(note from Penny: this is the first of many essays/articles from “Fragment of a Memoir: Hyde Park Herald 1952-1967″. I’ve always known of Hyde Park Kenwood on the south side of Chicago as “The First Integrated Neighborhood In America” but there is much, much more to the story. It is a story of displacement, urban renewal, and people coming together in new and groundbreaking ways)
Hyde Park- 1950- the winter I moved in. Here was a one mile square community inclusive of the prestigious University of Chicago. Bordered on the East by Lake Michigan, parks, and beaches; on the North by an African American ghetto, on the West by a large urban park separating the university’s white community from the black neighborhoods pushing against it. To the South was a broad greensward, the Midway Plaissance, stretching one mile east to west, separating the academic world of the University from the rest of the city. The “Midway”, as it was called, was a remnant of the 1893 Chicago Colombian Exposition. Along the lake front was “Indian Village” so called because each of the high rise apartment buildings had Indian names, Algonquin, Chippewa, etc. including several steel and glass apartment buildings designed by avant garde Bauhuas architect, Meis Van de Rohe. Moving inland from the Lake were stone townhouses and large three and six flat apartment buildings occupied by middle and upper middle class academic and professional families. Heading west from the Lake, the number of single family homes and townhouses decreased, more and more six flat buildings appeared.
Until after World War II, Hyde Park Kenwood had a predominantly white and heavily Jewish population. In 1948, the Supreme Court declared respective covenants unconstitutional. Concurrently, two miles North of Hyde Park in what was considered the “black belt”, the Chicago Land Clearance began mass demolition. Large tracts of homes and apartments, owned by African Americans were acquired by the City of Chicago using powers of imminent domain often paying far below the market price for the properties. These were demolished, sold to white real estate developers for the construction of high price, high rise rentals. African American homeowners and tenants were left with no place to live.
African American families looked South to Hyde Park. Many joined together to purchase six and eight flat buildings on Hyde Park’s western edge. It was then, in late 1949, that a group of Unitarians, Quakers, Jews, and liberal U of C academicians met to explore welcoming the new neighbors. A grass roots group, the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference, was formed. Their goal was the creation of the first stable integrated community in the nation.. The Conference formed block groups, invited neighbors to gather together to meet one another and discuss needs of the immediate area. Gensie Fields and Dr. Gleason are specific examples of the kind of interchange which took place within the aegis of the Conference.
The winter of 1950 I moved, with my first husband, Warren and infant son Steve into a six flat building on the western edge of Hyde Park. Our landlord was an Asian Indian (I’d never before seen an Asian Indian) who was quite explicit about not being “colored,” but “Caucasian.” An orthodox Jewish couple, escapees of the Holocaust, lived across the hall. Six months after we moved in, they moved out- too many “schwartzes”. On the second floor were two Chinese couples, one with a little girl Steve’s age, and an African American couple with no children. I looked at my building -5548 Maryland Avenue –observed my neighbors- many of whom were African American. Pleased that I was far from the segregated South I’d grown up in. I was living with Negroes in an integrated world.
Every Wednesday, a stack of Hyde Park Herald newspapers was deposited in our building lobby- In that newspaper, every single week, were photographs of African American people and white people, side by side at meetings and at social functions. An integrated paper in an integrated community. In those pages I saw an actualization of an ideal from my childhood: as a nine year old hearing Paul Robeson sing “”Ballad for Americans”; as a teenager intent on author activist, Lillian Smith’s goal of all the children of the world – of all races, all colors or all religions, playing together, Now this seemed true on the pages of the Hyde Park Herald.
Two years later I joined its staff as advertising sales rep.