Photo caption: JOHN FOUNTAIN, kneeling (at far right), poses with his childhood friends and neighbors last year at the annual block club party in the 1600 block of South Komensky Avenue on the city’s West Side where he grew up. (Photo: Provided)
This week’s column is, in part, an excerpt from John Fountain’s memoir – “True Vine: A Young Black Man’s Journey of Faith, Hope and Clarity” On his childhood recollections of the aftermath of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination, which occurred April 4, 1968—marking 55 years next month—and his current reflections on his old neighborhood.
I stood barefoot at age 7, watching the fires from my apartment window. The angry flames licked the pale night sky above the West Side of Chicago. There was an unusual rumbling out on the street, mixed with the voices of unrest, the slapping sometimes heavy thud of hurried feet beneath our third-floor apartment window on 16th Street and Komensky Avenue in the neighborhood we knew as K-Town, more largely known as North Lawndale. I could not see their faces. They could not see mine. We were all in the dark.
From the night came the crashing of glass, the blare of sirens. The screams of human anguish. A symphony of chaos.
The smoke seeped into our living room. It settled over the varnished hardwood floor like fine dust and carried the scent of charred mortar and brick. Mostly ablaze were the Jewish-owned clothing stores and businesses along Pulaski Road, near the All Nations Church of God In Christ, a white brick storefront whose sanctuary looked like a movie theater. It was a small neighborhood family church. All of its members were Black, even though it bore the name All Nations. All Nations was a Pentecostal church where my grandfather, a stout man with a manicured mustache, was a deacon and Sunday School superintendent, although years later he would receive what he would simply refer to later as “the call” from God to pastor his own church.
The fire that April night ran up and down Pulaski even as far north as Madison. Pulaski Road was the major business strip in K-Town and included the shop where Grandmother had taken my sister Net, and me one year to buy our mother a dress for Mother’s Day with the money we had saved in our fat pink piggy bank. Grandmother, a caramel-complected woman with strong but tender quilting hands and a deep but soothing tenor voice, was by far the sweetest woman I have ever known. She looked as dignified in her floral sewing smock as she did when wearing her Sunday best with some crowning hat that matched. And she had her own fire, which burned as brilliantly as the one that consumed our neighborhood that night. Except Grandmother’s fire was a different kind. It was more infectious than consuming. I call it righteous fire. The fire I witnessed from my window was from hell. That much I could sense even as a child as I watched the embers spit into the sky.
At Pulaski and Roosevelt Roads stood a hamburger joint called Holland’s. A neighborhood landmark back then, the restaurant, with its blue and white windmill marquee that could be seen for miles, would be one of the few businesses to survive the flames. The shop where we bought Mama’s dress would not.
Earlier that day, I saw all the white folks running from Kuppenheimer, the block-long brick building on 18th Street and stretching from Karlov to Keeler Avenues, and that made men’s clothing. Kuppenheimer was where Grandmother worked as a seamstress and where Grandpa and my Uncle Gene, both U.S. Postal workers by day, sometimes moonlighted as security guards. An elderly white lady cried as she hurried east on 18th Street toward the bus stop at Pulaski. Some older boys in the neighborhood snatched her purse, moving, it seemed, in slow motion, although in reality it was more like lightning speed. In slow motion was how I processed it. For years, the scene played like photographic stills over and over again in my mind. Trauma has always hit me that way.
By afternoon that Friday, enraged packs of Black teenage boys were beating up white people who worked in the neighborhood. I have never known the names of either the victims or the perpetrators. But decades later, I can still see their faces. Few words are exchanged. Mostly punches for pain.
I had heard enough at school and from Mama the evening before to know that the older guys and just about everyone in the neighborhood were mad about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being killed. The word we kids had learned in school was “assassination.”
It had an unsettling ring, like crucifixion.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated” was the way the news was synthesized and transmitted throughout the neighborhood.
Assassination. It was a big word, a strange word. I’m not sure that I fully understood back then what it meant. I only knew that Dr. King, the man who once lived in our neighborhood just a few blocks away from Komensky, the preacher whose name was on everybody’s lips and the object of everybody’s tears, was dead. But after the night of fires, the same might have been said of our neighborhood.
As I walked to the store the next morning, the National Guard troops I saw riding atop their jeeps up and down Pulaski Road–wearing their green fatigues and assault rifles as the remains of buildings smoldered in smoke and ash–were forever seared into my mind. Years later, I realized that the fires signaled the beginning of the end.
The Aftermath – 2016
Ghosts. I see them, drifting in and out of the rubble and remains here, appearing in my mind like grayish shadows, reaching from the past through poverty and smoldering ash. I see both the living and the dead. Home. I am home. In North Lawndale, 48 years after the fires.
I sojourn west on Roosevelt Road in my beloved North Lawndale, past where my grandfather’s church once stood in the 3900 block, replaced by George’s Music Room—now a lifeless shell.
My car is my time machine in this impromptu, dichotomous journey. My windshield the picture window to hope and also despair in this neighborhood once dubbed by well-intentioned but prejudiced sociological probers as “The American Millstone,” and its inhabitants as the “permanent underclass.”
Bittersweet, my memories play in black and white, the devastation in living color. A few corners of promise shine like a faint white light in an obscure tunnel.
And yet, I see—imagine—blood, even if the most recent murderous spillage has since washed away. I imagine the shell casings, where Jonathan Mills, 26, a native son, was gunned down weeks earlier on Roosevelt Road; the blanket that covered his dead body, but not his basketball sneakers.
I feel a certain kinship to young brother Mills—beyond the knowledge that my former high school teammate became Mills’ high school basketball coach. Ours is a West Side connection. We are brothers in the same struggle—regardless of generation. Objects of the genocidal mechanisms that seek to claim this “Black body,” our souls, most often at the hands of another Black male.
I am bonded to my brothers in the hood by our certainty over the fragility of life. Of the certainty that this brand of urban destruction, devolution and devastation are by design. And that the neglect of certain neighborhoods—and their pillaging by politicians, preachers and assorted poverty pimps—predestinates so many native sons and daughters to return someday as escapees. As survivors from the island.
I roll on, this afternoon, aware that days earlier, just a few blocks north, Tavon Tanner, 10, was critically wounded by gunfire.
I turn left at Pulaski Road, bound farther south for my old block: 16th Street and Komensky Avenue.
I roll on. Past pastel-colored, fluorescent small business fronts. Past vacant lots and crumbling brick buildings. Past trees—alive, dying, or already dead. Past wrought iron-fenced churches—where I once worshipped.
I am a mix of emotion, having earlier given a commencement address at the Consuella B. York High School inside Cook County Jail. Having witnessed about four dozen incarcerated young people—most of them Black males—receive high school diplomas, wearing blue caps and gowns in celebration with their families, then donning their jailhouse beige and silver handcuffs, and file by twos, back to their divisions.
Home Sweet Home lies in close proximity to the jailhouse. I felt the need to come home after my visit there.
I draw closer, feeling recharged on one hand. Drained on the other. I am conflicted by the confluence of green space where buildings once stood, and by my memories of a once more vibrant landscape. By the laughter, faces and lifeblood I once knew here. By my memories of the consuming fires that night in 1968.
Disturbed by the sight, just south of 14th Street, of a tall, thick Black woman, wearing no pants or underwear—ducking behind green brush. Encouraged by the sight of a young woman spotting the naked soul and apparently trying to offer help.
Finally, I turn down my old block and spot two old neighbors. We chat. But I cannot shake the ghosts.
I climb back into my car. At the end of the block, I glance over my shoulder, wounded into numbness by the devastation of home. Haunted by ghosts. And by memories of the fires.
Epilogue – 2023
Recently, I turned the corner of my old block, vacant lots and decaying buildings emerging as a semblance of what it used to be. The building at 1654 S. Komensky has long since vanished, singed one night in the ‘80s by an arsonist. The stately street lights make the 1600 block of South Komensky Avenue look like a photoshopped portrait of a neighborhood that once was, or perhaps is to come.
Even amid an impending new mayoral election, amid talk by candidates of building a better Chicago for all of Chicago, it is clear that previous mayors and any city policies for decades now have done little to remedy the entrenched issues here, where rigor mortis set in long ago, and where the place I once called home now lies grisly skeletal.
What’s the hope? I wish I knew. This much I do know. Hope does not lie in empty campaign promises, nor in any new city administration that will not grapple with the truth about blocks, of whole neighborhoods, like this that exist in the city of Chicago, and, for that matter, across America. It does not lie in continued neglect, lip service, and knee-jerk ineffective responses to some new crisis. It lies in a commitment once and for all to even those who dwell on this side of the tracks.
That is a matter of justice and equality, of fairness and freedom, and of society’s obligation to all, even the least of these. The lack of progress here—the glaring evidence of devolution rather than an evolution toward greater hope and prosperity since Dr. King moved to North Lawndale in January 1966 with his family to bring attention to the plight of Chicago’s Black poor—speaks to this city’s no-less-than intentional neglect that is damn near criminal.
Dr. King writes of North Lawndale in “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community”: “This is truly an island of poverty in the midst of an ocean of plenty, for Chicago now boasts the highest per capita income of any city in the world. But you would never believe it looking out of the windows of my apartment in the slum of Lawndale. From this vantage point you see only hundreds of children playing in the streets, and when you go out and talk to them you see the light of intelligence glowing in their beautiful dark eyes.”
Except, here now, in March 2023, I declare that I have rarely seen children playing in the streets when I have returned over the years. Even on cold, but bearable days, when my friends and I would have been seen playing outside, I see no children playing. Only inconspicuous young men with busy hands, standing on street corners. Desolation. Hopelessness. Blight. It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.
And 55 years and eight mayors later, the neighborhood’s scars, and the ruins of the 1968 fires, are still visible. But as far as I can see, there is still, clearly, plenty need to carry on Dr. King’s dream.
Except the winds blowing out here, from the east, seem to carry only political campaign bluster that pales in comparison to the ghosts of the people who once dwelled here and the flickering riotous fires that burned my neighborhood and stole hope.
#JusticeForJelaniDay Email: [email protected]
John W. Fountain
John W. Fountain is a professor of journalism at Roosevelt University and a 2021-22 U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Ghana, where he is a visiting lecturer at the University of Ghana-Legon and researching his project titled, “Hear Africa Calling: Portraits of Black Americans Drawn to The Motherland.”