Racism killed his family

June 30, 2011

Rory Fanning reviews a new book that uncovers the hidden story of racism and housing discrimination in Chicago after the Second World War.

"PAPER WAS made to burn, coal and rags, not people...People wasn't made to burn," a despondent James Hickman whispered to his son Willis a few weeks after four of the youngest of James' children were burned alive by a Chicago slumlord in 1947.

It is from James Hickman's solemn declaration that Joe Allen draws the title for his new book People Wasn't Made to Burn.

People not being meant to burn mightseem irrefutable--but for many, including high-ranking political officials, police captains, newspaper publishers and landlords living in Chicago in 1947, the question was an ambiguous one as it pertained to African Americans.

Allen's historical narrative deconstructs the myth that the North was a refuge for Blacks fleeing the oppression of the South. He explains that "485 racial housing-related incidents were reported to the Chicago Commission on Human Relations between 1945 and 1950," and 100 people died in fires in 1946 alone.

Landlords who owned buildings that burned to the ground were rarely held accountable when their tenants were African American.

Left to right: Annie Hickman, UAW leader Willoughby Abner, James Hickman, Arlena Hickman Sims and SWP Chicago organizer Mike Bartell
Left to right: Annie Hickman, UAW leader Willoughby Abner, James Hickman, Arlena Hickman Sims and SWP Chicago organizer Mike Bartell

James Hickman had spent months searching for a place for his family to call home during the hot summer months of 1946. As Hickman said:

Sometimes I'd get where they wasn't nothin' but white folks, I'd be the only colored man walkin' down the street. I'd see houses and I didn't know who was living there till I'd knock on the door and they'd say white folks only. They'd tell me which hundred block was for colored. I'd catch the [street]car and go back an' get off there.

All this was in part the result of racial covenants and the practice known as red-lining, the Federal Housing Administrations color-coded property appraisal system, under which predominantly African American neighborhoods were categorized as "declining in value." The federal institutionalization of segregation denied mortgages and housing to families like the Hickmans and encouraged violent attacks on Blacks who stood up against it.

According to Allen, "The housing crunch for Blacks was made worse by the arrival of returning veterans after the war ended. When Blacks tried to move out of the ghetto into predominantly white communities, they faced mob violence."

For instance, "In 1946, a mob of up to 3,000 whites rioted to prevent Blacks from moving into temporary housing for veterans on the Southwest Side." The Chicago Defender newspaper, one of the few voices speaking on behalf of African Americans in Chicago, called it "a scathing criticism of police failure to apprehend vandals guilty of 27 bombings of Negro homes in restrictive covenant areas."

IT WAS this backdrop that pushed the Hickmans into a stifling one-window, one-room attic at 1733 W. Washburn on Chicago's Near South Side. James, his wife Annie and their six children squeezed two mattresses and a small stove into their new home.

Slumlords fed off discriminatory housing legislations, which forced many African Americans into cramped, unsanitary and dangerous housing in geographically condensed areas, by charging a rent four to five times that of the city average. To make matters worse, these ghettoized units were often divided up into a fraction of the size of the less expensive units working-class whites occupied.

Allen dedicates an entire chapter to the Ohio Street fire of 1947, which would play a critical role in the fate of James Hickman. Sam Homan was a slumlord who divided a 20-unit housing complex on 940 West Ohio Street into 100 units, quadrupled the rent and burned the building down. He killed 10 African Americans, and displaced hundreds more.

The jury foreman in Homan's case later recalled, "Ten Negroes had escaped the South only to be burned on an altar of neglect, indifference, greed and racial bias." No one was ever charged for the arson, despite strong evidence and two eyewitnesses who saw two white men fleeing the scene.

1733 Washburn housed three other families and was in desperate need of repair. The Hickmans and their fellow tenants spoke up about the poor conditions. In response, the building's slumlord, Mary Adams, through her building manager, David Coleman, set a match to the house on a cold February night.

Allen writes that the coroner's report described the grisly outcome:

Each of the bodies had burns and smoke damage from the inferno that had engulfed the tiny attic room. "The skin of the head, neck, trunk and extremities is superficially absent, exposing a pinkish red surface, or, vesiculated," wrote Kearns. "The mucosa of the lips, tongue and buccal cavity is swollen and discolored dark gray to grayish black." He concluded that the cause of death of all the Hickman children "was extensive second degree burns." James Hickman signed the official forms identifying his youngest children and those necessary to release their bodies to a funeral home.

Allen's meticulously researched book reminds us that the Hickman children weren't abstract specters of history, but rather flesh-and-blood human beings who became victims of monstrous acts of hate.

HICKMAN RESPONDED to the dismissal of his family's murder case--the slumlords were fined a few hundred dollars--by killing the building manager, David Coleman.

Before the fire, Coleman said, "Well, I will get you out if it takes fire." And, he said, "I have a man on the East Side ready to burn the place up," if Hickman complained to the authorities about the conditions. These comments--as well as those made by Adams, who said, "Well, you all not paying enough rent here...I can rent this place for $50 a month if I got you people out of there"--was proof for Hickman that his children had been murdered.

If the courts wouldn't carry out justice, James said, he owed it to the children he vowed to protect to do so.

Hickman was arrested for Coleman's murder. But socialist activists, outraged by Chicago city officials' calculated attempts to sweep the Hickman case under the rug and deny James justice, rallied to his defense.

Another one of the driving elements in Allen's book is the inspiring story of socialist activists like Mike Bartell and Willoughby Abner, who rallied attorneys, actors, churches and sports personalities to Hickman's aid.

On the first day of Hickman's trial, Abner stood on the front steps of the court house and said to a swarm of reporters:

Although James Hickman stands in the defendant's dock today, it is society that is really on trial. Society has created the conditions making Hickman cases and Hickman tragedies inevitable. Society is unconcerned about the loss of Hickman's children; unconcerned about the miserable housing conditions that Hickman and his family of nine had to live under. The same government which failed to heed the need of Hickman and millions of other Hickmans is now trying to convict Hickman for its own crimes, its own failures.

Then Abner, writes Allen, led the assembled crowd into the building.

Allen's ability to connect his readers with his subject is why this book is so important. Not only does it address the rarely documented topic of Northern racism, but it also relates the horrors of such racism in a way that is impossible to shake off after the book is finished. Readers are invited to confront racism with the same determined action as Bartell and Abner.

Allen shows, as Malcolm X said, "the South is any place below the Canadian border." Thus, People Wasn't Made to Burn is a vital read for all activists who seek to understand and wipe out the racist and predatory living conditions that exist to this day in cities like Chicago.

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