The Chicago Lawn community on the city’s southwest side was racially segregated when I was growing up. Comprised of white ethnics – the community was home to Lithuanians, Germans, Polish and Irish residents. The Marquette Park neighborhood lies within this community and is home to one of the largest and most beautiful of the city’s parks by the same name.
Marquette Park is infamous in Civil Rights history. In July 1966, about 500 black and white protesters tried to march through the park to protest unfair housing discrimination. They were met by hostile white mobs who threw bricks and bottles at them, and set some of their cars on fire. Several people were hurt and the police did little to protect the marchers.
A few days later, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. decided to lead a second march through the park, this time with about 700 protesters, the marchers were met by several thousand white counter-protesters who threw bricks, rocks and bottles. Dr. King was hit by a rock, and later noted that white hostility in Chicago was greater than in Mississippi and Alabama.
Against this historical backdrop, my father decided to buy a home in Marquette Park in 1972. My mother was aghast. How this home purchase came about is interesting.
In the 1950s, my father worked for United Air Lines at Midway Airport. His route to work took him west on Marquette Road. One day he noticed a new home being built on the corner of Francisco and Marquette Road, directly across the street from the park. He was impressed with the home’s design, size, construction quality, and liked that the home was spread across two city lots. Over time, he stopped to talk with the builder, who it turned out was building the home for himself. The builder and my father developed a friendship of sorts and he gave my dad a set of the blueprints for a future time when my parents could afford to build their own home.
Fast forward to the early 1970s when my parents decided to buy a single family home. Prior to this time, we lived in a family owned six flat apartment building. My parents began looking at homes around Chicago’s South Side but never found any they both liked. On a whim, my father took a drive across Marquette Road and came upon the house he had watched being built nearly twenty years earlier. It was for sale.
He stopped to ring the doorbell, expecting to find the home builder. Instead the door was opened by a woman who identified herself as the owner’s daughter. She told my father that the builder had moved to Arizona about a year after he completed the home due to illness. He had only lived in the home for a few months, and it had been vacant ever since. Her father held on to the home in hopes that one day he could return to Chicago but had recently passed away. She offered to give my father a tour of the inside which was empty and in pristine condition. One tour through the home and my father offered to buy it.
My father brought my mother to see the house. She too, liked it very much. However, she didn’t understand why my father thought our family could live in Marquette Park. The closest black neighborhood was about two miles to the east, and there were no other black people living within several miles in any other direction. My father listened to my mother’s concerns, but didn’t believe our family would have any problems. Recognizing how much my father loved the house, very reluctantly, my mother agreed to the purchase with the caveat that we would move immediately if we experienced any racism.
Moving day arrived and the movers pulled up at our new home. A handful of people walking along the street saw the movers unload, saw my parents and brothers, and nothing hostile happened. The next day, the neighbor across the street brought over a plant to welcome my parents to the neighborhood. She didn’t speak English very well, but my parents learned she had a daughter and that her husband was a doctor. Later they learned that the family was Lithuanian. In fact, all of the surrounding neighbors were Lithuanian.
I don’t know if the neighbors knew my parents weren’t white. Most likely they thought my mother was even as they might have wondered about my father’s racial ancestry. What I do know is that my family never experienced any racist incidents during the twenty-seven years they lived in the home.
My father enjoyed working and barbecuing in the backyard which faced Marquette Park, and the neighbors spoke when they saw us. My parents and the neighbors would watch out for each other’s homes when either would be out of town. I would walk the dog through the park, marveling not only at its beauty, but also, remembering that only seven years earlier it had been the scene of two violent racial attacks. Relatives and friends would come to visit us, but those who were darker skinned would quickly come inside of the house and not venture outside unless it was night.
Despite the racial segregation, my mother came to enjoy living in Marquette Park. She liked the proximity to good grocery stores and other services. When the Orland Square Mall opened, she enjoyed driving the scenic route from the neighborhood to shop there, too.
The neighborhood finally became more integrated about fifteen years after my parents moved in. There were some relatively minor racial skirmishes but nothing that rivaled the 1966 protests. Today the Chicago Lawn community is home to a variety of racial/ethnic groups and on this last day of Black History Month, I want to acknowledge my parents’ pioneering role in spearheading racial change in that community.