The Origins of the Underclass
The flight of middle-class blacks from ghettos has left a disastrously isolated underclass— one formed less by welfare or a lack of jobs than by its rural-South heritage
BY NICHOLAS LEMANN
I. Free Fall
SO BEGINS A CHAPTER CALLED “BRONZEV1LLE” IN Black Metropolis, by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, a study of the Chicago ghetto published in 1945. It’s impossible to stand at the same corner today without wondering what went wrong. There’s hardly ever any bustle at Forty-seventh and King Drive (as South Parkway is now called), especially during the day. The shopping strip still exists, though as a shadow of what it obviously once was, and there are heavy metal grates on virtually every storefront that has not been abandoned. Many of the landmarks of the neighborhood—the Regal Theater, the Savoy Ballroom, the Hotel Grand, the legendary blues clubs— are boarded up or gone entirely. The Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments, a large complex that Drake and Cavton called “a symbol of good living on a relatively high income level,” is a housing project populated by people on welfare. Prostitutes cruise Forty-seventh Street in the late afternoon. In cold weather middle-aged men stand in knots around fires built in garbage cans. Drake and Cayton’s idea of the corner as the heart of a “Little Harlem,” where one might glimpse Lena Horne or Joe Louis—or white people—sitting in a restaurant, seems ludicrous.
I recently spent some time in and around the black sections of Chicago: the South Side, roughly eight miles long and four wide, the single largest black neighborhood in America, of which Forty-seventh and South Parkway used to be the nerve center; and the West Side, a few miles away, a smaller and rougher area. It wasn’t just at fortyseventh and King Drive that the decline of the ghetto over two generations was striking. This is something that black people in Chicago talk about frequently, wondering why the working-poor neighborhoods where they grew up became terrible. Many others wonder the same thing, and they are weary of the standard explanations for the ghettos, which are intellectually neat but don’t seem to fit the magnitude of what has gone wrong. It stands to reason that there is another answer to the terrible question of the ghettos. During my time in Chicago I became convinced that there is one.
WHEN DRAKE AND CAYTON WERE WRITING, VIRTUally all black Americans lived in segregated areas, though not necessarily in the urban North. By the sixties, when race relations had become a central national concern, the northern ghettos had received a large influx of migrants from the South, and they were portrayed as overcrowded, desperately poor slums stunted by racism. Today, after years of efforts to end poverty and discrimination, the ghettos are worse, much worse, than they were in the sixties. A few blocks from Forty-seventh and King Drive is a housing project called the Robert Taylor Homes, a two-mile-long row of 28 sixteen-story buildings housing more than 20,000 people. The four-block stretch of the Robert Taylor Homes between Forty-seventh and Fifty-first Streets has the distinction of being the poorest neighborhood in the United States. In the forties the strip of land where the Robert Taylor Homes now stand was the poorest part of the traditional black belt in Chicago, but it had many fewer residents and was just the bad part of the neighborhood. Today the project dominates it physically and demographically.
The City of Chicago has defined a “community area” on the South Side that contains both Forty-seventh and King Drive and the Robert Taylor Homes, and its statistics show not just how bad off the neighborhood is but how much worse off it has recently become. In 1970 thirty-seven percent of the population of the area was below the poverty tine; in 1980 the figure was 51 percent. In 1970 the unemployment rate was 9.5 percent; in 1980 it was 24.2 percent. In 1970 forty percent of the residents of the neighborhood lived in families with a female head; in 1980 the number had grown to 72 percent. In 1980 of the 54,000 residents 33,000 were on welfare. Experts agree that all of the numbers are even worse today.
For a decade after the burst of attention paid to ghettos in the 1960s there was a feeling that blacks were steadily moving up in America. The distance between black and white incomes was continually narrowing. Black education levels were rising sharply. Middle-class blacks were becoming more and more visible on television and in public places. There was a long string of black “firsts,” especially and most impressively in elective politics.
In the past few years there has been a steady stream of news indicating that at the same time there was another side to the story: a way of life in the ghettos utterly different from that in the American mainstream. One statistic had a tremendous impact on the public perception of black progress: starting in the late seventies, the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics began to report that more than half of black babies were born out of wedlock, up from 17 percent in 1950. Today the figure is thought to be 60 percent nationwide; in Chicago it is 75 percent. Urban school systems have become increasingly segregated, with a large gap in achievement levels between black and white schools. Black unemployment is nearly triple white unemployment. Black crime rates have soared—in Chicago, which is less than half black, about four times as many blacks as whites are arrested for violent crimes. The infant mortality rate, which is considered one of the basicindicators of how advanced a society is, is rising in the ghettos.
Occasionally a shocking event provides the outside world with a snapshot of ghetto life: Edmund Perry, not a directionless punk but a freshly minted graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, dies in a scuffle with a police officer in Harlem. On the South Side of Chicago, Benjy Wilson, a high school basketball star, is gunned down on the street in broad daylight by two members of a teenage gang, one of whom is the grandson of the great blues impresario Willie Dixon. Perry and Wilson, and Wilson’s murderers, were all from absent-father families; Wilson had himself just fathered a child out of wedlock. This is what life is like for the elite of the ghetto, not just the dropouts and semi-professional petty criminals.
THE WAY THAT THE TWO VERSIONS OF BLACK LIFE since the sixties fit together is through the idea of the bifurcation of black America, in which blacks arc splitting into a middle class and an underclass that seems likely never to make it. The clearest line between the two groups is family structure. Black husband-wife families continue to close the gap with whites; their income is now 78 percent as high. But the income of black female-headed families, adjusted for inflation, has been dropping. The black female-headed family represents an ever larger share of the population of poor people in America: 7.3 percent in 1959 and 19.3 percent in 1984.
Why, during a period of relative prosperity and of national commitment to black progress, has the bifurcation taken place? The question should be urgent for anyone who thinks it wrong that millions of people in the black underclass lead destroyed lives or who, because of the problems of the ghettos, has had to give up the idea of an open, democratic city life built around public education and safe streets.
There are two answers prevalent right now, both of which explain the slide in the ghettos using the shifting of economic incentives.
The conservative answer is that welfare and the whole Great Society edifice of compensatory programs for blacks do exactly the opposite of what they’re supposed to: they make blacks worse off by encouraging them to become dependent on government checks and favors. Poor blacks have children out of wedlock and don’t work, so that they can get money from liberal programs. This view is energetically codified in Charles Murray’s 1984 book Losing Ground, which presents a series of charts and graphs showing poor blacks becoming poorer—and crime rising, and efforts to find work declining, and educational achievement dropping—during precisely the time of the War on Poverty.
The liberal answer is built around unemployment. At the time that the ghettos began getting worse, unemployment was very low, but blacks, by then heavily concentrated in the northern industrial cities, were dependent on the one part of the economy that was falling apart—inner-city unskilled heavy labor. In Chicago the harbinger of the change was the closing in the late fifties of the stockyards, which for half a century were the sine qua non of lowerclass grunt work and a heavy employer of blacks. Chicago lost 200,000 jobs in the seventies; small shut-down redbrick factories that used to make products like boxes and ball bearings dot the city, especially the West Side. The lack of jobs, the argument continues, caused young men in the ghetto to adopt a drifting, inconstant life; to turn to crime; to engage in exaggeratedly macho behavior—acting tough, not studying, bullying women for money—as a way to get the sense of male strength that their fathers had derived from working and supporting families. As Murray believes that one simple step, ending all welfare programs, would heal the ghettos, the unemployment school believes that another simple step, jobs, would heal them. “When there’s a demand for the participation of the black underclass in the labor force, most of the so-called problems people talk about will evaporate in a generation,” says John McKnight, an urban-research professor at Northwestern University.
Among poverty experts the debate is raging, and though it is quite abstruse (it is based almost entirely on analysis of government statistics), the stakes are large. The country seems to be gearing up for another run at the problems of the ghettos; President Reagan has commissioned a major study of welfare reform, which is a polite way of asking what we should do about the black underclass. A new generation of government solutions wi11 probably follow—solutions that will be aimed at either dismantling the welfare state or expanding it, depending on who wins the debate, which in turn will depend on who can explain most convincingly why the ghettos have done so badly.
WITH THE DISCI SSIONS OF THE ISSUE SO EXCEL - sivelv reliant on statistics, I thought that studying a ghetto at first hand would yield something new. Here, in brief, is what I found:
The black underclass did not just spring into being over the past twenty years. Every aspect of the underclass culture in the ghettos is directly traceable to roots in the South—and not the South of slavery but the South of a generation ago. In fact, there seems to be a strong correlation between underclass status in the North and a family background in the nascent underclass of the sharecropper South.
What happened to make the underclass grow so much in the seventies can best be understood by thinking less about welfare or unemployment than about demographics—specifically, two mass migrations of black Americans. The first was from the rural South to the urban North, and numbered in the millions during the forties, fifties, and sixties, before ending in the early 1970s. This migration brought the black class system to the North virtually intact, though the underclass became more pronounced in the cities. The second migration began in the late sixties—a migration out of the ghettos by members of the black working and middle classes, who had been freed from housing discrimination by the civil-rights movement. Until then the strong leaders and institutions of the ghettos had promoted an ethic of assimilation (if not into white society, at least into a black middle class) for the underclass, which worked up to a point. Suddenly most of the leaders and institutions (except criminal ones) left, and the preaching of assimilation by both blacks and whites stopped. What followed was a kind of free fall into what sociologists call social disorganization. The result of the exodus from the ghettos is dramatic, both in the statistics and on the streets—the ghettos have lost considerable population, and they look not just bad today but also empty. As the population of the ghettos has dropped, the indices of disorganization there (crime, illegitimate births) have risen. The underclass flourished when in the seventies it was completely disengaged from the rest of society—when there were no brakes on it.
This argument is anthropological, not economic; it emphasizes the power over people’s behavior that culture, as opposed to economic incentives, can have. Ascribing a society’s conditions in part to the culture that prevails there seems benign when the society under discussion is England or California. But as a way of thinking about black ghettos it has become unpopular. Twenty years ago ghettos were often said to have a self-generating, destructive culture of poverty (the term has an impeccable source, the anthropologist Oscar Lewis). But then the left equated cultural discussions of the ghetto with accusing poor blacks of being in a bad situation that was of their own making; thus they would deserve no special help or sympathy from society. The left succeeded in limiting the terms of debate to purely economic ones, and today the right also discusses the ghetto in terms of economic “incentives to fail,” provided by the welfare system. Both sides call apparently irrational behavior like bearing children out of wedlock and dropping out of school simply a rational response to conditions created by society.
In the ghettos, though, it appears that the distinctive culture is now the greatest barrier to progress by the black underclass, rather than either unemployment or welfare. Today the bedrock of the economic arguments of both left and right is eroding: the value of welfare benefits is declining, and the northern industrial cities are not rapidly losing jobs anymore. Still the ghettos get worse, and the power of culture seems to be the reason why. The new immigrants of the eighties (Koreans, Vietnamese, West Indians) have in many cases settled in the ghettos, and so should have experienced all of the reverse incentives, but they have quickly become successful, because thev maintain a separate culture. The negative power of the ghetto culture all but guarantees that any attempt to solve the problems of the underclass in the ghettos won’t work—the culture is too strong by now. Any solution that does work, whatever it does about welfare and unemployment, will also have to get people physically away from the ghettos.
II. The Old Neighborhood
ONE DAY LAST SPRING SHARON HICKS-BARTLETT, A woman in her early thirties who is a graduate student in sociology at the l diversity of Chicago, took me to see the place where she had grow n up. The trip was an encapsulation of what has happened in the ghettos since the sixties.
We drove from the center of Chicago toward the West Side ghetto—out West Madison, the riot corridor of the mid-sixties, and then Ogden, a broad boulevard that angles off to the southwest. The neighborhood where HicksBartlett grew up is called North Lawndale, and today in Chicago its name carries the same freight that “South Bronx” does nationally. The Chicago tribune published a long series last year that vividly presented North Lawndale as the embodiment of a black underclass community. The 1980 census showed North Lawndale to be 97 percent black and 20 percent unemployed, with 40 percent of its families living in poverty and 61 percent headed by women. Hicks-Bartlett, who hadn’t been there for fifteen years, was shocked by the way Ogden Avenue looked: Douglas Park, in her memory a sylvan playground, was empty, denuded of shrubbery, with stern curfew signs posted; Lawndale Oldsmobile, once the biggest commercial establishment in the neighborhood, was shut down and abandoned; of the three neighborhood movie theaters a few blocks away, two were torn down and one had become a church. Everything that remained, even the churches, was protected by heavy steel mesh, and odd symbols (a six-pointed star, crossed pitchforks) were spraypainted everywhere.
North Lawndale is a perfect example of the threestep process that has made the ghettos so bad today: the migration north, which included the underclass; then the migration from the ghettos of everyone but the underclass; and finally the victory of disorganization. In 1950, when it was a white neighborhood, North Lawndale had 100,000 residents. In 1960, when it had become all black and the first migration was at its peak, it had 125,000. In 1980 the population was down to 62,000; more than half its population moved away in the seventies. The Hicks family was almost completely gone. Sharon Hicks-Bartlett now lives in Park Forest, the integrated suburb south of Chicago described in the Organization Man. As the population has gone down in North Lawndale, the indices of ghetto culture—poverty, crime, low educational achievement, low work effort, the percentage of female-headed families—have all increased in almost perfect reverse correlation.
In real life the bifurcation is never as neat as in the numbers. As we drove, Hicks-Bartlett told me about her own family. Her parents had lived for two years in the now infamous Cabrini-Green housing project (a black island near the affluent white near North Side) before moving to North Lawndale. Her brother Walter had once played neighborhood basketball with Mark Aguirre, the Dallas Mavericks star, but had dropped the sport and his dreams of success. A year before, he had been badly and arbitrarily beaten by a gang that set upon him while he was stopped at a red light. Another relative had married a man freshly arrived in Chicago from the southern underclass, and she ended up on welfare for years. This relative, along with her six children and eight grandchildren (all born out of wedlock), had recently moved out of Cabrini-Green to the South Side, and had become estranged from the rest of the family. She and her family had not come to Sharon’s wedding. It had gotten back to Hicks-Bartlett that her South Side relatives were making cracks about its being no surprise that she was marrying a white man, because she had been living for years as if she wanted to be white—studying hard, moving to the suburbs. For her part, Hicks-Bartlett had decided since becoming a mother not to visit her relatives on the South Side anymore, because children there were regularly called, as she primly put it, “M.F.”It was an environment she didn‘t want her daughter exposed to.
We turned onto the street where Hicks-Bartlett had lived, South Drake, and pulled up to the house, number 1643. A small gasp from Hicks-Bartlett: only about two thirds of the block appeared to be occupied. The rest of the houses were either abandoned or demolished. Sixteen forty-three was a classic Chicago two-flat; 1642, across the street, a three-flat, was one-third empty; 1625, 1649, 1652, and 1655 were missing entirely. The little patch of lawn in front of Hicks-Bartlett’s old house had gone bare, and the paint had faded. “ That house used to shine,” she said. Down on the corner the grocery store was barred as if against an armored division. The cross street, Sixteenth, had become the hustling, dealing, and hanging-out part of the neighborhood, with the action centering on a windowless “game room,” which was several months later exposed by the Tribune as a drug exchange and then closed down by the city.
Hicks-Bartlett’s grandparents bought 1643 South Drake in 1950, for $13,600. They were the third black family on their side of the block. The whites who sold them the house stayed on in the other flat as tenants for a year. When Sharon’s family took over one of the flats, in 1962, the neighborhood was all black and still respectable— postmen and janitors and their families lived there. Then, as it became more and more crowded with migrants, some kind of critical mass of teenagers was achieved (in 1950 twenty percent of North Lawndale’s population was between five and nineteen, and in 1970 forty percent), and the gangs began to take over. One day in the early sixties Hicks-Bartlett’s uncle Marvin was standing in front of the house wearing some new clothes that, unbeknownst to him, were the colors of rivals of the gang that ran the neighborhood. A group of young men walked up to him in broad daylight and pulled a knife. His mother, watching from the porch, screamed, and they ran off, having inflicted only a flesh wound. Soon afterward Hicks-Bartlett’s parents moved to an all-middle-class neighborhood on the far South Side, and over the next few years, as racial barriers fell in the housing and job markets, and the West Side began to have terrifying summertime rioting, most of their friends and neighbors left too.
Today Hicks-Bartlett’s grandmother, Bertha Williams, who used to own the house at 1643 South Drake with her husband, lives in Niles, Michigan, a small, pretty town between Chicago and Detroit. Her house is out in the country a little ways, on a lane off the highway. On the day that I went to see her, she was sitting in an easy chair in her living room, which was decorated with portraits of her grandchildren dressed in either cap and gown or military uniform. There was a clock with pictures of Martin Luther King, jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy on its face.
Mrs. Williams told me that all four of her grandparents had been slaves on plantations in southern Louisiana and had walked to New Orleans after Emancipation. She was born in New Orleans in 1914, and her family moved to Chicago in 1922, during the first great migration of blacks from the South to the North. In those days there was no government poverty line. The family lived in much greater material want than there is in the ghetto today—it was fourteen years before they were able to afford an apartment with central heating. She married Thomas Williams, a laborer from the South with no formal education. The couple had nine children and was occasionally on relief. But for Mrs. Williams there was no hint of the despair that these experiences are supposed to engender; her values remained staunchly anchored in work, marriage, and economic progress. The story ended, as many immigrant sagas do, with her and her husband both getting safe, lowlevel jobs on government payrolls and staying in them for decades, until retirement.
As we were talking, a sixteen-year-old relative of Mrs. Williams’s came home from school. After Mrs. Williams had finished recounting her life, he told me about his, and the sense of how much the culture of the ghetto had changed was dramatic. (This young man doesn’t want his real name used, because he fears reprisals from Chicago gangs. I’ll call him John.)
John had recently moved to Niles from Chicago, because his work in school was suffering under the pressure of the gangs. He had been living in Jeffrey Manor, a borderline middle-class area on the far South Side. Although he was born into an economic position that it had taken Mrs. Williams thirty years in Chicago to achieve, he had had the disadvantage of not having a father, because his parents had split up before he was born.
During John’s first year at Chicago Vocational High School—a vast institution that has historically had a burly, can-do reputation (Dick Butkus, the middle linebacker, went there)—members of the biggest gang in Chicago, the Disciples, befriended him and urged him to join, saying that gang life was a lot of fun. At their request he gave them the key to his locker, but he didn’t join, and the urging began to turn nasty. Gang members would chase him on the way home from school and beat him in such a way that the injuries would not be noticeable. (Sports stars and some outstanding students are usually immune from this treatment.) Although the Disciples controlled Jeffrey Manor, a rival gang called the Black Cobra Stones had established a beachhead there and began recruiting John too.
During his sophomore year John joined a gang called the Valley Rocks, affiliated with the El Rukns, and began staying out of school a lot, in part because of the heavy demands of gang membership. He sketched out the big picture of Chicago gang life for me. There are two large families of gangs in Chicago: the People, whose symbol is a five-pointed star, and the Folks, whose symbol is a sixpointed star. These were what I had seen spray-painted all over North Lawndale. The head of the People, he said, is a man named Jeff Fort, and the head of the Folks is a man named Larry Hoover—both in their thirties, having emerged as leaders during the period when the adult leadership was rapidly leaving the ghetto, both now in prison. The gangs under the People include the Vice Lords, the Black Cobra Stones, and the El Rukns, as well as the Vallev Rocks; under the Folks are the Disciples, the Spanish Cobras, and the Latin Jivers. The People control most of the West Side (John said it was the Vice Lords who had attacked his uncle Marvin twenty years earlier), while the Folks control most of the South Side. The People wear the bills of their caps pointed left, and cross their arms with the right arm on top, while the Folks point their caps to the right and cross their arms with the left on top. Every now and then in Chicago a teenager will be gunned down on the street for the crime of having his arms crossed right-ontop in an area that is Folks turf.
John began as a foot soldier, an entry-level position in which the main duties are stealing, selling marijuana, and fighting with other gangs. He said that he did not rob people or sell drugs, but that “as far as fighting, I used to get into it a lot.” In the hierarchy, one is promoted from foot soldier to lieutenant or gunslinger, then to captain, then to chief. A chief commands about fifty foot soldiers. John’s best friend, Rocky (not his real name), was a chief in Jeffrey Manor. Another friend, named Cortez, was a Valley Rocks chief at Chicago Vocational; recently the school administration had negotiated a Camp David-style peace treaty between him and the chief of a rival gang. Both Rocky and Cortez were two or three layers of bureaucracy removed from Hoover, the chief of the parent gang.
One day, John said, he and Rocky were on a city bus and six or seven Disciples got on and attacked him, because of a quarrel over a girl. Rocky, who takes care to dress neatly, opened his briefcase, took out a gun, and started shooting. “They left,” John said. “In fact, so did the driver and everybody else on the bus.” Another time, when he was standing outside a little store called the Candy Shop, right across the street from Chicago Vocational, a Disciple shot at him. He ducked into an alley and got away. Finally, when a friend of John’s named Tystick was shot in the chest and back, he decided he had to get away. (In the time since we talked, both Tystick and Cortez have been killed.) Even Rocky, he said, was talking about joining the Marines as a way out—"’Cause once you get in a gang, you can’t get out. They want you to do something really horrendous before you get out, like kill somebody.”
The gangs are the real authorities, the most powerful force, in the worst parts of the Chicago ghetto, and as such they are another example of what happened to the ghettos when they became exclusively lower-class in the late sixties and early seventies. But John’s story illustrates another point, too. The underclass culture, after a decade on its own to gather force, was strong enough to begin expanding its sphere of influence outside the bad ghettos to neighborhoods a step or two up the ladder, like Jeffrey Manor. There are several signs of the expansion of the culture, including rising illegitimacy and crime rates, but the gang recruitment is the most obvious; it forces kids, through physical terror, to give up school and work, and become professional criminals.
III. Back Home
ONE OF THE LARGEST INTERNAL MIGRATIONS IN American history created the urban black ghettos. Almost all black southerners who came north arrived essentially penniless, and almost all settled initially in all-black, all-poor areas. Most of the migrants made it. The prevailing theories about why a substantial minority spectacularly did not make it cannot account for the relative success of most blacks who moved north. Answering the question of how and why some of the migrants got out of the ghettos and some did not, I thought, might be one of the keys to the mystery of the underclass. So I got to know a group of friends in Chicago who had come from one town in Mississippi—Canton, population 12,000, fifteen miles north of Jackson. Most of the group had graduated from the town’s segregated black high school in 1955 (though some hadn’t finished) and had moved north shortly thereafter. Their version of the origins of the underclass was new to me.
Between 1910 and 1920 the first wave of 572,000 blacks moved from the South to the North, almost always to cities. In the twenties 913,000 left; in the thirties 473,000; in the forties 1.7 million, 18 percent of the black population of the South; in the fifties 1.5 million; in the sixties 1.4 million. The number of blacks who moved north, about 6.5 million, is greater than the number of Italians or Irish or Jews or Poles who moved to this country during their great migrations.
Chicago had 44,000 blacks in 1910. The labor shortages created by the First World War and the immigration restrictions of the twenties, along with the depression in southern agriculture due to the boll weevil, brought the first big wave. There were 109,000 blacks in Chicago in 1920 (of whom 50,000 had come just in eighteen months during the world war) and 234,000 in 1930. Big Chicago employers, like the packinghouses, sent agents to the South to recruit black laborers; agents of the southern farmers came north to try, unsuccessfully, to persuade them to come home. (A headline from the Memphis Commercial Appeal read “SOUTH IS BETTER FOR NEGRO, SAY MISSISSIPPIANS/COLORED PEOPLE FOUND PROSPEROUS AND HAPPY.”) Chicago’s pre-eminent black newspaper, the Defender, was widely circulated in the South and was a constant cheerleader for migration (which it called “The Flight Out of Egypt”), assuring blacks that Chicago had better jobs and more rights, even if it was colder. As one article put it, in response to a warning made to blacks by southern whites, “To die from the bite of frost is far more glorious than at the hands of a mob.”
During the Depression, because the word went out that jobs were hard to come by in Chicago, the migration slowed considerably; the black population grew by just 44,000 in the thirties. But the Second World War created a labor boom that set off a quarter century of sustained movement of southern blacks to Chicago. There were 492,000 black Chicagoans in 1950 (a 77 percent increase in one decade), 813,000 in 1960 (a further 65 percent increase). and 1.1 million in 1970. Because the migrants followed the existing train, bus, and highway routes, black Chicago was populated from the states along Highway 51 and the Illinois Central tracks—Arkansas, Louisiana, and, most important, Mississippi. In the fifties alone Mississippi lost more than a quarter of its black population. It’s no wonder that the Delta blues became the Chicago blues in the late forties and early fifties; blacks still sometimes call the South Side “North Mississippi.”
Although the migration ended in the early seventies— again, because jobs had become scarce in Chicago—there is still considerable movement back and forth, and the South is very much in the minds of black Chicagoans. Most of the very successful local blacks who are held up as role models are southern-born: Jesse Jackson (South Carolina), John H. Johnson, the owner of Ebony (Arkansas), Oprah Winfrey, the TV host who appeared in The Color Purple (Mississippi), Walter Payton, of the Chicago Bears (Mississippi), the Reverend Johnnie Colemon, the pastor of the biggest church in Chicago (Mississippi). It is a custom among many black Chicagoans to go to the South at least twice a year, at Christmas and in July—over the Fourth of July weekend the hotels in Jackson are booked solid with black family and high school reunions.
Black Mississippians go to Chicago too. Recently, at a student assembly of a black Catholic grade school in Canton, I asked the children how many had been to Chicago, and nearly every hand went up, Often they went for long visits with relatives in the summers. (How many want to live in Chicago when they grow up? I asked. No hands. Why not? An immediate chorus: “Too dangerous.”) At one of Chicago’s worst high schools—Orr, on the West Side—I asked a class how many were born in Chicago. Almost everyone was. But almost everyone’s mother had been born in Mississippi. Many of the mothers of a class of eighth graders at Beethoven School, an elementary school whose students all live in the Robert Taylor Homes, were from Mississippi.
Today there are 1.2 million black Chicagoans (the increase of 100,000 since 1970 is the result not of migration but of births exceeding deaths). A reasonable estimate of the number who are in the underclass would be somewhere between 200,000, roughly the total population of all the low-income housing projects, including men who aren‘t official residents, and 420,000, the number of black Chicagoans on welfare. Even the highest estimate is only a third of the current black population, which does not include the approximately 230,000 blacks in Chicago suburbs.
THE EXPERIENCE IN CHICAGO OF THE MAJORITY OF blacks who migrated, then, has not been one of defeat and failure. A much more typical story would be like that of Mildred Nichols, one of the group I met from Canton. I met Nichols at a restaurant called Soul Queen, on the far South Side, near a neighborhood called Pill Hill (black doctors live there). We talked in the bar, where the waitress who served our drinks was wearing a gold paper crown.
Nichols graduated from Cameron Street High School, in Canton, on May 28, 1955, and arrived in Chicago on June 5. She moved in with an aunt and uncle she had never met and began looking for a job. She took a test to be an orderfiller at the big Montgomery Ward catalogue store but was told that she had failed. She was convinced that she had really passed and was being tricked, so she told the woman who had administered the test that she would be back in the afternoon to retake it, and back again every day until she passed. She got the job, stayed there until after the Christmas rush, and then began working as a waitress on the midnight-to-8 A.M. shift at a restaurant in the heart of the ghetto.
The themes that Mildred Nichols emphasized to me during our conversation were pride and success. Today she works in the office at a nursing home called Bcthune Plaza, also in the heart of the ghetto. She has been with the same company for ten years. Of her five siblings, all younger, a sister has a master‘s degree and teaches school, one brother is an attorney in Jackson, married to a nurse, the next brother is a businessman in Canton, the next is a graduate of Northwestern Law School, and the youngest sister is a pharmacist.
I asked her what their secret was. She said, “It might have been that we had a two-parent family. My father had a fourth-grade education, and my mother had eighth grade—we were middle-class. We lived in town. My father taught us that you have to be a strong person to survive. Willpower! Nothing, nobody is better than you. Nobody. Welfare? No! Jesus! No! Because I simply could not be bought. Never! Never! Catholic schools for my kids. No truancy. I told them, ‘Give me two years of college. You must!’ My son has no police record. My daughter didn’t have her first child till she was twenty-five. I never did domestic work, darling. Never! I‘ve always had office jobs.”
What about the people who had failed in Chicago? What was the difference? “They had low self-esteem. They didn’t have the drive you need in Chicago. You see, this city is Jaws—One, Two, Three, and Four. They didn’t want to!”
In Mildred Nichols‘s view, the people on welfare were primarily children of sharecroppers from what southern blacks call “the rural”—the farming areas outside of town. “The persons who aren’t able to deal with this society,” she said, “are the ones from the deep-rural part of the South that had to drop out of school to pick cotton. They had no one to teach them. They still live that life-style of the rural South up here. The other day I went in the grocery store across the street from Robert Taylor Homes, and I went completely ape. I went stone bats! They had those Little Debbie gingerbread cookies in two-packs. They had the little packets of Argo starch —people in the country like to chew it, especially pregnant women, and in the country they stay pregnant.”
What was striking about this answer was how foreign Nichols found the commonly held idea that a poor black underclass has emerged over the past twenty years, starting with the flowering of the Great Society programs. ‘The main characteristics of the underclass—poverty, crime, poor education, dependency, and teenage out-of-wedlock childbearing—were nothing new to her. She and her friends, and white people in Canton, too, had seen them all their lives.
CANTON WAS ESTABLISHED IN 1834. VS THE TRADING center and seat of government for Madison County, Mississippi. It seems warranted to say that slavery was the town’s central and defining institution. From the beginning blacks outnumbered whites by three to one (the ratio did not drop significantly until after the Second World War), and the whites‘ economic status and comfort and safety depended on keeping the blacks subjugated.
To what degree slavery hurt the black family is the subject of a lengthy and complicated debate among historians. In Madison County what evidence there is supports the view that slavery had a destructive effect on family coherence. A small oral-history project carried out in the 1930s includes reminiscences by two former slaves, both of whom, when they were children, saw their parents separated through sale. One of them said that there were no marriage ceremonies for slaves in Madison County, and that pairings were often arranged by the masters.
Through the mid-twentieth century Madison County was settled into a system of segregation and sharecropping. I found no real disagreement between blacks and whites about the particulars: All but a handful of blacks, fewer than a hundred, were denied the right to vote, by means of a poll tax and a “literacy test,” in which the registrar of voters would pick at random a section of the Mississippi constitution and ask black would-be voters to read it aloud and then deliver an interpretation. There were separate black and white schools in Canton, and in the countryside blacks went to one-room schoolhouses with no new books, heat, electricity, or running water. In April and May, and then again in September and October, many blacks, especially in the country, had to leave school to work in the cotton fields, so even a decent junior high school education was a great rarity among rural blacks. Blacks were expected to address whites as “sir” and “mister,” as in “Yassuh, Mister Charlie.” Whites addressed blacks by their first names. This was serious business: one black woman in Canton told me that when she was a girl, in the forties, a man who was home visiting from the North was shot dead on a sidewalk by a policeman for acting, the woman said, “uppity.” Another told me about a black grocery-store clerk in the fifties who was seen flirting with a white female customer; he was castrated by white vigilantes and put on a train out of town.
In the country some blacks owned small farms but most were employees or, more likely, tenants. They would live on big farms in unpainted twoand three-room wooden shacks, with no plumbing or heat. Families were big, in part because the more hands there were to go out in the fields the more money the family would make. The sharecropper kept anywhere from half to four fifths of the proceeds from his cash crops, which he received from the landowner in a settling-up at the end of the year. The sharecropper could never come out ahead. He had to borrow from the white man he worked for all year long, in order to feed his family and buy his implements, feed, and fertilizer. In bad years he would still be behind after the settling-up, sometimes so far behind that he would have to leave in a hurry; in good years, after all the deductions had been made, he would somehow be only a few dollars ahead. The result, fully intended, was an ethic of dependency. Sharecroppers had no money and practically no education, and they counted on the landowner to provide for them—which he did, meagerly. On Saturday afternoon the sharecroppers would travel into town on foot or by mule, on Sunday they’d go to church, and on Monday they’d be back in the fields.
In town there was a more complicated black society, consisting of a light-skinned elite of doctors, lawyers, and educators, a dark-skinned elite of ministers and businessmen, a skilled-artisan class (carpenters, truck drivers, railroad porters), a janitor-and-servant class, and a lower class, in which life was meager and chaotic, and bourgeois proprieties such as the marriage ceremony were little observed. This last group lived on the west side of the Illinois Central railroad tracks, often in tiny shacks. Quite often there wouid be no father in the home; he might be off working, or looking for work somewhere else, or he might have just drifted away. The black women in Canton could always work in white people’s homes, but there was very little reliable, steady, decent-paying work for men. A small subculture developed based on hustling—prostitution, bootlegging, drugs, petty thievery. This was not regarded with great hostility by other blacks car by whites, who had a casual attitude about crime in the black part of town and sometimes came to the black neighborhoods for illicit pleasures. A white man from an old Canton family showed me a novel he had found in his attic, written by a relative, apparently in the twenties or thirties; one of the characters is a sharp-dressing, sweet-talking young black man who lives off women.
The idea that black Cantonians began moving to Chicago in droves during the Second World War in order to escape segregation is appealing but not really true. They moved to escape poverty, and in most cases the dignity of making a decent living was far more gratifying at first than the dignity of having equal rights under the law. There is nothing comparable in American life today to the amount of financial gain southern blacks could realize instantly by moving less than a thousand miles away, to another part of the same country, and getting the kind of unskilled jobs— laborer, sales clerk—that were unavailable to them in Canton. David Brown, raised in the country outside Canton, left in 1951. He was working in a gas station for $25 a week. His first week’s paycheck at his job in a laundry in Chicago, working around the clock, was $200—at the time a large sum by any standards. His brother Eddie, who moved in 1961, was supporting a pregnant wife and six children on $86 a week take-home pay from a factory job in Canton. His first check in Chicago, at a small factory, was $178. Oresa Brown, no relation but also raised in the country outside Canton, was making cabinets in Memphis for $80 a week. He learned that a white co-worker was making $100 for the same job, drove up to Chicago on Labor Day in 1962, and found a cabinet-making job the next day that paid $300 a week. “The only recruiting from Chicago then was by family members who’d bring back a paycheck and show it around,” says Robert Chinn, who stayed in Canton but estimates that 80 percent of his class (1958) at Cameron Street High School left. It is part of white folklore that many blacks moved to Chicago just to get on welfare, which pays more than double in Illinois what it does in Mississippi, but this is impos-
sible to substantiate. Though everybody knows that welfare can be a trap, its tidal pull toward dependency is much stronger on people already on the rolls than on those who are working and considering their options. The extremely active Mississippi-Chicago grapevine concerns itself mostly with jobs. The gross migration figures correspond closely to the availability of jobs for blacks: the first surge during the First World War, the big dip during the Depression, and a halt in the early seventies, when the unskilled blue-collar job market was opening up in the South and closing down in the North. In the seventies, when welfare payments in Illinois were more than quadruple those in Mississippi, there was little migration at all. The handful of studies of black migrants portrays them as a typical immigrant group in that they are, on average, more motivated and better educated than the people who stayed home. They also do better, after a few years, than blacks born in the North. Whites born in the North do better than whites who moved there from the South, so it is curious that northern-born blacks should do worse; the difference must be a testament to the destructive effects of the northern ghettos on people raised there. The one group of black migrants who in 1970, at the end of the great migration, had an above-average rate of welfare dependency consisted of those who had been in the North for less than five years and who were in female-headed families.
At the time of the migration to the North the sharecroppers in Mississippi were moving off the land, because they were being replaced in the fields by machines. Heavy tractors and cotton-picking machines became common equipment on farms in the fifties; by 1960 what was once the work of fifty field hands could be done by only three or four. Typically, the sharecroppers were simply dismissed; white farmers in Canton who had dozens of people living on their property have no idea where they are today. Deserted sharecropper cabins are a common sight in the country outside Canton, spectral presences falling down at the edges of open fields, some of them in rows, some half a mile from the nearest building or road. A few are still occupied, mostly by old people who sometimes still dress in homespun and use wood fires to warm themselves and cook.
The sharecroppers moved to town—to Canton or Jackson or even Chicago—since there was no place else for them to go. It is impossible to produce statistics to prove it, but the common opinion among both blacks and whites is that many of them ended up on welfare, living in public housing (Canton has housing projects now). The similarities between sharecropping and welfare are eerie: dependency on “the man”; more money for having more children; little value placed on education; no home ownership; an informal attitude toward marriage and childbearing. I met several Cantonians who had done well and whose parents had been sharecroppers, but in every case they came from a two-parent family and at some time during their childhood their parents had scraped together enough money to buy a farm of their own and stop sharecropping. In contrast, everybody I met in the Robert Taylor Homes who was a migrant from the South had been in a sharecropper family right up to the move to Chicago. Others in the Chicago underclass have their roots in the southern small-town black lower class. For example, one member of the Cameron Street High School class of 1955 who ended up in the underclass (she lives in North Lawndale, right across the street from the house where Sharon HicksBartlett grew up) came from a one-parent family in Canton and dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade. She doesn’t keep in touch with her classmates, didn’t come to their thirtieth reunion last summer, and, when they call her, either doesn’t call back or says she’s too busy to talk. (It is typical for migrants to Chicago who have not been successful to become more and more isolated from family, friends, and people with jobs.) Mildred Nichols told me, “Most people on welfare here, they were on welfare there, in a sense, because they were sharecroppers. There they were working hard for nothing, now they’re not working for nothing. They have been mentally programmed that Mister Charlie’s going to take care of them.”
A white farmer I spent some time with in Canton agreed. He said, “We all quit the sharecroppers and went to tractors. The government takes care of all these niggers now. They live in the housing project in town. They get stamps and welfare. They’re living better than they ever lived in their lives.” This man didn‘t want me to use his name, because he had trouble in the sixties with the federal government over shorting his sharecroppers at settlingup time and doesn’t want more trouble now. On that condition he agreed to show me around the countryside just outside of Canton so that I could see what the old system was like. He is in his eighties, has a tenth-grade education, and drives an aged blue pickup truck. I met him outside a place called Jimbo‘s Cafe and got in the cab, and we took off.
After a while we turned off the highway and bumped down a dirt road to some land he owned. He pointed out where the sharecroppers’ houses had been—for example, to a pile of rotted wood. “Here’s a house. Just a nigger house. Four rooms, eight, nine people. No running water. A well, an outside toilet, no heat. I had twelve, thirteen, fourteen families out here. They got half the crop, and I charged ‘em ten cents on the dollar for their money. See, I’d pay ‘em on the basis of—I’d go and ask him how many kids he had out in the field. Because they had to hoe. I‘d let them have about twenty up to sixty dollars a month. But they‘d always want more money! They were a different class of people! You’d pay ‘em Friday night and it’d be gone Monday morning.”
He went on: “I had these niggers working on shares. At the end of the year they didn’t have much left. They’d never go to school. He’d tell me how many he’d have in the field and that’s how many I’d look for. They’d go out in the field when they were ten or twelve, as soon as they were big enough to pull a hoe. If they wouldn’t put the kids in the field, why, then we’d whup ‘em. Then they wouldn‘t give us any more trouble. We’d tie ‘em up and whup ‘em with a plow line.
The farmer had one sharecropper left. He was sixt-six years old and suffering from lung disease. We drove out to another pasture to pick him up, because the farmer wanted me to talk to him. On the way out, he spoke of him fondly: “I done worked that nigger! I worked him from goddamn sunup to sunset and then at four in the morning I‘d get him up again. See, the white folk controlled everything then. They’d see that they didn’t have no money for no school or teachers or nothing.”
The sharecropper, white-haired, gnarled, and leatherskinned, addressed the farmer and me as “sir.” He said he had been born in the country, one of seventeen children. He hadn’t had any school at all. He had eight children of his own, two in Canton and six in Champaign, Illinois. His wife had gone to St. Louis.
It is not just a way of living that grew in the northern ghettos from seeds planted in the South but also a way of thinking. In the Chicago ghetto poor blacks use the verb stay instead of live, as in “I stay at Robert Taylor Homes.”Besides implying an inconstant life, this comes from a perfectly sensible sharecroppers’ locution: “I stay at the Smiths’ place.” Another northern ghetto term that comes from southern town life is getting over, which is less translatable but means, roughly, doing what is necessary to survive and, if possible, succeed. While it does not cover violence, it would apply to hustling as well as to morelegitimate pursuits. It comes from the idea of crossing the Jordan River to get to the Promised Land. Though the ghetto expression equivalent is not as sweet, getting over carries a positive connotation.
At the thirtieth reunion of the Cameron Street High School class of 1955, everyone greeted with pure affection a man who had been raised by a widowed mother and dropped out of school before high school. Today he is a pimp in Jackson. At the reunion he was wearing leather cowboy boots, a three-piece silk suit with a shirt open at the neck, and a great deal of jewelry (gold chains with bejeweled pendants, enormous gold rings sprinkled with diamonds), and he provided an expensive sound system and a disc jockey.
THE CIVII-RIGHTS MOVEMENT IN CANTON GOT UNder way in 1963, when three organizers from the New Orleans office of the Congress of Racial Equality came to town and started a voter-registration drive, the highlight of which was a peaceful demonstration of more than a hundred blacks who showed up at the county courthouse on a Saturday to try to register. In 1964 northern college students descended on Canton for Freedom Summer. Blacks began boycotting the businesses that line the courthouse square, which wouldn‘t hire black clerks. Blacks played in the white park and swam in the white pool. A black woman from Canton, Annie Devine, went to the Democratic Convention, in Atlantic City, as part of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Delegation. In 1966 Martin Luther King, Jr., came to town on his march through Mississippi with James Meredith; he spoke in the gymnasium of the Holy Child Jesus parochial school. White vigilantes burned down two black country churches where civil-rights meetings had been held, and planted a bomb in another black church, in town, which was discovered before it exploded. Twice at the movement’s unofficial headquarters, a place in the black neighborhood known as Freedom House, shots were exchanged between people inside and whites in passing cars.
Today in Canton, there are black elected officials, black firemen, and black policemen—but only a few. Blacks hold a majority in the number of registered voters, though not a large one. The school system is officially integrated but almost all black; integration of the high schools was achieved by shutting down the white one and changing the name of the black school to Canton Public High School. Most whites go to a private school called Canton Academy, founded in 1965. All the streets in the black part of Canton are paved now, and just west of town is a new all-black neighborhood of suburban-style brick bungalows. But there are still houses in the black part of town, particularly in one city block of rental properties, that have two rooms, and outhouses instead of indoor toilets, and cracks you can see through in their clapboard walls.
IV. Leaving the Ghetto
THE MIGRATION TO THE NORTH TRANSFERRED THE black societies of Canton and a hundred towns like it, with all their complexities and problems, to Chicago. After that several factors combined to turn the small underclass that came up from the South into the large and separate culture that it is today. In the city— away from the family, religious, and social structure of small-town life back home—all the migrants experienced a loosening of the constraints on their behavior (a process that should be familiar to readers not only of black writers like Richard Wright and Malcolm X but also of Balzac and Dreiser). This was made more pronounced because blacks who moved to Chicago from the South were funneled into a ghetto that was strikingly crowded, walled off from the rest of society, and different from what its residents had known before. The greater prosperity of blacks in the North, however, meant that there was a strong leadership in the ghettos working to counteract the forces of social entropy. But then the working black population made its rapid exodus from the ghettos, leaving the underclass disastrously cut off from the rest of the world.
Nearly all the blacks who moved went through some kind of change in their way of life from what they had known in the South—even among the determinedly ambitious members of the Cameron Street High School class of 1955 who moved north, there were several cases of childbirth out of wedlock. Sometimes these led to marriage and sometimes they didn‘t; usually there was a complicated shuttling of parents and children back and forth from Canton, which offered more of a support system. But in none of these cases was having children out of wedlock related to either of its supposed prime causes, welfare or unemployment. The people involved never went on welfare, and they were not unemployed. It had to do instead with moving to the big city. Chicago’s black elite observed the formalities of marriage, but many new arrivals did not, even if they came from a family back home in which illegitimacy had never occurred. “When my parents put me in the car to Chicago,” says one Cantonian, “they were upset because they thought it was Sin City. And it was Sin City. It still is. I didn’t get pregnant on purpose. I don’t think anybody ever got pregnant on purpose. But now I‘m glad, because my kids are grown up and I‘m still young.”
The black illegitimacy rate has risen dramatically over the past twenty years, but the problem did not begin with the Great Society programs. Every first-hand observer of black society in this country has mentioned it in connection with both rural and ghetto life. E. Franklin Frazier, in his classic work The Negro Family in the United States (1939), attributed most black out-of-wedlock childbirths to southern migrants just arrived in the North. Sometimes, he said, migrants became pregnant because of “the absence of family traditions and community controls,” and sometimes it was simply “the persistence in the urban environment of folkways"—namely, the lack of a legal marriage ceremony— “that were relatively harmless in the rural community.” He cited a variety of statistics for urban black illegitimacy at the time, ranging as high as 30 percent of births, and he said that in the years just after Emancipation, when there was a more literal loosening of traditional bonds, the rate was probably higher.
\W. E. B. Du Bois, in The Philadelphia Negro (1899), mentioned far-above-average rates of illegitimacy in the poor black neighborhoods of Philadelphia in the late 1890s. Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944), using 1936 figures, cited a rate of 16 percent for ail nonwhites, rising to 21 percent in the big cities of the South, where presumably the recent migrants from the country would then have been most concentrated and freest of social strictures. The nonwhite illegitimacy rate was eight times the white rate nationally, and more than sixteen times the rate among white firstand second-generation immigrants. Drake and Cayton, in Black Metropolis, said that the black lower class in Chicago in the forties “not only tolerates illegitimacy, but actually seems almost indifferent toward it.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, “The Negro Family,” put the 1963 rate at 23.6 percent nationally and as high as 49 percent in some parts of Harlem. I suspect that all these rates are skewed to the low side, because of the practice, common through the mid-sixties, of black women in the rural South and northern ghettos saying they were married when they were really just living with someone.
I mention these figures in order to dispute the notion that either welfare or unemployment is the overarching reason for the explosion in the black illegitimacy rate. Drake and Cayton said that in Chicago during the Depression almost half the black families were on welfare (admittedly, a less generous system than today’s) or were supported by government work programs, but the national black illegitimacy rate hardly rose. During the Reagan years, as the welfare rolls have shrunk, the illegitimacy rate has gone up. Today, in fact, many more black women have children out of wedlock than go on welfare. As for black unemployment, whereas there is some statistical match between it and illegitimacy, the match is far from perfect. The Moynihan report, after factoring out blacks in the South, concluded that black unemployment rates had been double the white rates continuously since the early thirties, but the illegitimacy rate had not taken off until the 1950s.
The point is not to deny that either welfare or unemployment is a factor in rising illegitimacy—both plainly are. But there is a third factor: the rapid urbanization of most blacks, followed by the isolation of the black lower class in the cities. High illegitimacy has always been much more closely identified with blacks than with all poor people or all unemployed people or all immigrants. It is a peculiarity of black culture, and within that, of the black lower class, and within that, of isolation; Frazier found the loosest attitude toward marriage in turpentine camps, where lower-class black migrant workers lived in rows of cabins deep in the southern forests. If, from the late sixties through the early eighties, the black urban lower class became significantly more isolated than it ever had been before, wouldn’t that help explain what happened?
IN CHICAGO AND OTHER NORTHERN CITIES THERE WAS A direct link between the magnitude of the black migration from the South and the degree of residential segregation imposed by whites. In 1898 only 11 percent of black Chicagoans lived in neighborhoods more than 75 percent black. In 1900 thirty-three of Chicago’s thirty-five wards were at least 0.5 percent black. As soon as the flow of migrants became significant, though, white hostility toward blacks surged, growing partly from pure prejudice, partly from fear of the importation of the social ills created by Jim Crow, partly from intense competition in the labor market. It is a pattern of long standing, reminiscent even of Canton in the mid-nineteenth century: a primal white antipathy toward the black masses, which always leads to the creation of iron restrictions on where blacks can live and work. In the summer of 1919, just as Chicago was absorbing the first big concentrated wave of southern migrants, white gangs started a riot at a Lake Michigan beach when a black swimmer ventured into a de facto white stretch of water. Violence, by both blacks and whites, spread through much of the South Side, lasted a week, and left thirty-eight people dead and 537 injured.
In the late forties, with southern blacks again pouring into the city and racial tensions rising (there were riots when black veterans tried to move into temporary housing in white neighborhoods), Chicago, like many cities, began building many public-housing projects. At the time, integrated public housing was one of the great liberal causes, and it was also a constant, long-standing political demand of blacks. In the liberal dream, housing projects would be filled by a racially integrated, clean-living, well-educated working class. Ward politicians with white constituents to keep happy were adamantly opposed to integration, though, and in 1949 the state legislature passed a law that boxed out the liberals by requiring that the Chicago City Council approve all public-housing sites. This virtually ensured that projects would be segregated. In 1950 Robert Taylor, the black chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority, resigned in frustration at his inability to get the sites he wanted past the council. In 1953 there were protracted riots when one black family moved into a white housing project. In 1954 Elizabeth Wood, a Jane Addams— style reformer who was the CHA’s director and longtime guiding spirit, and a great believer in integration, was forced out. From 1957 to 1968 the CHA built 15,591 housing units—almost all in high-rise buildings, almost all with black tenants, almost all in existing black ghettos. The private housing market was, by unwritten law, strictly segregated in most places. By 1970 Chicago was the most residentially segregated city in America.
But because the segregation was by race, the ghetto was fairly well integrated by class. It was a community, with leaders and institutions—poor, with unusual difficulties, but a community nonetheless. From the First World War through the mid-sixties the black leadership regarded the high crime and low marriage rates of the black lower class as problems it had to solve, sometimes with a sigh (the white folks on the Gold Coast weren’t held responsible for the rough-and-tumble of poor-white Chieago). It would, in sociologists’ language, help the lower class to acculturate. For years the Chicago Defender published what a city commission called “instructions on dress and conduct [that] had great influence in smoothing down improprieties of manner which were likely to provoke criticism and intolerance in the city.” The big South Side churches all had memberships across the black economic spectrum, in contrast to the segregation by class that prevailed in white Protestant churches. The Urban League was founded with the purpose of teaching lower-class southern migrants the ways of city life. Drake and Cayton, commenting on a slogan made popular by the Defender, wrote, “When upperclass and middle-class people speak of ‘advancing The Race,’ what they really mean is creating conditions under which lower-class traits will eventually disappear and something approaching the middle-class way of life will prevail in Bronzeville.” The black middle class knew that the black lower class would constantly be held up as the reason that all blacks had to be kept in certain neighborhoods and certain jobs; this was a grievous wrong, which had the side effect of giving the black middle class a strong vested interest in the uplift of the black lower class. Then the grievous wrong was righted.
IN JANUARY OF 1966 MARTIN LUTHKR KING, JR., MOVED into an apartment in North Lawndale and announced that he and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference would be focusing their energies on Chicago for a while. He called his Chicago project the “End Slums Campaign” and said it would be aimed at improving the conditions in overcrowded, poorly maintained inner-city black
neighborhoods. During his time in Chicago his campaign underwent a crucial shift, though it may not have seemed that way then. John A. McDermott, at the time a young Catholic activist working in the civil-rights movement and later the publisher of a distinguished Chicago newsletter on race relations, says, “King would try one issue after another to see what would get a response. ‘End Slums’ did not generate a tremendous amount of popular support. It was not a simple good-versus-evil issue. This was not Montgomery, Alabama. There were no overt racist laws or institutions. The problem of racism was more subtle. It was not clear it was a conspiracy. Some of the slumlords were black.
“Then a group tried the issue of open housing. We held demonstrations in white neighborhoods that wouldn’t let blacks in. The white reaction was one of panic and outrage. It was on the nightly news, and suddenly people saw that a) the laws were not being enforced, and b) white people were full of hate and anger. People suddenly woke up and literally poured into the movement.”
With the last great wave of southern migrants just arrived, North Lawndale was frustrated, tense, and swollen—in 1960 its population was 25 percent higher than it had been ten years earlier, when North Lawndale was a white neighborhood, and nearly half the population was under twenty years old, compared with less than 30 percent in 1950. Gangs were starting to become a severe problem. In July of 1966 there was rioting on the West Side that required 1,500 National Guardsmen to restore order. The working, married, better-established part of the population desperately wanted to get out of the neighborhood. On August 5 King led an open-housing demonstration in Marquette Park, then an all-white neighborhood, on the Southwest Side. The protection of more than 1,200 policemen did not stop his being hit in the head by a rock thrown by whites from the neighborhood. A knife thrown at him hit someone else. The demonstrators had to be evacuated in buses. On August 26 Mayor Richard Daley, under intense pressure from his white precinct captains to stop the demonstrations, finally sat down with King at the negotiating table. The result was a “summit agreement” devoted almost exclusively to the fair-housing issue rather than to ending slums.
What happened in Chicago is an especially dramatic version of what happened all over the country: just as the number of new, poor, migrant blacks in the cities reached its all-time peak, the country decided to mount a real attack on segregation in housing and employment, and otherwise to help those blacks capable of moving closer to the mainstream of American society to do so. The result is evident in the census data, as we have already seen: there has been another major migration of blacks over the past twenty years, out of the ghettos. Even more pronounced than the social and economic deterioration of the ghettos between 1970 and 1980 is their depopulation. North Lawndale was already losing population in the late sixties, and in the seventies more than half its black population moved away. The tenement house where King lived is a vacant lot now. In the same decade the area around fortyseventh and South Parkway, the old vibrant heart of the South Side ghetto, lost 38 percent of its black population. The Robert Taylor Homes, whose extremely low rents and solid construction for years attracted long waiting lists, are now 20 percent vacant. All the ghetto schools, the overcrowding of which in the sixties was supposed to be a major cause of low achievement levels, have lost enrollment. This isn‘t happening just in Chicago. The South Bronx lost 37 percent of its population between 1970 and 1980. More than 100,000 black Chicagoans moved to the suburbs in the seventies; 224,000 blacks moved from Washington, D.C., to its suburbs, 124,000 from Atlanta to its suburbs. These are unusually high numbers for neighborhood population loss, and the comparable numbers today would be even higher.
There‘s no mystery to why so many people left the ghettos. They wanted to feel safe on the streets, to send their children to better schools, and to live in more pleasant surroundings; in particular, riots drove many people away. Probably everyone who could leave did. Many businesses and churches (except for tiny “storefront” churches, which often are unaffiliated with any organized religion) left with them. What was unusual about the migration of the black working population out of the ghettos, compared with that of other immigrant groups, is that it was for many years delayed and then suddenly made possible by race-specific government policies. That’s why it happened so fast. One reason that the numbers for unemployment and poverty and female-headed families in the ghettos have gone up so much is that nearly everyone who was employed and married moved away (also, the fertility rate of black married women has dropped substantially, which is a sign of assimilation into the middle class). Very quickly, around 1970, the ghettos went from being exclusively black to being exclusively black lower-class, and there was no countervailing force to the venerable, but always carefully contained, disorganized side of the ghetto culture. No wonder it flourished in the seventies. The “losing ground” phenomenon, in which black ghettos paradoxically became worse during the time of the War on Poverty, can be explained partly by the abrupt disappearance of all traces of bourgeois life in the ghettos and the complete social breakdown that resulted.
ALMOST ALL OF THE CANTONIANS, WHEN THEY ARrived in Chicago in the late fifties and early sixties, lived in the traditional South Side ghetto, and then all but the very least fortunate left. Of the many success stories, everybody’s favorite is that of the Sims family, who prove that it is possible to move unscarred from a peasant background in rural Mississippi to the upper middle class in one generation. Back home they started out as sharecroppers—two parents and thirteen children working a fourteen-acre plot that was five miles from the nearest paved road. They did have a leg up: Juanita Sims had an unusually high degree of education, which is to say some high school; her father owned a thirty-one-acre plot of land, to which they eventually moved the family so that they could farm for themselves; and J. B. Sims was able to get a job laying pipeline for the city.
Weedell Sims, the third daughter, graduated from Cameron Street High School in 1955 and immediately moved to Chicago, following the path of her sister Theresa, who had come up a few years earlier. On her first day in Chicago, Weedell found a job as an assembler at the Bancroft Clock factory, for less than a dollar an hour. After nine months she was laid off, and found a job in the mailroom at Montgomery Ward. She celebrated her thirtieth anniversary at Ward this spring—she’s now a supervisor in the data-control division. In 1961 she married Jack McIntosh, who had moved to Chicago just after his high school graduation in Rayville, Louisiana. He has been with AT&T in Skokie, Illinois, since 1960. Today they live in a beautiful white brick house in an integrated suburb called Matteson, and attend an integrated Lutheran church. They both have college diplomas from Chicago State, earned through years at night school.
J. B. Sims, Jr., the oldest son in the family (the initials don’t stand for anything), came to Chicago in 1957, at the age of eighteen, right after the fall harvest was finished.
He arrived with $13.50 in his pocket. After a week he got a job in a laundry for ninety cents an hour, and soon after that he got a second job at another laundry. After several years of working two full-time jobs, he got a day job in a grocery store, underwent ministerial training at night, and then started a Baptist church in his basement—Greater Tabernacle Missionary Baptist. The church flourished and moved to larger quarters. In 1975 he moved to a spacious brick house on the South Side. In 1978 he started a bus company that takes Chicago children to school, under contract from the board of education. In 1980 he felt secure enough to quit his job at the grocery store. Today he has forty-eight buses and owns a service station and a fourteen-unit apartment building. The church is just about to reopen in a new half-million-dollar building. He is married, for the second time, and has one daughter and one stepdaughter.
As the Sims family, and the rest of the Cantonians who made it, did better over the years, they fanned out steadily in the city, to the new working-class and lower-middleclass black areas that were opening up in the seventies, mostly in formerly white areas to the south and west of the South Side ghetto. All of them now see the ghetto culture as unhealthy, something to keep one’s kids away from. Mildred Nichols’s sister, Doris Smith, teaches at Du Sable High School, most of whose students live in the Robert Taylor Homes, but sends her children to Kenwood, a much better public high school near the University of Chicago.
Mildred Nichols’s two children are both married and both working, and have two children each. André lives in Canton, Jacqueline in Chicago. Over the years, Nichols has helped two of her siblings move to Chicago to go to graduate school at Northwestern. This year, on Valentine’s Day, she married William Burton, a security officer, and together they bought a neat brick bungalow on the far South Side.
AS MOST OF THE CANTONIANS WHO MOVED TO CHICAgo have thrived, so has the ghetto culture that grew in Chicago. Now the ghetto is coming home to Mississippi. In Canton today, at the black playground and down the street from the civil-rights movement’s Freedom House, there are walls with spray-painted symbols of the Chicago gangs: the six-pointed star of the Disciples, the crossed pitchforks of the Vice Lords.
On the evening of April 25, 1985, a young man named Percy Walker, nicknamed Squinky, got into a fight in a Canton bar with a man named Larry Ross. Later that night Ross stopped his car outside Walker’s girlfriend’s house, pulled out a shotgun, and fired at Walker point-blank. Walker died a few hours later in a hospital in Jackson. For his funeral a group of friends and relatives came down from Chicago in a phalanx of Cadillacs, which were decorated
with Vice Lords symbols. Walker’s life is a capsule version of the growth and spread of the underclass. His mother never married his father, who was from a sharecropper family, didn’t have much school, and moved from Canton to Chicago shortly after Walker was born. (There the father was a hustler and was killed in a fight in a bar.) Walker was sent to Chicago to live with relatives when he was a teenager; he dropped out of school and was arrested for rape. On visits back to Canton he began dating a girl who lived down the street from his mother, and in 1983 they had a daughter. Before she was three she learned when people said “Vice Lords” to her to answer with the proper hand signal.