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First African American woman elected to the Chicago City Council – Anna Langford

Anna Langford embodies the importance of historical preservation, not one that our community members have passed on, but while they are still present to hear us sing their praises.

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written in the history of this generation,” said Robert F. Kennedy.

The portion of events taken on by Anna Langford in no small part has left its lasting impact on the history of the city of Chicago.

Born on October 27, 1917, in Springfield, Ohio, to a Black father, Arthur J. Riggs who passed when Langford was only nine months old, and a white mother, Alice Reed, Langford was not far removed from the racist struggles of a post-Civil War society despite being born above the Mason-Dixon line. As a matter of fact, Ohio repealed their miscegenation laws only 30 years before Langford’s birth, which prohibited “a person of ‘pure white blood’ from marrying or engaging in ‘illicit carnal intercourse’ with anyone who has a distinct and visible admixture of African blood.”

This era that falls after the era of Reconstruction, is the lesser known “Redemption Era.” This time period saw “the return of white supremacy and the removal of rights for Blacks – instead of Reconstruction. This political pressure to return to the old order was oftentimes backed up by mob and paramilitary violence, with the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and the Red Shirts assassinating pro-Reconstruction politicians and terrorizing Southern Blacks,” as defined by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This period was so dire that W.E.B. DuBois described the horrors saying, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

The racial discrimination that Langford and her family experienced had a deep, lasting impact on her life though she was only a young girl. At the age of eight, Langford’s mother, Alice, was admitted to the hospital while suffering from appendicitis. While admitted to a hospital for her condition, Langford and her siblings paid their mother a visit. Unfortunately, the presence of biracial children in a white’s-only hospital proved to be an issue, ultimately forcing Alice to be transferred to a Black hospital for treatment. This proved to be a fatal decision, as Alice died from a burst appendix during transport between hospitals.

Upon the death of her mother, Langford was raised by her grandmother until the age of sixteen, at which time she moved to Chicago in 1933 to live with an aunt and uncle in the throes of the Great Depression. Here is where she attended and eventually graduated from Hyde Park High School in 1935.

At the time of her graduation, though the Depression and its effects were beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel, the economic impacts were still widespread. This includes the rise of women entering the workforce in droves to attempt to offset the impact of breadwinners (typically men) losing employment at extremely high rates.

Unknown 32By the time Langford was at graduation age and preparing to enter the workforce, the landscape of employment for women outside of the household was clearly defined. According to 1999’s Freedom of Fear written by David Kennedy, 90 percent of any job opportunity aimed toward women could be catalouged into around 10 categories – though opportunities for Black and brown women were primarily relegated to domestic work.

The rise of office work for women, particularly secretarial roles, was heavily impacted by the creation and eventual expansion of the government-sanctioned New Deal, a major project during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tenure in office to stabilize and invigorate the American economy through the creation of federal programs.

Post-graduation, Langford attended a trade school to learn office skills, eventually becoming a secretary and typist in various political offices. From 1938 to 1956, Langford worked in the Social Security Office, Election Commissioner’s Office, and the Office of the Secretary of State.

After a long career of working in the office, Langford made the decision to attend law school, accomplishing a lifelong dream.

“I always wanted to be a lawyer, even when I was in Springfield, Ohio. Whenever there was a court scene, I was that lawyer pacing up and down in front of that jury,” said Langford when asked about what was the inspiration behind pursuing law. “When we finished high school, the year that I graduated, we had to write our autobiography. And at the end, we were to tell what our ambitions consisted of, what they were.”

And I said, “My ambition is to be the world’s greatest criminal lawyer. Why, I always just wanted to be a lawyer, that’s all. And at the time I started practicing law, there were no women in the criminal field at all. The criminal courts building, what women were over there were either probation officers or working in some other field, but they were not lawyers.”

In February of 1956, Langford graduated with a J.D. degree from John Marshall Law School at Roosevelt University after studying for 11 years. Despite such an illustrious accomplishment, the path to success was by no means easy while practicing as a Black, female attorney.

Once prepared to take the step to establish her own law practice, Langford was met with pushback from the city as a Black person could not legally rent office space in the city’s downtown. This discriminatory setback forced her to rent out office space with established lawyers in the Park Manor neighborhood until she was able to forge her own path.

While practicing law, Langford never forgot her desire to work and support the Civil Rights Movement, using her legal prowess to support the cause from the grassroots, working as one of many Chicago lawyers in Mississippi in the summer of 1964 during the “Freedom Summer,” also known as the “Mississippi Summer Project,” voter-registration campaign.

Serving as a voter registration drive to increase the number of Black voters in the state, Freedom Summer saw over 700 volunteers from across the country swarm into the state. The effort was met with violence at every turn for two distinct reasons: 1) voter intimidation was at an all-time high, using every tactic possible to minimize the participation of Black voters at the polls, and 2) the vast majority of out-of-state volunteers were not Black, therefore visually antagonizing those against the comingling of different races.

The efforts of the Civil Rights supporters garnered the attention of the Ku Klux Klan and when partnered with the support of state and local authorities, came to an unfortunate and violent head on many occasions, even in some instances resulting in murder in the name of upholding racist values.

Langford was spurred to join the movement upon hearing the news of the disappearance of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner.

“When I heard that the boys [Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman] were missing, and all these different stories were coming out. ‘Oh, they’re just hiding someplace trying to get publicity’ and so forth and so on. And I remember I got up one morning, I said, ‘They’re dead. I know they’re dead,’ and the tears were just rolling down my cheeks,” Langford stated, when asked about her motivations to get involved in the Mississippi civil rights work.

“I said, ‘I’m going to go down there and work, you know, for a week.’ And the morning that I left, I had booked into the Sun-n-Sand Motel in Jackson, and Larry [Lawrence Langford] was a little kid then, he said, ‘Mama,” they just burned a cross in front of your hotel where you’re gonna go stay.’ I said, ‘Oh, fine, I’ll stop and pick up some marshmallows.’ He said, ‘Oh, mama.’ And that’s the way I left.”

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Anna Langford sitting in City Council meeting after becoming the first Black woman to ever become an alderman in the city of Chicago.

On June 15, Schwerner and Goodman, who were white students from New York, and Chaney, a local Black man, were last seen in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where they were investigating the burning of a church. Their disappearance did not go unnoticed, eventually making national headlines, alongside the registration efforts. The bodies of all three victims were discovered six weeks later. It was determined that a lynch mob at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, with the assistance of a local police officer, was responsible.

Langford continued her foray with civil rights even after Freedom Summer, even meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in her very own living room to assist in planning the 1966 march on Cicero, a Chicago suburb that held sundown town policies, which prohibited Black individuals from living within the city limits. Dr. King and many other groups strategically worked to protest the policies and peacefully promote integration in both housing and schooling opportunities.

The efforts eventually worked to gain support for the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which further extended prohibiting discrimination for private housing. This also worked to spur the creation of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, which enforces the laws presented in the 1968 Civil Rights Act.

Years later, Langford re-ran in the 1971 aldermanic election, her first win after an unsuccessful bid four years earlier, putting her in charge of the 16th Ward that included parts of Englewood, Back of the Yards, and Gage Park. This marked Langford as the first Black woman elected to Chicago’s City Council and one of the first two female alderwomen in the city’s history alongside Marilou Hedlund.

At the time that Langford and Hedlund were elected to office, female designated bathrooms did not exist in the City Council building nor did the term “alderwoman.”

The following is an excerpt from a March 1971 Jet Magazine article chronicling her historic win:

“Stating that she will function “in the interests of my ward first and then in the interest of my city,” Atty. Anna R. Langford became the first Black alderwoman in the history of Chicago. Atty. Langford beat George P. Boggan, her Democratic opponent, 4,636 votes to 3,885, according to an unofficial tally. A handsome woman who sought a City Council seat in 1967 but missed a runoff by 75 votes, Atty. Langford is strongly independent. Her strong win stunned political observers who did not think it was possible for an independent to win in the strongly Democratic and highly organized 16th Ward.”

She lost her 1975 re-election bid, lost again in an attempted comeback in 1979, then saw victory in two following elections in the 1980s. And in the early ’80s, Ms. Langford challenged a onetime Illinois congressman named Harold Washington to either run for Chicago mayor—or she would.

As part of her first official foray into political office, Langford established herself as a proponent of LGBTQ+ rights, co-sponsoring a 1973 bill alongside only eight other aldermen that stood against the discrimination of the LGBTQ+ community in workplaces, housing, and public accommodations.

In 1973 she and only eight other aldermen co-sponsored an anti-gay discrimination bill for housing and public accommodations. Later, in 1989, Langford also helped to pass a Chicago Gay Rights Ordinance, which expanded discrimination protections “not only for homosexuals, but also the elderly, handicapped, divorced and single parents, veterans regardless of military discharge, and other minorities in housing, employment, and public accommodations.”

This legislation proved to be substantial as the 80s saw a rise in fearmongering surrounding the LGBTQ community due to the country-wide AIDS crisis that swept the nation.

Despite supporting historic legislation, Langford lost her bid for re-election in 1975 and again in 1979.

Yet Langford did not give up, seeking re-election for the third time in 1983. This proved to be successful with Langford reclaiming her position and successfully maintaining it until her retirement from office in 1991. During this period of time, Langford also became Mayor Pro-Tempore of the Council, a post she held from 1988 to 1991.

As for Langford’s private life, she was married twice. First, to jazz musician Antonio Fambro from 1936 until 1939, and later to Lawrence R. Langford from 1947 until getting divorced in 1971. Together they had one child, Lawrence “Larry” Langford Jr.

Langford was praised for her political efforts and accomplishments often while alive, receiving both humanitarian and civil awards to celebrate her life. This includes an induction into the Black Women Lawyer’s Association’s “Book of Legends” for her contributions to her city as a public servant and as a lawyer.

The former alderwoman, lawyer, civil rights supporter, and public servant passed away on September 17, 2008, at the age of 90 in the city she spent her life trying to improve. At the time of her passing, Rev. Jesse Jackson said she “used sheer integrity to beat back a well-financed oppressive political machine…We owe a great debt to Anna Langford.”

Today, Anna Langford’s memory lives on in her family and in the bones of Chicago. As part of preserving her memory, the school formerly known as Nicholas Copernicus was renamed in her honor in 2010, becoming Anna R. Langford Community Academy.

In this modern age, we seek to preserve the memories of the women that have come to play crucial roles in the very foundation of the city of Chicago. Not only during Women’s History Month but every day.

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