By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
Her apartment was dark on May 1, 1950. Gwendolyn Brooks had not paid the electric bill. The brilliant, award-winning Black poet who wrote about life on Chicago’s South Side made headlines around the world while living in a housing project.
With no electrical power, little money and a nine-year old son to feed, someone called Brooks and told her that she had won the Pulitzer, the most prestigious prize for literature. At 32 years old, Brooks crashed the white-dominated literary world as the first Black to win the Pulitzer in its 33 years.
When Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize with her publisher Harper Row in 1950, she received $500, which is equivalent today to $5,000 when adjusted for inflation. Today the Pulitzer comes with a $10,000 cash award.
The achievement was important for Brooks’ career, but it was also symbolic of her life as a Black woman in the 1950s.
Up until the day she won the Pulitzer, Brooks and her husband Henry Blakely experienced rampant racism in Chicago’s schools, but especially in the city’s housing industry. Blacks lived piled up in slums because of segregation and restrictive covenants that kept people of color out of white neighborhoods.
As was true for many Blacks, financial woes, racism and a critical housing shortage for people of color led one of America’s greatest literary figures to live in a housing project, one that was once opposed by thousands of white residents at the height of Jim Crow period.
When a Crusader reporter last June viewed an interview Brooks gave with the Library of Congress decades ago, it sparked research that led to the Princeton Park Homes, an 80-acre development that’s now called Ivy Park Homes. Today, its privately owned apartments are just three minutes from the tony mega church, Trinity United Church of Christ on West 95th Street. Back then, Brooks was among hundreds of Blacks who called the Princeton Park complex home.
As the 100th anniversary celebrations of Brooks’ birthday continue, Brooks’ literary achievements have made her an enduring figure in American culture – Black and white. While much has been said about her works, her hard life growing up in segregated Chicago has made her success all the more extraordinary.
Some 36 years after capturing the Pulitzer, Brooks gave a sit-down interview in 1986 with the Library of Congress. The interview came as Brooks served as the 29th Consultant in Poetry for the world’s largest library. Alan Jabbour, director of the Library of Congress’ American Folklore division, and E. Ethelbert Miller, poet and director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, interviewed her. The interview is posted on YouTube.
Among several questions, Brooks was asked how she learned that she had won the Pulitzer Prize. She responded,
“I was in a house at 9134 S. Wentworth and the lights were out. We hadn’t paid the electric bill so there was no electricity and it was dusk. It was dark in the house. My son [Henry Blakely Jr.} was nine at the time. Jack Starr, a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times called. He said ‘do you know that you have won the Pulitzer Prize?’ I said ‘no’ and screamed over the telephone. I couldn’t believe it. So he said well, it was true. And it would be announced the next day. The next day reporters came, photographers came with cameras and I was absolutely petrified. I wasn’t going to say anything about the electricity. Well, when they tried to plug their cameras in – nothing was going to happen. Well, miraculously, somebody had turned the electricity back on that fast. I never knew exactly what happened. So my son and I danced around in the dusk and decided we would go out to the movies to celebrate. I don’t know what movie it was, before you ask.”
Princeton Park Homes, the place where Brooks’ life would change, was Chicago’s first large-scale federally-funded, privately run housing project. It was located just west of the Dan Ryan, and consisted of some 900 two-story brick apartments that sit between 91st and 95th streets. The development rests on 80 acres of land once owned by George Pullman, the white industrialist who made his fortune building railroad passenger trains known as sleeping cars.
How Princeton Park Homes began is a story in itself.
In 1941, housing conditions for Blacks were at a critical level. World War II sparked the creation of several war plants near Princeton Park Homes. Black war workers were employed in several of them, including the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Company, Wisconsin Steel Company and the pressed Steel Car Company, which was owned by the Pullman Company. The second wave of the Great Migration, beginning in 1941, poured thousands more Blacks into the South Side, and housing became a serious problem.
To ease tensions and the crowded conditions that year, Chicago Mayor Edward J. Kelley, and vice-chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority Robert R. Taylor announced the creation of Princeton Park Homes, a $4.5 million privately-owned housing project that would be the largest of its kind in the country. The Chicago Urban League said the development was badly needed on the South Side, where there were cases of 10 people living in three rooms and five in one room,” according to a story in the Chicago Tribune.
With the housing crisis growing, the project was supposed to get off the ground right away, but several events delayed its construction.
Though the area was predominately Black 11,000 whites who lived three-quarters of a mile from the area, signed a petition to stop the construction and relocate Princeton Park elsewhere. The government agency, the defunct Reconstruction Finance Corporation, decided not to subsidize the development. When Princeton Park’s owner Donald O’Toole, a prominent white banker, learned that a life insurance company would not fund the project, he turned back to the RFC, which reversed its decision. After many delays, Princeton Park finally opened in 1944 with 230 units completed, according to the Chicago Tribune. Twenty-six war worker families moved in, stated the newspaper. The units were rented at $47.50 per month. The remaining 670 units would be built later.
Years later, Brooks would be among the tenants at Princeton Park Homes. It’s not clear exactly when she moved. Her daughter Nora Blakely was born at Provident Hospital one year after Brooks won the Pulitzer. Before moving to Princeton Park Homes, hard times and financial challenges forced Brooks and her husband to move about six times on the South Side, before Brooks used the profits of a sale of a house in Kalamazoo, Michigan to buy the house at 7428 S. Evans in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. According to author George Kent’s 1990 book, A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks she lived in that house from 1953 to 1994. Today, the home is a Chicago landmark.
Two years ago, Princeton Park was renamed Ivy Park Homes after an extensive renovation. During a visit to the development a reporter asked a young man inside the house if he knew about Gwendolyn Brooks, but he did not speak English. An employee in the leasing office at Ivy Park Homes didn’t know that Gwendolyn Brooks once lived in the development.
“Wow, I didn’t not know that,” she said.