Chicago's West Woodlawn Neighborhood

February 19, 2009 9:32:15 AM PST
"West Woodlawn: The Tight Little Island" tells the story of African-Americans in Chicago's West Woodlawn community from 1900-1950.(News Release) The power to triumph against the evils of racism because of a devotion to family, community and to old-fashioned values, is the formula that lies at the heart of stories told and lessons gleaned from a recently released book about African-Americans in Chicago's West Woodlawn community from 1900-1950.

"West Woodlawn: The Tight Little Island" was the brainstorm of Robert L. Polk, executive editor, who was raised during this era. "Bob," who had such a book in mind for over 40 years, credits loyalty to family and community, the determination to raise their families and devotion to the value of church and education as reasons he and hundreds of others flourished.

This loving and supportive environment produced luminaries like Illinois poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, a Chicago police superintendent, justices and others whose talent, character and intelligence made Chicago a great city and the world a better place. Told through the voices of over 100 sons, daughters and pioneers who were raised in this tight-knit community, the book crackles with remembrances of the struggles of African Americans who migrated from the south for a better life. They remained strong -- even in the face of restrictive covenants, open segregation, racial hostility and white flight from the neighborhood. Because the community embraced and created an environment that fostered excellence, many of the residents left their mark on Chicago and the world. In turn, their children grew up to be model citizens.

Those who provide firsthand accounts are sons and daughters of porters, chauffeurs, teachers and laborers who were gifted with a set of values handed down from generations. The book pulsates with stories of how children lived during a time when the only "gang" was the Boy Scouts and where residents continue to be haunted by the vicious murder of popular student Emmett Till.

Augmenting the tales of triumph, "West Woodlawn: The Tight Little Island" provides a prescription on how to restore hope to a community. The formula is determination, hard work, focus and an infrastructure that supported the collective aspirations of the community. Also central to the success formula was the network of four churches and one elementary school, McCosh, which were considered "sacred" institutions. The churches were hubs around which many of the spiritual and recreational activities originated. Similarly, excellent schools were staffed by a committed corps of teachers who worked with parents to educate their children in an environment where they could feel safe and where their pursuit of excellence was encouraged.

As a byproduct of this loving environment, the West Woodlawn area produced a roster of achievers whose accomplishments crossed industries and disciplines and boasted many "firsts." Those who emerged from this tightly-knit, protective cocoon to leave their indelible mark on Chicago and the world include: Illinois poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks Former City of Chicago comptroller Clark Burrus, Educator/author/political activist/historian Timuel D. Black, College president Donald Stewart, Former Alderman William Cousins, Jr.,Justices Ellis E. Reid and Sylvester White, Attorney Earl L. Neal, Former police superintendent Sam Nolan, Author and playwright Sam Greenlee, The Barrett Sisters, Oscar Brown, Jr., Thomas Dorsey, Captain Walter Dyett, Tony Award winner Micki Grant, Radio legend Marv Dyson, Football legend Buddy Young, Four of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen and many more.

Editorial designer and editor Cheryll Y. Greene blends sepia-colored images, fanciful illustrations, photo montages and poetry to capture the vitality of this Tight Little Island. The story hums and crackles with tales of how the community bustled with commerce including five movie theaters and a skating rink. The front porch was a gathering place for cementing bonds and catching up with gossip. Young lovers enjoyed walks at night. Mothers and fathers rode the streetcar to their destinations. Children hung out at the White Castle. The Tivoli was a place where whites and blacks co-mingled, and adults danced at the black-owned club Rhoombug. All of these were part of the texture and landscape of the area and era that are captured in the pages of Tight Little Island. Storytellers leave a consistent message of how their parents paid their bills, respected the law, worked as a team, took pride in their community and toiled to raise their children. "Family first" was the metaphorical glue that inspired them to cultivate their children's aspirations so they would hand down a legacy of strength to their children. Compelling anecdotes that capture the dynamism and vibrancy of the Tight Little Island and character of its residents include the stories of Emmett Till who is recalled by playmates as a fun-loving student who was popular and whose voice always rose above anyone else's when it came to volunteer. Chroniclers recall with horror how his brutal death jolted the community and how, even today, it is a memory that haunts and hurts.

Pauline Daly McCoo recalls being tempted to "cut" school to explore Downtown. She ended up going home because of the dreaded fear that she'd see a neighbor who would phone her mother before she could even venture out. That would result in a "whupping" from the neighbor and an awaited one from her mother. The Thimble Theater, conceived by Evangeline Morse, was portrayed as a vehicle for acquainting the children with the joy of acting. Embodying the essence of what "community" represents, she reached out to music teachers, dance instructors, scout leaders, parents, church leaders, and librarians to give the theater life. This network sewed the costumes, developed the set, props and scenery and worked as a unit to produce memorable productions that instilled self confidence in the children. John David Jones, an honor student at Englewood High School, talented Art Institute-trained artist was hailed as the "next Walt Disney" although racism dashed his hopes of pursuing a career in the field. He was drafted during World War II and trained at the Great Lakes Navy Training Center where he scored high and excelled. Nonetheless, he had limited leadership opportunities due t racism. His excellence transcended racism and he was commissioned on a ship that went to Japan. After his stint in the military, he returned home. Looking around at his beaming family, he asked, "Where's Daddy?" The family was shocked that he hadn't gotten the telegram about his death. Despite a promising future, John assumed the care and well being of his brother, sisters and mother. Putting his aspirations on held, he bought a truck and sold ice as his father had. When the family became financially solvent, he passed the Post Office exam and became a letter carrier. In the book, his family expressed "gratitude" and keeping the family together, which they understood was a personal sacrifice. The community banded together when "trouble" penetrated their edges. In one of the more lyrical accounts, the book recalls that a young black man, with his fair-skinned girlfriend, --who looked white -- was chased by a marauding gang of out-for-blood whites. When their pursuit took them outside their borders and into West Woodlawn, a protective shield of neighbors bounded out of a pool hall to protect the couple. Sensing a community that would not tolerate this, the whites retreated.

Tight Little Island represents a colorful tapestry of a bygone era. It offers moments of hilarity, reflection and pride. From its personal stories a formula seeps on how restoring strength to communities: love of family, strong community ties, safe havens and a determination to create a better world for the next generation. The 175-page coffee table book, which was published by CNG Editions, retails for $35.00. It can be purchased at Lincoln Memorial Congregation Church and is also available in the gift store at the DuSable Museum of African American History. For more information, call 773-752-7379 or visit