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WBEZ examines segregation on the South Side

By Gene Demby,

There’s a strong argument to be made that Chicago’s South Side is the cultural capital of black America, a place that a far-reaching who’s who of black luminaries have called home — Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Ida B. Wells, Barack Obama. But even as the South Side has played a key role in the Great Migration, it was and continues to be shaped by entrenched segregation that has choked it off from resources and development.

In her new book, The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation, Natalie Y. Moore, a longtime reporter for WBEZ in Chicago and a native of the Chatham neighborhood on the South Side, digs into the ways that segregation continues to shape the politics of her hometown, as well as her own life.

(The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Interview Highlights

So this is complicated history, but could you explain how segregation in Chicago got so entrenched?

This is actually the 100th anniversary of the Great Migration. From 1916 to 1970, 500,000 blacks moved to Chicago. The black population here at the start was around 43,000 and by the end it was around 1 million. As soon as black migrants came here, real estate forces conspired to keep them contained.

Block associations on the South Side have long pushed to make their neighborhoods cleaner and safer, but investment from developers and retailers has been slow to follow. (Photo credit Bill Healy/St. Martin's Press)
Block associations on the South Side have long pushed to make their neighborhoods cleaner and safer, but investment from developers and retailers has been slow to follow. (Photo credit Bill Healy/St. Martin’s Press)

A lot of people may remember The Black Belt, but the Black Belt had to expand because the population kept growing. But at the same time, blacks couldn’t live in other places here. The real estate commission adopted language that endorsed racially restrictive covenants, which said that a white person could not sell or lease their property to a black person. These were written into the deeds.

Homeowner improvement associations enforced those [covenants]. And you had institutions like the University of Chicago that supported those associations. And then on the federal level, you had redlining. This was not unique to Chicago — you had this playing out all over the country, particularly in the Midwest.

In 1948, racially restrictive covenants were actually struck down by the Supreme Court. But the precursor to that case was actually in Chicago, in Hansberry vs. Lee — and that was Lorraine Hansberry’s father. [Lorraine Hansberry wrote Raisin in the Sun, an explosive 1959 play about a poor black family struggling to make it on Chicago’s South Side.]


In Chicago, most people don’t know the story of the Hansberrys. In 1937, Carl Hansberry bought a house in West Woodlawn, which is a white neighborhood just south of the University of Chicago. And a woman named Anna Lee, who was white, protested and said: “You’re not supposed to be here. We have covenants.”

That makes A Raisin In The Sun read so much differently, now that I know her father was at the center of this case.

And now that we know that the character Karl Linder was supposed to represent the white homeowners association!

That play is about a family, not about restrictive covenants, but the way that she wrote it is much milder than it played out in her family life. When they moved in, her mother had to patrol the house at night with a shotgun. The whites in the neighborhood threw bricks at the home, and one of those bricks almost hit 8-year-old Lorraine.

But the Illinois courts agreed with Anna Lee and the other white homeowners that the Hansberrys didn’t belong and had to move. But Carl Hansberry was a savvy businessman, and he liked to sue the federal government, and he wasn’t going to accept this decision.

So in 1940, this went to the Supreme Court and the Hansberrys won, but not because the court decided discrimination was bad. It was on a technicality — the court ruled that the white homeowners didn’t have enough signatures. So what happened next was white flight — about 500 homes opened up in the West Woodlawn area. And that affects my family because my grandparents on my mother’s side moved here after World War II and they moved to West Woodlawn. By the time they got here, the covenants were about to be lifted, so you had black migration to other South Side neighborhoods that had been all white. In 1950, 100 percent white, and by 1970 it was 0.2 percent white.

What’s disheartening about this is, our country has decided that the way you build wealth is through homeownership. And there have been all these wrenches that have been thrown at black people as soon as they came to the North.


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