I vividly remember Dr. Gleason the year of the big blizzard. The time the Outer Drive was closed, the buses and even the Illinois Central commuter trains weren’t running. Twenty-four inches of snow fell in less than twelve hours. Everything was covered with masses of white, wet snow blown by the winds from Lake Michigan into fifteen and twenty foot snow drifts.
That is, everything was covered with snow except the sidewalk belonging to our across the street neighbor, Maurice Gleason. His sidewalk and driveway were pristine: spotlessly clean and dry. The minute more than a half inch of snow fell, the melting machines installed under Maurice’s sidewalk first melted the snow, then dried the concrete. We gazed out our windows, across the expanse of white which had been our lawn, across the street to see Dr. Gleason pacing the full length of his hundred foot sidewalk. He was a handsome fiftyish African-American man with light adobe colored skin and elegantly gray tinged side burns. He wore a maroon silk smoking jacket over dark trousers, shaking his head in disbelief as he strolled on his dry sidewalk from one fifteen foot snow drift to the other. He gazed at his garage door, at his clear driveway ready for him to back out the car, only to stop at street’s edge. There was no place to go.
We laughed and wondered if Maurice was also laughing – though we had our doubts. Ours was a laughter of both amusement and a good deal of self satisfaction – that Maurice had maybe finally gotten his comeuppance. He was such a perfectionist, which would have been all right if it were just about his house and land, but in the spring time, he would stroll over to our house, and point out the dandelions pocking our lawn. And winter time, as soon as those two inches of snow fell which activated his snow melting machines, he would come pester my husband, Tom, or me to tell Tom or my son, Steve that the snow needed shoveling.
As I look back, I recall that Tom and I were often derisive, poking fun at Maurice’s perfectionism. In retrospect, our attitude was racist. It was as though a rich African-American had no business telling white people how to mow their grass or shovel their snow. Back then, in the ’60’s, there was little or no understanding, much less an admission, of white awareness. Most white Hyde Parkers we knew were subtly sanctimonious about being neighbors to African Americans.
It was a pleasure to look across the street at the Gleason home.( See Hyde Park Federal page) It is now an official Chicago architectural landmark. Its melting machines were only part of its joy. The house was brick, half a hexagon which encircled three enormous weeping willow trees and was closed off from the street. All the rooms looked out on the willow trees. The interior had polished slate floors, heating pipes underneath. I recall being in the house once or twice in the twelve years we lived on 50th Street, and it was not for a meal. The neighborly exchange with our African-American neighbors was confined to the sidewalk. We lived next door to each other, but not really with one another. The three white neighbors borrowed a cup of sugar here, a muffin tin there. I have no idea what the African American neighbors did.
The Gleason family was the first African-American family to move into Kenwood.They purchased an older house, half a block away on Ellis Avenue before they built their present home with its the melting machines and willow trees. Tom, a great story teller, often related this version of the Gleason’s move into Kenwood:
The year was 1949. Maurice Gleason knew that he and his family were setting a precedent as the first African-Americans to move into the all white Kenwood neighborhood. The move was not without some apprehension, given the tenor of Chicago’s racial attitudes. The Gleasons experienced no problems on moving day- didn’t even see any neighbors, and with a sigh of relief, they went about unpacking their furniture and house-hold treasures. A couple of days after they moved in, Maurice, his wife Liz, and their daughter, Joy, were about to sit down to dinner when they heard the sound of many footsteps on their front porch. Fearing a white citizens council, Dr. Gleason sent his family upstairs for safe-keeping while he answered the door. Standing at the door were a half-dozen people- white men and white women. A woman stepped to the front of the group, holding an apple pie in her hands. She introduced herself, saying, “We’re neighbors. Welcome to Kenwood.”