant lots close by undermined the area’s sense of permanence. Ida B. Wells’s home, however, was still protected by existing, mostly well-maintained structures all around. At one point in its transition, the neighborhood may originally have embraced some racial integration. But as Alfreda Duster, daughter of Ida, noted, hers was one of the first African American families to move east of State Street in the early 1900s; the first African American family to live at 3624 was that of the renowned actor Richard B. Harrison. According to Duster, the white woman who owned the home at that time sought “retaliation” against her neighbors for various grievances by placing the Harrison family in that home. Once Ida learned of the availability of this property, she quickly made an offer for the “three-story, fourteen-room house [with] four baths, Italian marble, sink and all for $8,000.” The family lived in this roomy dwelling until 1929; Alfreda attended Wendell Phillips High School and later the University of Chicago.
In my south suburban neighborhood, structures built prior to the 1950s, when my parents and so many other young white couples left the city limits for former cornfields and prairies where they built their middle-class dreams, were rare. I took for granted the new construction, the white neighbors with ethnic surnames like Sokolowski, Strezo, Spellman, Vogel, Garvey, and Sadler, and the vegetation-covered vacant lots we called “prairies.” However, as I grew older and began to look around, along with my architecturally obsessed older brother, I started to develop a fierce old house envy, as in “Why couldn’t we live in one of those big, roomy, wood- paneled nineteenth-century mansions?” not understanding, of course, the circumstances around why such places were sold off for a pittance and left their burdened owners to take in boarders in order to make ends meet.
Having developed a keen curatorial sense of the importance not only of historical fact but also the physical landmarks of history, Dr. B had the foresight to ensure that her own home at 3806 S. Michigan became a historic landmark, never to be torn down. Similarly, the South Side Community Art Center, just across the street, was also designated a landmark. In contrast, I came of age in a sea of open space, not from demolitions of past dwellings but from the imposition of sprawling suburban tracts upon farm and prairie. History didn’t seem to matter because my historical imagination posited that these flat expanses were a blank slate just waiting for people like my family to place their footprints upon it.
For Ida B. Wells and her family, however, their residence in a neighborhood not previously welcoming to her people was a matter of exerting leadership. She drilled one important hole in the larger dam that kept African Americans from escaping slumlord extortion and social ostracism south of downtown’s Loop, a role that in our current times can be hard to fathom, since it was so full of daring and resolve, as was all of her life, which she spent speaking out against lynching and other injustices. Dr. B stood quietly while I snapped a few photos. Even as I found myself bonding with my extraordinary companion over our shared interests in historic preservation, a part of me wondered what good it would do to preserve and curate this place if Bronzeville continued its decline. What difference did a single home, statue, boulevard, business, church, school, or community center make? Weren’t memory, books, and relationships more important? Why put such resources into preserving a physical past that current generations of young people seemed to neither know nor care about?
As Omowale Ketu Oladuwa, a community leader in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has noted, the legacy of slavery put a premium on land ownership for African American families after the Civil War. But even beyond that deep desire for one’s own place, Dr. B understood the embodiment of history in its material guises. Certainly, as an artist she appreciated the importance of curating housing and other physical artifacts that convey expression as well as experience. Furthermore, in an interview with the historian John E. Fleming, she noted the importance of having “a living monument” to a Chicago founder, the black fur trader and Haitian immigrant Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, through the museum she and her second husband would go on to found in their home. As a teacher, she understood what it meant to bring history alive to students by providing a direct experience of an otherwise abstract past. And in their apparent permanence, such items represented a communal value and investment in specific people, places, and ideals. A Bronzeville school was named after Ida; in 2011, a campaign began to place a statue of her on the grounds of the housing project named after her. Such efforts might seem small and scattered, and even at times dwarfed by the building of big-box stores and the persistence of gaping, empty lots on the South Side, but they speak to a determination within and around the community to hang on to the legacies that help define the present, holding out hope for making the unimaginable once more possible.
As we moved on, Dr. B disclosed that she had had the honor and pleasure of reading some of Wells’s journals, courtesy of her daughter, Alfreda. She described what an inspiration Ida had been and still was. Copies of Dr. B’s linoleum print of Wells circulated widely, even into the hands of her Stateville prison “boys.”
Even as evidence of Bronzeville’s efforts to secure its accomplished past unfolded while we continued our walk up King Drive, threats to that legacy were disturbingly visible. I wondered how many young people, black, white, or any other color, knew of the enormous intelligence, willpower, and courage of Ida B. Wells and her impact on their own lives.
We moved steadily north in the hot afternoon sun, and as Dr. B continued to greet well- wishers and comment on community history through such landmarks, I felt the heat of my doubts being cooled by her large presence long enough to imagine how relics of the past, at that moment so visibly fading from memory and from view, could readily be revived. It could happen. Dr. B had faced as bad, if not worse, odds in her long, productive life.
My walk with Dr. B that afternoon was wrapped in the presence of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and her daughter, Alfreda. My fears of “the projects” faded in the recollection of a thriving, well- planned community that, although originally planned to maintain a segregated “separate but equal” housing site on the South Side of Chicago, turned out to be a “route to success” for hundreds of African Americans, many of whom found some semblance of a promised land after struggling under Jim Crow in the South. Dr. B became a living, breathing connection to the namesake of this housing as she recalled her long friendship with Alfreda, who had also lived close by in Bronzeville, and described reading her mother’s diaries. No doubt those diaries were an absorbing read. Ida and her family’s home had been preserved and prominently marked with street signs and historical plaques guiding visitors from around the world to a place where they could remember, dream, and imagine what had been, as well as what might still be. Without such places or people to inspire, guide, and even challenge us, how can we, in fact, carry on with meaning, purpose, and connection— to ourselves, to others, and to the earth?