At 150, North Lawndale has lots of stories to tell

Committee dedicated to commemorating the milestone encourages former and current residents to share their own Lawndale experiences

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By Bonni McKeown

North Lawndale has a history of economic and social ups and downs. Founded in 1869 in the wake of the Civil War, the community began as part of Cicero. It first housed Czechs, then Eastern European Jews, then Black people. They worked in huge industries like Sears and International Harvester — which left in the mid-20th century, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs. 

During a July 25 fundraiser for the North Lawndale Sesquicentennial Committee, which was formed to make sure that people recognize and celebrate North Lawndale's 150th birthday this year, Paul Norrington, the committee's founder and president, introduced the panel of story tellers at the Lagunitas brewery, 17th and Washtenaw. 

The committee's immediate projects include a time capsule to be sealed by the end of the year and maybe buried or stored in a permanent place; a welcome "Gateway" sculpture; and welcome signs that will be installed in Little Village and North Lawndale.

"North Lawndale became predominantly black in 1960, but we're celebrating the previous 91 years too, it's all a part of who we are," Norrington said. 

At Lagunitas, the panelists shared stories that centered on entrepreneurialism, poverty and racism.

Right after they moved into North Lawndale, Bernard Jennings' parents were firebombed out of their house by racists. But he returned a generation later with a mission to support local businesses with his North Lawndale Business Renaissance Association.  

Former gang member Derek Brown, now in his 40s, saw that his drug dealing life was feeding the death and chaos around him. Now, he boxes out the negativity through his North Lawndale Boxing League — a program based at BBF Family Services, 1512 S. Pulaski, which is the site of the original Archie Moore gym. Brown's program currently services roughly 30 young people, between 19 and 22 years old. Some are formerly incarcerated. In addition to training them on the punching bags, Brown is also helping them get their high school diplomas or GEDs. 

"It's nice to see the community re-integrating and people moving in," said former state representative Arthur Turner Sr. "The challenge, in order to attract more African Americans here, is to improve our local school system."

Turned said that he calls Lawndale "my Tobacco Road — it's home." Lawndale is the place where Turner and his wife raised their two sons. State Rep. Arthur Turner Jr. was elected to succeed his father in the 9th District in 2010. 

Turner Sr. said his parents moved to North Lawndale in 1954. He remembers riding bicycles with both white and black buddies along Route 66 in order to get a look at the car dealers' newest models. In just a few years, all of his white playmates moved away — followed by many companies like Highpoint and Sears, where he bought his first pair of sneakers and his family bought their refrigerator.  

Growing up, Turner attended Blessed Sacrament school and worked part-time at a drugstore at Roosevelt and Keeler. Young people played a lot of baseball themselves, but it was hard to attend Sox or Cubs games when you had to go through hostile white neighborhoods, he said.

Then came the 1968 riots precipitated by the assassination of Martin Luther King.

"I saw buildings on fire," Turner Sr. said. "I witnessed some shopkeepers loading up their cars and leaving, then the fire would start — they were apparently setting the fires themselves."

After graduating from Illinois State University with a business degree, Turner Sr. was hired to investigate white collar crimes for the Cook County State's Attorney's office. 

 "I had to keep telling the boys in the hood that I wasn't a cop," Turner Sr. quipped. 

In 1981, Turner Sr. won a seat as a state representative. It was a learning experience, he said. 

"I realized a politician alone could not save our community," Turner Sr. said. "My role was to shake the trees and let the people back home make the applesauce."  

Eric J. Lindsey, whose parents migrated to Chicago from Alabama, launched his West Side insurance agency after the local Allstate office left along with Sears.

"When I started with American Family, you had to come up with a mission statement," said Lindsey. "Mine was to stay in Lawndale. My manager said it sounded like social work instead of sales, but my point was to help the community grow and get their support. I'm still surviving, though it hasn't been easy. 

"But it's like a marriage. I've been married 35 years. Once you say I do, that means you do!  My daughter came back from college and now works in my business," Lindsey said.

Odis Shumpert's parents migrated to North Lawndale from Tupelo, Miss., living at California and Wilcox before moving to 1119 W. Mozart, where he lived until he was 21. 

After working 20 years with an Irish family business, Shumpert formed his own company, Odis Insurance Agency at 2010 S. Wabash. He now lives in Oak Park. His son Iman plays professional basketball.  

"When I would return to visit Lawndale, it made me sad to see my friends didn't rise up like I did," Schumpert said.

Jeff McCarter and his wife bought a house in North Lawndale in 2001. He founded and still leads Free Spirit Media, a nonprofit that trains youth in today's media landscape. Their office is in Sears Tower, 906 S. Homan, in the area where his grandfather once worked many years ago. Free Spirit offers youth, especially from communities of color, opportunities to create and distribute artistic content and to pursue projects and career goals.

North Lawndale has a lot of history — Bohemian, Jewish, Black," he said. " I see that, as white people, we have benefitted from injustices in our society — from stealing land to the growth of enslaving people. It's a messed up history, but we can seed a better future."    

The North Lawndale Sesquicentennial Committee (NLSC) is dedicated to "fostering community pride by maximizing community participation in the 2019 celebration of North Lawndale's 150 years of rich history and diverse cultures, while building toward the future," according to the organization's website. Meetings are at 4 p.m., on the second Wednesday of each month, at UCAN, 3605 W. Fillmore.  They're collecting oral histories and photos at their website www.nlspirit150.org.

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

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