“My grandmother said we looked like flies in buttermilk,” said Sharon Giles, describing her experience of living as an African American on the north side of Chicago, surrounded by a sea of whiteness. While segregation of African Americans on the south side of Chicago, through racially restrictive covenants and redlining, is well-known and has been widely documented, less well-known is the fact that these same tactics were used on the north side of the city as well – on the 4600 block of Winthrop Avenue. This was the only block in Uptown that African Americans like Sharon Giles – one of the members of the “Winthrop Avenue Family” as they refer to themselves – were allowed to live on.
Over the last few years, we have been learning from members of the Winthrop Avenue Family, who have shared with us their stories of displacement, racism, and segregation… but also of joy, community, and collective care. Their stories attest to the power of social resilience even as they face persistent structural racism and violence, including a growing racial wealth gap in Chicago alone.
At the turn of the 20th century, the extension of the Northwestern elevated train line from downtown Chicago to Wilson Avenue and the subsequent construction of a grand new ‘Uptown’ station inaugurated the ostensible “Golden Age” of this northside neighborhood as a wealthy, white, business and entertainment district. It also led to the area’s rapid urbanization, increased population density, and the construction of multiple homes, luxury apartment buildings, and residential hotels by corporate elites.
These businesses and wealthy homes required a laboring class to serve them which brought numerous service workers to Uptown, including recent immigrants from Europe as well as African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow south and heading to cities like Chicago as part of the Great Migration, and in some instances, trying to find housing outside the crowded “Black Belt” on the south side.
There is evidence of at least two households of “black” or “mulatto” individuals in the vicinity of Winthrop Avenue in the 1910 U.S. Census, one with upwards of thirteen “family” members living in a one-room basement. By 1920, there were dozens more, with at least eighteen families and additional “lodgers” living on Winthrop Avenue alone. By the late 1920s, the presence of African Americans on the north side was sufficient to attract the attention of the corporate elite, who were invested in sustaining the image of Uptown as a white business and shopping district, and they fought hard to maintain it. They established multiple organizations toward this end, establishing new laws to restrict the “colored invasion.” One such organization was the Chicago Uptown Association (CUA), which started a campaign in 1928 for the “restriction of the Negro population in Uptown,” not because they were “opposed to colored people” as the then President declared, but because he felt they might be “happier in a section by themselves.” They spent at least $8000 — the equivalent of $127,984.56 today — to circulate a petition that required property owners to agree that “no part of their property could be sold, given, conveyed, or leased to any negro for a period of 20 years.” They gathered signatures from 1500 property owners in support of this agreement. Apparently, 90% of the property owners in the area bounded by Montrose, Argyle, Clark, and Sheridan signed the agreement. Henceforth, the only block in Uptown where African Americans could safely live or open establishments to serve their community was the block of 4600 Winthrop Avenue.
Partly because of such racism and outright segregation, the families who lived on Winthrop Avenue developed a tight-knit bond. Contrary to the popular representation of black families as pathological and criminal, members of the Winthrop Avenue Family grew up surrounded by a loving and caring community. “We were never without love,” as one of the descendants we interviewed, Leondra Price, stated – a sentiment that was echoed by other members of the Winthrop Family, including Cheryl Clark.
Reflecting what writer and Professor of English, Saidiya Hartman refers to as the “secondary rhythms” of these other lives, we hear stories not of segregation and racism, but of the “elders”- Mama Sophie, Aunt Ladybird, and others who made everyone feel safe and loved. We hear of the annual block parties where everyone danced the night away on the street, of the playground where the children of the block played every evening until they were called into dinner, of large, welcoming family dinners on the weekends and the holidays where everyone was invited. We hear of the local pool hall that boys from the block sneaked into every weekend, of restaurants on the block like Collier’s Chicken where you got the “best-fried chicken in the city,” as Winthrop Family members Wanda Clemons-Lewis and Emilie Lockridge remembered fondly. Speaking of the segregation their families experienced, Evelyn D “Spanky” Taylor, a Winthrop Family member we interviewed said, “By law, we weren’t even supposed to be there, on Winthrop Avenue.
But we carved that out for ourselves… it was our hedge of protection!” Saundra Bishop, another member of the Winthrop Family added, “It was like a small town… one block long… and that was quite a gift; to live in a small town of Black folks in the middle of white Chicago.”
The stories of the Winthrop Family flip the narrative of segregation and racism on its head, exploring what it means to live through these practices otherwise. In her book about the afterlives of slavery, Professor of English and Black Studies Cristina Sharpe stated, “[E]ven as we experienced, recognized, and lived subjection, we did not simply or only live in subjection and as the subjected.” The stories of the Winthrop Avenue Family echo this sentiment, revealing a different narrative of African American life on the northside of Chicago – as subjects of the sordid saga of segregation in Uptown, but not only as the subjects of such racism and hate. Instead, they offer an alternative glimpse into how to create and sustain community bonds, how to build social capital and resilience in the face of adversity.
The Winthrop Avenue Family is a lesson on the importance of community, caring, and the value of having a place of one’s own, however small. As Jerome Harris, another Winthrop Family member we interviewed told us, “…the happiest I have ever been in my life [was] when I moved to Winthrop. When my dad came and got us and moved us to the North Side… that’s when my life began!” It’s a lesson and story we would do well to learn today when gentrification and urban removal policies are once again whitening the neighborhood and displacing the poor and communities of color in Uptown.
Gayatri Reddy is an associate professor of Gender & Women’s Studies and Anthropology at the University of Illinois Chicago and currently a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project. She is an award-winning author on race, gender, sexuality, and health and an expert witness on asylum cases. She co-founded the project: Dis-Placements: A People’s History of Uptown, Chicago. Twitter @BigG_ji.
Anna Romina Guevarra is the founding director and associate professor of Global Asian Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago and a former Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project. She is an award-winning author on race, labor, migration, movement-building, transnational feminism, and an expert witness on asylum cases. She co-founded the project: Dis-Placements: A People’s History of Uptown, Chicago. Twitter @AnnaRGuevarra.
Cover Photo: Winthrop Avenue Family Dinner, c. 1955. Courtesy of Emilie Lockridge