Poor People’s Power in Uptown
by Clarus Backes
“The southern migrant in Chicago is notoriously difficult to help. He doesn’t organize and he doesn’t attend meetings. Nor does he do any of the other things that underprivileged minority groups are supposed to do.” These are the facts of Uptown life that often puzzle the social workers and which make the migrant an alien in the midst of middle-class America.
At 7.42 p.m., almost three quarters of an hour past the announced time, somebody finally closed down the table tennis game at the front of the room and urged the last door-standers into their seats and the Voice of the Poor rally got under way.
Even then, the poor people themselves, and especially the poor southern white migrants – the hillbillies living in Chicago’s Uptown area, which is what the rally was supposed to have been all about – seemed to make up little more than a token force.
Together with the social workers, the clergymen, and the various sympathizers who had come to offer their professional and moral support, there were perhaps eighty people in the hall, all pressed together on wall-to-wall folding chairs. And not more than twenty of them looked even remotely southern and white and in serious need of financial help.
Like honor students at a high school commencement exercise, they had been gathered into the first three or four rows of chairs and showered with perhaps a bit more attention and smiling good will than they could comfortably use.
It has become like that lately in the Uptown area. There is a lot of free-floating compassion around the city these days, much of it generated in the early days of the civil rights movement and then cut loose when the Black Power people took over and asked their white fellow activists to kindly leave. With all of this sympathy left over and nothing conveniently available to apply it to, Chicago’s hillbillies, like it or not, have had to stand still and accept their share.
After the recent west side riots following Martin Luther King’s death, there was so much clothing donated to help the black victims that collection agencies didn’t know what to do with it. At least two truckloads finally wound up on the floor of Uptown’s Chicago Southern center. One Arlington Heights church which conducted a food drive for the needy contacted twelve social agencies before finding one that wasn’t already too overstocked with food to accept more.
There are now at least 26 public and private agencies and 24 churches in the 120-block Uptown area, all of them more or less in the business of helping the southern migrant, Their representatives stumble into one another on the street and compete, often with shockingly bad tempers, for a share of the humanitarian good works.
For the southern migrant thru the years has proved to be notoriously difficult to help – there aren’t really enough good works to go around. He doesn’t organize, for one thing, and doesn’t attend meetings or appoint representatives, or do any of the other things that underprivileged minority groups are supposed to do. By frustrating all efforts at group problem solving, he forces social agencies to resort to one-on-one procedures – one social worker dealing with one human being at a time, a time-consuming and terribly expensive way to operate.
He doesn’t have a high tolerance for social workers, either, regarding any full-time prying into other people’s affairs as sorry labor, indeed, for an able-bodied man. Neither does he cooperate gladly with the survey takers and bringers of endless questionnaires. The result is that his common complaints – if, indeed, he has any common complaints – are left largely to a matter of conjecture, to the piecing together of isolated case studies, known with certainty only to the hillbilly himself and his own, uncommunicative God.
One graduate sociologist from the University of Chicago who spent two years living and working in the area even came to the startling conclusion that chronic, hard-core poverty as a way of life is relatively rare among Chicago’s southern migrants, that good jobs – averaging $2.50 an hour for men, $1.90 an hour for women – are there for the asking, and that migrants are earning and spending more money than they have ever before seen in their lives. This bit of blasphemy strikes directly at the foundation upon which most welfare agencies in Uptown were built, and many social workers – despite the sociologist’s well-documented statistics – are still reluctant to accept it.
Poverty, after all, is in many ways a comfortable thing. It is easy to discuss, easy to visualize, and it has the warm, dulcet ring of familiarity. It is, above all, relatively easy to deal with. All that is required is the judicious application of money.
But the hillbilly does have problems, enormous problems, and it is ironic that the greatest of these rises out of his estrangement from this very mentality – the mentality that tends to interpret well-being, success, social adjustment, in terms of money.
For it is a fact of life that the majority of social workers, like the majority of city dwellers everywhere, are products of America’s middle class, or at least advocates of the middle class philosophy – Calvinistic, faintly puritanical, uniquely American concept that material possessions are a measure of success, that everyone has an obligation to improve himself, that a man’s only true measure lies in the quality and quantity of the work that he does.
It is equally a fact of life that most southern migrants are not products of this philosophy.
While the middle class city dweller lives to work and gets his greatest sense of fulfilment from the degree of recognition he achieves for his labor (and at the same time assumes his greatest responsibility in preparing his children for the labor that they some day will do), the hillbilly, as a whole, works to live and regards labor of any kind as a necessary evil, a means to an end at best.
To a hillbilly a job most often is just a job, something to buy the bread and pay the rent. To the middle class city dweller it usually is much more than that – a career, a life’s work, a measure of relative standing in his community. Like it or not, the hillbilly simply sees things differently than you and me.
And since there also is a tendency among America’s middle class to regard anyone who is ‘different’ as being somehow inferior, the belief of most city dwellers is that the hillbilly outlook is the result of some serious deficiency in the essential virtues. Some companies refuse to hire him. They lack ambition and don’t give a damn about company loyalty. Some apartment owners refuse to rent to him. They won’t lift a hand to keep the neighborhood up. Many outsiders look down on him. They just don’t care about anything, do they?
And since the social workers are deeply disturbed about these things and since, being mostly from the middle class themselves, they tend to identify the problems from the middle class point of view, their attempted solutions most often have been aimed at removing the ‘inferiority’ by erasing the ‘difference’ – in short, at changing the hillbilly’s outlook on life so that he will see things more like you and me.
There really is nothing new about this approach to social problems. It has roots that go deep in America’s missionary past, at least as far back as early efforts to civilize the Indians, when buckskin-clad settlers looked aghast at the free, nomadic life of the plains’ tribes and proclaimed that the Indians were doing it all wrong. They shouldn’t be spending their lives chasing buffalo and making rain dances. They should settle down in one spot and build homes and attend schools and raise a little corn like decent people always had done. Should become, in effect, more like the white man. The Indians, history shows, resisted. There were wars.
The hillbilly has resisted, too, but his resistance has taken a less spectacular form. He has managed to resist the advice simply by ignoring it.
Thus we have the uneasy spectacle of agency workers trying to promote neighborhood beautifying projects in Uptown by offering awards to the persons with the neatest lawns. The awards, being inedible, unwearable, and nonnegotiable, are considered largely valueless to the status-ignoring hillbillies, and almost nobody competes for them.
We have the amusing spectacle of a private welfare agency trying to build rapport by offering hobby-time classes in folk culture – primarily guitar playing and patchwork quilt making – and having to struggle to maintain an average class attendance of five persons. Quilt making, among hillbillies, is a practical necessity learned early. Guitar playing is left largely to the professionals.
We have the disturbing spectacle of school officials trying to convince parents that their children must apply themselves in school if they ever hope to succeed in life and the parents looking on in bewilderment. Success, to a hillbilly, means many things, almost none of which has anything to do with the job a person holds or the amount of money he has in the bank.
“The trouble with the social agencies, says Chuck Dagnan, an eastern Kentucky native now living in Chicago, “is that they keep coming around trying to sell us something. Almost none of them ever bothers to ask us what we need.”
Things have become like that in the Uptown area lately.
It was like that at the Voice of the Poor rally. The primary purpose of the meeting was to organize a protest against plans to raze an area around Montrose and Racine, displacing some 4,000 southern migrants, for the construction of a new junior college – an issue that had aroused little or no interest among the migrants themselves. If they could no longer live in the buildings that were to be razed, the general feeling seemed to be that they would simply move some where else. But the organizers of the rally were adamant.
“They just don’t understand the problem,” one of them said. “As soon as they realize what the city is going to do to them, they’ll get fired up.”
“Sure the area is a gutter,” another said heatedly. “They shoved us into it from the gutters of Cincinnati and the gutters of Cleveland and the gutters of Detroit. But now we’re tired of being shoved. We’re not going to trade this gutter for another one.”
The chairman of the rally was Chuck Geary, a native of Horse Branch, Ky., who had become director of the Uptown branch of the Tri-Faith Employment agency, a project financed jointly by the Chicago Conference on Race and Religion and the federal war on poverty. He also had become Uptown’s most famous and certainly most visible celebrity after a CBS television crew had filmed his family’s journey to Chicago in a broken-down, $125 automobile for an updated version of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath.
Fellow social agency representatives tend to regard him as a professional hillbilly – a man who puts on the city slickers a bit to get what he wants – and he does come on pretty strong, what with baggy, oversized trousers cinched tightly at the waist, a shock of wind-tossed hair, scarred guitar under one arm.
He opened the rally by strumming out several verses of ‘Hillbilly Heaven,’ urging the crowd to sing along but without much success (nobody knew the words). Finally he stepped to the podium.
“You know jest this mornin’ my boss called me down to his big office downtown, and he told me to stop gettin’ my name in the paper,” he said quietly. “He told me if he saw my name in the paper one more time, be was a’goin’ to fire me. He was a’goin’ to take away my job.”
“No! No!” a chorus of voices shouted. A local TV columnist the day before had devoted considerable space to an interview with Geary in which he had been highly critical of the Daley administration, urban renewal, and the Chicago power structure in general.
“But don’t you worry, friends. I ain’t a’goin’ to scare that easy. If they goin’ to take away my job jest because I’m tryin’ to hep my people, well then they can go right ahead and take it. My people are more important to me than any job.”
“No! No! No! No!”
But after that emotional high point, the general mood of the rally began to slip to a more business like level. The protest plan, as it finally was formulated by a succession of secondary speakers, called for two separate projects: a community clean-up party on one of the affected blocks, to demonstrate the migrants’ determination to create permanent homes in the area (“We’ll have a band and some sandwiches and cold sody pop. It’ll be like a big street party”) and, simultaneously, an attempt to move a large, poor migrant family into the plush apartments of Marina City, on pooled funds if necessary (“We’ll see how fast those college plans change when they find out where we’re going to be dispossessed to”).
Further suggestions or comments were invited from the floor, but, after one or two brief statements, everyone fell silent. Despite repeated coaxing from the podium, nobody seemed to have any further enthusiasm to contribute.
The usual, the expected, the feared, had finally happened. The rally, as had so many others before it, was dying on its feet.
Finally one of the speakers, a burly young man in a brush haircut, strode to the podium and clasped the microphone about the throat. “I’m getting sick and tired of you people sitting here with your mouths open and doing nothing,” he said hotly. “You let us stand up here and make asses out of ourselves, talking our fool heads off, and then you go on home and sit and feel fine, thinking you done your part.
“Well, you ain’t. Nobody here done a damn thing except maybe these people on the committee. And we can’t do it all for you. You got to do it yourselves. You got to get involved. And you got to do it NOW!” This last word screamed so loudly that the sound system balked.
It was an uncomfortable moment, tense with accusation, but it passed almost as quickly as it had come, and the people sat silently again. Part of the problem was simply the composition of the crowd. The majority were there as sympathetic on-lookers and didn’t feel entitled to participate. Of those who were, in fact, area residents, a few were black (there is a small but growing Negro community in Uptown), and at least three were oriental. All were largely ignored in the predominately hillbilly flavor of the meeting.
Those 20 or so remaining who might have been authentic southern migrants probably felt far too uncomfortable with all the attention their small words would generate to want to stand up and be heard. It has come to require a certain instinctive gregariousness and not a little native showmanship to be an admitted hillbilly in the Uptown area lately.
But finally there was the issue itself, the displacing of the migrants for the construction of the junior college. There had been no effort by any of the speakers to explain why the area residents should be against it or why it was a bad thing. The assumption thruout had been that it simply was, and it had left the residents completely unmoved. It is hard to whip up a spirit of rebellion when you’re not altogether sure what you’re rebelling against.
And finally one of the committee members, Doug Youngblood Blakey – young, spike thin, crudely handsome in full cavalry mustache and tiny goatee – stepped to the microphone to spread oil over the troubled waters.
“I can’t get as mad as these people here,” he said easily, indicating the other committee members seated behind him. “I don’t want them mad at me for saying this, but I don’t want you mad at me, either. It’s not that you people are against what we’re trying to do here. It’s just that you don’t care, you’re indifferent, you haven’t been moved by the suffering of the people around you like we have.
“I know, I can understand that, I went along for 24 years myself not caring, just looking out for myself, before I finally saw the light. You just come on out for the clean-up party, you hear? We’ll have us a lot of fun.”
And afterward, over a cold bottle of beer in a nearby tavern called the Shamrock Tap, Doug Youngblood Blakey leaned back and allowed his optimism to spring back to life. “You know, I think we’re finally starting to get somewhere,” he said cheerfully to a neat little man, an area clergyman who had attended the meeting.
“I had the feeling that the people were finally with us. Did you see the turnout up there? Wasn’t that some thing?”
Yes, the clergyman allowed, he had seen the turnout, and, indeed, it had been something.
“After three years of trying, I think we finally turned the corner tonight. I just got that feeling.”
Doug Youngblood Blakey is in many respects typical of the young, semi professional community organizers, the “leaders from within,” who have come to prominence in the Uptown community in recent years, and his personal history is probably little different from that of a dozen other activists working with him.
His real surname, he admits freely, is neither Youngblood nor Blakey, altho he uses both interchangeably and writes under the name Youngblood in The Firing Line, a community newspaper edited by his mother, Peggy Terry. Shortly before his birth 27 years ago, he explains, his father, Doug Jones, then an out-of-work migrant laborer, stole a pig and committed the unpardonable sin of being identified doing it, and was fleeing from the law. He temporarily adopted the name Youngblood, his wife’s mother’s maiden name, in an attempt to make his trail harder to find. Blakey was the name of his step-father, a man who once started adoption proceedings on him but, because of legal technicalities, never completed them.
Nor, as he also admits freely, is he a native of the south, despite a flowing southern accent that could almost be spread with a knife. He was born just 20 miles from Chicago and spent his early school years in Michigan.
After completing the 6th grade he left home to join a traveling carnival. which permitted him to view a good bit of the world and, at the same time, to compile a sizable juvenile arrest record. He finally rejoined his mother in Chicago in 1958 and two years later, at the age of 19, began his longest prison term – four years in the Pontiac state reformatory on a 1-to-10-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter.
In the meantime, his mother had married a man named Terry, who was active in the civil rights movement, and. thru him, she had become deeply involved in CORE. But CORE was becoming progressively more militant, more antagonistic toward its white liberal supports. And, after looking about at a national convention several years ago and discovering that hers was the only white face remaining in the large, angry room, she decided that it probably was time for her to go, too,
One of the CORE leaders suggested to her that a group of college students, members of the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were forming a community action group called Jobs or Income Now (JOIN) to work among the southern migrants in Chicago’s Uptown area and needed someone to edit its newspaper. She had had little previous contact with the problems of southern migrants, but since social injustice seemed all of a piece to her, she contacted the students, was found acceptable, and went to work.
From that point it was only a matter of time before Doug Youngblood Blakey began meeting some of the JOIN activists, grew interested in what they were doing, and became deeply involved himself.
It has been, at best, a tenuous existence for him. The history of JOIN has been stormy. The students – most of them also schooled in the civil rights movement – were inordinately fond of marching [often to the consternation of their local supporters, who recognized the virtual impossibility of inspiring the kind of regimented discipline in the fiercely independent southern migrants that successful marching requires], and they soon were marching against everything – police brutality, slum landlords, the Establishment in general.
They sold apples on Loop street corners to demonstrate that depression-type poverty still existed. They organized rent strikes.
In September, 1966, police raided their apartment and jailed a number of them for possessing drugs, keeping a disorderly house, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The charges – which JOIN insisted were phony – later were dropped. Finally, last January, the local residents who had become active in JOIN held a meeting and voted to ask the students to pull out, turning control of the organization over to them. They did – taking their SDS financing and organizational support with them. Without the students’ flair for publicity, JOIN soon faded to a pale shadow of its former self.
Today, Doug Youngblood Blakey manages a meager existence for himself, his wife, and his 18-month-old son, largely thru the expertise he acquired as an organizer of southern migrants during the more fiery years of JOIN. He is able, he says, to command occasional small fees as a guest speaker. He is in special demand by education groups, where he discusses the particular problems of the southern migrant drop-out, and by psychiatric associations, where he discusses the peculiar workings of the hillbilly mind.
He also is able to salvage a few dollars thru his frequent appearances before student organizational conferences on college campuses thruout the country. These appearances usually involve no fee, but they do bring him transportation expenses – usually a pre-paid, round-trip airline ticket. He cashes it in, with the tacit agreement of the sponsoring students, and provides his own transportation, bouncing across the country in a 1959 Ford pickup truck, eating at roadside drive-ins, arriving ready to go to work with a bedroll under his arm.
“I like it, man,” he says with the urgent, headlong conviction of a man who recognizes his mission in life. “Before I started doing this I was nothing. I would have kept on being nothing. Now, for the first time, I’m really doing something worthwhile.”
But the next day two separate incidents occurred which set back, at least temporarily, all of the plans that had been discussed that night.
In the afternoon the Illinois Junior College board met and voted its final approval for purchase of the land around Montrose and Racine, thereby giving the junior college project a steamroller momentum that would be increasingly difficult to counter. And in the evening, in an Uptown tavern, Doug Youngblood Blakey accused a fellow patron of stealing his pack of cigarets. The bartender stepped in to settle the argument, Blakey took a swing at him, and four hours later, after being arrested and booked for assault, he was back on the street under bail. The case was later dismissed.
It was several days later that an altogether different kind of community worker, 20-year-old Gale Addy, stepped out of her apartment in a typical Uptown six-flat at 1140 W. Sunnyside to try to recruit another woman leader for the Girl Scout troop she was organizing.
She seemed far too sweet and vulnerable to be walking unescorted thru the area, much less making her home there. Tiny, well-shaped, with a soft, little-sister voice and enormous, unbelievably innocent brown eyes, Gale Addy is a member of the Glenmary federation, an association of former Catholic nuns who resigned their religious status en masse following a dispute three years ago with the church hierarchy.
“They didn’t think it was proper for nuns to be out on the street until midnight and working with men and things like that, but that was the only way we could do any good,” she says simply. “So we decided to drop out.”
Gale was a postulant, a student nun, when the drop-out occurred, and she immediately joined the group working among the southern migrants in Uptown. Uptown is considered so important by the Glenmary federation that it is used as a training ground to acquaint the girls with the problems of the southern migrant before they are sent to the other federation centers in Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, and Ohio.
Five girls are stationed permanently at the Sunnyside address. Several are completing their college Course work, several are working at outside jobs to buy food for the table and pay the rent. Gale is in charge of maintaining the social programs that previous trainees have begun.
In an apartment several blocks from her own she sat and exchanged small talk with a small, middle-aged woman and her neighbor, an attractive bleached blonde, while the woman’s daughter sat in a straight-backed chair and looked on. The girl was perhaps fifteen, tall to the point of being gangly, with an enormous head of frowzy silver hair and a heavily made up face. She moved not a muscle during the entire conversation, the corners of her mouth drooping into a permanent pout, eyes leaping silently from one speaker to the other.
“They want me to be manager of the building after Mizz’ Mooney moves out next week, but I don’t treasure the thought none,” the woman said wearily. “I been manager of too many buildings before to have any notions about it.”
“It’s a 24-hour-a-day-job,” Gale ventured. She had been hoping the woman would volunteer to be her Girl Scout leader.
“My yes. It most certainly is. And the things a body has got to put up with!”
“Tell her about the garbage,” the attractive blonde said. She obviously knew a thing or two about building management herself. “Tell her what you told me about the garbage.”
“Well, there’s no secret about it. People just won’t use their garbage cans is all. We put new cans on the back porches and got the janitor to haul them down, but some people jest won’t use them. They throw their garbage off the back porches. You can’t catch which ones they is. If you could catch them at it, you could throw them out. They must be doing it at night. That’s the only thing I can figure.”
“Did you ever have one take after you?” the blonde asked, goading her a bit now.
“My yes. I had one take a shot at me once.”
And Gale Addy listened politely, thinking, perhaps, of her approaching 3:30 p.m. Girl Scout meeting and her fading hopes of convincing one of these women to help her with it, thinking of the time slipping away.
“He followed me upstairs to get his rent receipt, and jest as I was gettin’ set to hand it to him be slugged me,” the woman said matter-of-factly, knowing the dramatic effect of under-statement.
“Well, I ain’t takin’ that from nobody, so I slugged him back. I was about to throw a chair at him, too, when my boy stopped me. The man had been drinkin’, and my boy was afraid I was gonna kill him. Well, he walked out hollerin’ that he was gonna call the cops, and I told him fine, you go ahead and call them.
“So after a short spell there was a knock on the door, and I thought sure enough, he must of called them, and I opened the door. There he stood with a gun in his hand, pointed right at me. I slammed the door in his face jest as he pulled the trigger, and the bullet hit the door jamb. After that I called the cops, and they come and got him.” There was a certain note of satisfaction in her voice. She had proved a thing or two.
And Gale Addy, feeling the time pressing upon her, made small, smiling motions to break off the conversation. It was obvious by now that she would find no Girl Scout leader here.
Outside the building, a young, red haired woman approached her with two small children in tow. Her little girl needed shoes, she said. The Glenmary federation operates a small street-front store where articles of used clothing are sold for ten cents apiece. Would they have any shoe that would fit her? Gale led them back to her building and unlocked the store.
The red-haired woman slumped wearily in a chair, fanning herself, while Gale searched thru a large box of worn shoes, looking for the right size. The woman wore a long, angry welt across one side of her rather pretty face; one bare arm was deeply bruised. “I jest had me the most frightenin’ experience of my whole life,” she suddenly announced.
“O?” Gale asked pleasantly, hardly listening to her.
“These two men that I hardly seen befoah forced their way into my apartment this mo’nin’ and attacks me. I mean literally attacked me. I grabbed up this chain my husband was usin’ to pull cars with and succeeded in beatin’ them off. But Lord knows what would have happened if that chain hadn’t been theah. It was jest so frightenin’.” Still fanning herself.
“Who were they?” Gale asked, registering some concern. She had managed, finally, to find a pair of shoes that fit.
“I don’t rightly know. They’re from the buildin’, I think. It’s all the fault of this slut who lives upstairs, if you want to know the truth. She insists on spreadin’ these awful stories about me. Theah’s not a word of truth in any of them, and she knows it, too, but she insists on spreadin’ them anyways. I would love, jest once, to get my hands on her.” Fanning herself.
They left finally, promising to pay the dime for the shoes next pay day, and Gale locked up the store and went back out in search of her Girl Scout leader once more, walking brightly up Sunnyside with a spring in her step and a smile of pure sweetness on her face.
She is, she admits, in love with the people of Uptown. She returns for a brief visit to her home in the fashionable Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe Park once in a while, and walks up the tree-shaded streets and watches the boats on the lake and says hello to all of the old friends she went to school with. It’s very nice there. But after a day or so it begins to pall on her, the manicured lawns and the white shutters and the neatness of everything, and she is anxious to return to Sunnyside again. That’s where her work is. She feels she is needed there.
Things have become like that in Uptown lately, too.
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