Clyde Ross moved to Chicago in 1947. A black man from Mississippi, deep in the heart of the Jim Crow South, Ross initially discovered a better place, a place that didn’t prevent him from doing ordinary things, like ordering at restaurants, because of the color of his skin.
“I was amazed that I was still in the same country,” he said.
But when he wanted to buy a house, Ross discovered racism in Chicago was just as pervasive, especially economic discrimination. Traditional mortgages weren’t available to black families. The only available path to homeownership was to purchase one on contract, a predatory arrangement that left the buyer with inflated monthly payments, all the repair bills and no equity until the contract was paid off.
The June cover story of The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” leans heavily on the housing discrimination Ross and hundreds of others in the North Lawndale community faced — and stood up to as part of the Contract Buyers League — to make its case.
Today, with 18 percent of residents unemployed and about 42 percent below the federal poverty line, North Lawndale residents face much of the same underlying challenges. Now 91, Ross still lives in the same two-flat on West Flournoy Street that he initially bought on contract. But the neighborhood around him has filled up with vacant properties and the crime that inevitably follows.
“It’s a shame, but I’m not surprised. It’s been this way for years with black neighborhoods. We deserve better, but as we stay poor, someone is getting richer,” he says.
The Chicago Reporter sat down with Ross to discuss his experiences, discrimination in Chicago, and his perspective on reparations.
What brought you to Chicago?
I moved here in 1946 when I was 23. I was under the impression that Chicago was a better place than Mississippi, where I grew up, and that I would be treated with more fairness here economically and under the law. I could go a buy a beer and drink it in public, where I couldn’t do that in Mississippi. White people at restaurants took my order. I was amazed that I was still in the same country. But in the background, the white people still had the nicer things, they owned more property, they still controlled so much more.
I found that the North and the South were very similar places in that regard. In Mississippi, if a man didn’t like you, he would tell you. In Chicago, a man will tell you he likes you when he hates you. In Mississippi, they are open about what the laws are, Chicago acts with hidden laws that really govern how you get treated. Black people lose in both places.
The essay in The Atlantic references your time growing up in Mississippi when local law enforcement took advantage of your family and took your family’s land. How did those experiences affect your perspective on the discrimination you faced in Chicago?
When I was a young boy, the local sheriff told my family they owed county-made taxes. Now nobody had ever heard about these taxes before, but if they hadn’t paid their land would have been taken. Five families in my neighborhood lost their land that way, and the law didn’t protect them. My family didn’t understand. They lost it all.
Today, a lot of my friends get pulled over and searched by the police, who are mostly white in this area. It reminds me of Mississippi’s lawlessness. I don’t have much trust for the judicial system here, because in my experience it has been stacked against me. As a black man going up against a white jury, in my experience, they will rule in favor of the white defendant.
Why did you choose North Lawndale?
It was real simple, I saw an ad in the paper saying “Houses for Sale” and they looked like nice ones. I was thinking about my wife and that we wanted to have kids, and a house with a lawn for the kids to play on. A down payment of $1500 didn’t sound too bad for what you got. But the day after putting down that $1500 it hurts, especially when you realize that you don’t own a brick of the house.
What were you entitled to with the contract and down payment?
Not much, definitely not as much as they made it out to be. The houses weren’t for sale at all, so the down payment got us nowhere. Most of the tenants moving in didn’t know that — and most couldn’t even read the contract, so forget understanding it. You paid taxes and insurance on top of that.
But the real killer was that if anything broke in the house, I was responsible for it, not the contract seller. Two or three months after my wife and I moved in the boiler broke. It cost $40 to fix it and I could barely afford it.
What did you do to pay the bills?
I worked at Campbell’s Soup company, with four kids to feed. My wife got a job at Marshall Fields, which had a better pay. I had to pick up jobs here and there, whatever I could find. Pizza places, post office, part time stuff, but we couldn’t save a cent, it was all going out. I barely saw my kids — I would come home and they would be scared of me because they didn’t know who I was.
How did you get involved with the Contract Buyers League?
Jack [Macnamara, the Jesuit priest who founded the league] moved to the neighborhood, and he wasn’t prejudiced so he could survive here. We met through living in the same area, and when the league got together I knew that’s what we needed. I wasn’t afraid of a fight, and I figured what the sellers were really worried about was getting their money. I thought they would get scared when we stopped paying them and that’s exactly what happened. I kept my house because my seller was scared the second I stopped paying.
And then we filed a lawsuit against them for discrimination. We lost the suit, I believe because the jury was just like all the white people who had left North Lawndale when the African Americans moved in. They would never rule in our favor. But we won against the sellers because we got to keep our homes.
After the payment strike, 106 families kept their homes, but more than 500 didn’t. Looking back, would you still say it was worth it?
A lot of those people just walked away from it because they were afraid, and were used to being told what was true by the people in power. So someone told them that they were paying a fair amount for their house so they believed it.
There’s a true story I used to tell those people. When I was a boy, my family had a cow, but we had no pasture to put it into so we used to tie it to a tree. The cow would have some room to walk around the tree and eat the grass. One day I went to move the cow from the tree and realized nobody had tied it up. But the cow had stayed by the tree and only eaten the grass in a circle around it. That’s what our people are like sometimes. The chains of slavery are off, but they still feel them.
Not that it was easy. I had been in the house about 10 years, and it took another four years after I joined to get the problem solved.
Do you support reparations for African Americans? What kind of reparations would you say is appropriate?
I don’t know why we would even discuss it when that would never happen. It involves taking money, property, from other people, from the people with power and wealth. How could that ever come to be? In theory, yes it is a good idea, but it’s better to be practical. I support equality under the law. I just want to be able to pay off a mortgage knowing that I am getting the same deal as the white guy. That’s all I ask.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.