White Privilege? A Chicago Immigrant Story

This is from a couple of months ago, and actually did start out in a conversation with a neighbor rather than with me talking to myself. It might be an article one day when it grows up.

My friend Regina has seen a few Chicago neighborhoods come and go in here time, starting with her Polish one in Bridgeport during the Depression, and on through many others she has lived in over the years. As we reminisced about the neighborhood changes we’d witnessed over time, she mentioned how she was often puzzled by the fact that so many of the Black neighborhoods she had seen in her long life were always run down. We had the usual conversation a Democrat and a Republican might have at this point, and in the process, I told her the story of myself and my parents and how our experiences might shed some light on her puzzlement.

As I was growing up in the Gresham neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s, my parents told me stories of their youth. Nothing in them sounded privileged. My mom was raised on a farm in the hills of the west of Ireland by a widow with seven other kids; my dad was raised in a German immigrant’s worker cottage in the Back of the Yards when the Stock Yards were still pumping out their noxious fumes.

Della told me about how they got smacked by their teachers in their two-room Irish schoolhouse, how British soldiers took shots at them walking to school during the Irish War of Independence, and how she used to throw cats at her brothers when they made her angry. Anthony told me how his school at St. Augustine’s was conducted in German with 18 nuns rassling 1,200 big and little immigrant kids, how his older sister hated the doctor coming to the house because it meant another baby was coming, and how they got help from Catholic Charities when their dad died.

Della got to the United States in 1929 after finagling a one-way ticket from her uncle. All of seventeen years old, herself and her girlfriend made it to Chicago by a combination of horse and buggy, buses, trains, and the RMS Mauritania, to Auntie Mary’s two-flat at 57th and May.

She lived with various aunties until she landed a job as a live-in domestic, taking care of an old Bohemian couple in Cicero who called her “Stella.” Anthony worked jobs downtown as a teenager to help support his family, and eventually got a union job with the Rock Island Railroad which he kept for 50 years.

They met through friends walking down the street near 63rd and Halsted. They dated, roamed the city, and frequented places like White City and the Aragon Ballroom. Eventually they got married, rented an apartment in Englewood, and started a family. One child came along, and then another. As their family grew, they purchased a two-flat in the Gresham neighborhood with another family, and eventually bought them out and rented the second floor to pay the mortgage.

In the late 1950s, Della started making small investments in the stock market. Their two girls grew up, were educated at Catholic schools, and received advanced degrees. The dividends from those stocks bought in the 1950s helped pay for their children’s and grandchildren’s educations.

As Della would often remind us, they got where they got and launched their kids and grandkids by a lot of hard work and by “hanging on to the dollar.”

Now let’s imagine what their story would be if, rather than from the Back of the Yards and Ireland, they were a young Black couple coming up from the rural South.

Even before their story starts, the beginnings are different.

Poor as they were, Della’s extended family owned their farms back in the west of Ireland. Irish land reform laws in the late 1800s allowed Irish tenant farmers (i.e., sharecroppers) working on the large estates (i.e., plantations) to acquire the land they worked. That ownership launched more than a few good starts in life, including Della’s.

But in the U.S., in the South after the end of the Civil War, the Federal government gave plantation lands back to Confederate owners, despite the fact that they had taken up arms against their own country. This gift forced newly emancipated Black families into sharecropping. Sharecropping, along with the Jim Crow laws that followed, just about eliminated any chance a Black family had to earn enough to accumulate wealth and give a young son or daughter the equivalent of a free ticket to America.

That village in the west of Ireland also had a church and a two-room school house where Della learned to read and write, and learned religion, Gaelic, math, history, literature, and likely at least a million poems. Anthony was educated in German at a Catholic school run by nuns with a full curriculum, and made it through at least one year of high school. By contrast, the typical school for Black kids in the South was segregated, received minimal financial support, was more crowded, had fewer books, took place in worse buildings, and was staffed by more poorly paid teachers.

When my folks were young marrieds, they were able to find jobs to support themselves and were able to travel to any neighborhood in the city on public transportation without hinderance. That young Black couple would have struggled to find jobs, been excluded from most unions, faced low pay, and been limited in where they could safely travel and live. Most likely they would have ended up in Chicago’s Black Belt, where entire families often lived in one room “kitchenettes” with inadequate heat, plumbing, and electricity. That is where they would have started their family.

Racially restrictive housing covenants, which prohibited the rental or sale of property to non-whites, would have kept them out of that newlywed apartment in Englewood, as would the bomb threats. Restrictive housing covenants would also have kept them from buying that two-flat in Gresham. Redlining would have excluded them from the necessary legal, title, insurance, and loan resources to acquire the first mortgage as well as the second mortgage, which was the one that enabled my family to create the cash flow for the small investments in the stock market that later paid the tuition and built what wealth we had. It also would have kept them from any loans necessary for the upkeep of the property.

The Irish immigrant and the kid from the Back of the Yards got their bit of the American Dream.They got a decent start and an adequate education, employment and the freedom of the city, union jobs and decent housing, and access to the financial instruments necessary to buy a home and accumulate wealth. For the young Black couple from the South, those same milestones would bring nothing but traps and obstructions that stymied their attempts to build a successful life for themselves and their children.

Like my friend Regina, I expect my parents had no clue that the successes they achieved with all their thriftiness and hard work were enabled by legal and financial structures that at the same time disfigured so much of Black family life.

The point of recognizing privilege is not to take away from what has been achieved but to recognize the enormous harm inflicted upon our fellow brothers and sisters by exclusion from that same privilege.

The reality is that the disfigurement of structural racism is written deeply into too many Black lives and on the ground in too many Black neighborhoods. But for us, now, the question becomes—what debt is owed, and how shall it be paid?