On June 20, 2011, a 2-month-old baby girl died of smoke inhalation after a fire broke out in her house where there was no smoke detector. The family lived in Austin, a low-income neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side.
Less than a year later, on Feb. 13, 2012, a 7-year-old boy died of smoke inhalation after trying to escape a house fire on Chicago’s South Side.
On Jan. 16, 1947, four of James Hickman’s children died when the one-room attic apartment that they rented on Chicago’s South Side caught on fire.
For most of the modern-day tragedies, the news reports are all we’ll ever know of the grief and speculation that will follow, long after the smoldering buildings have been extinguished. But about the tragedy of 1947, we know much more.
“People Wasn’t Made to Burn,” published by Haymarket Books, is a nonfiction account of the fire that killed the four children. It’s author, Joe Allen, paints a startling portrait of the family’s life before and after the tragic event. Like many African Americans, the Hickmans had migrated from the South during the Great Migration and went straight to the de facto segregated South Side, where poverty and discrimination came together to create population density that reached roughly 80,000 per square mile in some corners of the city, Allen writes.
Hickman and another tenant had confronted their landlord only days before the fire, complaining of the cramped space that his family of 10 lived in in the attic. They had been ignored by the housing authorities and police that they had complained to. In response to the ruckus they raised, David Coleman, the landlord, threatened to set fire to the building.
Six months after the fire killed his children, Hickman shot and killed Coleman. But not before Coleman confessed to setting the fire, according to the book.
Initially, Hickman faced the death penalty. With the help of radicals from across the city who led a defense campaign that helped portray Hickman as a victim of de facto segregation, the courts ended up dropping the murder charges. Eventually, Hickman won his freedom.
Allen, who is a historian and Chicago activist, puts the Hickman’s plight in the larger context of substandard housing, poverty and racism in mid-century Chicago. It also questions the criminal justice system, detailing how it initially dealt with Coleman’s alleged guilt and how it treated Hickman as an accused murderer, grieving father and as a black man.
Whether some of the tensions that provoked a situation as explosive as that in “People Wasn’t Made to Burn”–a threatening landlord, overcrowded housing and a lack of trust in the justice system–have completely gone away are questionable.
“For African Americans in Chicago,” Allen said, in an interview with The Chicago Reporter, “there has always been a crisis in housing.”
Census data from 2010 analyzed by the Reporter “found that 73 percent of black Chicagoans were living in roughly two dozen, overwhelmingly black and largely low-income neighborhoods in 2010.”
Not sharply different from Hickman’s time. “At that time, the housing stock was the black ghetto, in the proper sense of the word ghetto, meaning a narrow strip of land where people were forced to live,” Allen told Time Out Chicago.
Chicago is one of the worst-hit areas by the foreclosure crisis and even landlords in subsidized housing are cutting corners at the expense and safety of their renters, a recent Chicago Reporter investigation found.
So what can we take from the story of James Hickman and the organizing around his case that brought to light some of the housing abuses suffered by Hickman and people like him?
“The great lesson is when people struggle collectively, they make the largest gains,” said Allen. “That is as true now as it was then.”
© Community Renewal Society 2012