Chicago Had its Own Renaissance: An Interview with Timuel D. Black, Jr.

One of the last living historians of Chicago, Timuel Black, is no longer living among us. On October 13, 2021, he passed away at the age of 102. He published two volumes of oral histories, Bridges of Memory, which remain an essential people’s history of Chicago. When I was working on my book The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers, I had the chance to sit down with him. I interviewed Mr. Black on May 10, 2011 at his apartment in Hyde Park. On the occasion of his passing, I’m publishing the transcript where he reminisces about those he knew like Margaret Burroughs, Charles White, and Ishmael Flory. My heart goes out to Mr. Black’s wife and family.

Timuel Black: Most of the people that came to Chicago before world war one and between and World War I and World War II, those were not necessarily academically trained, but they had industrial skills like my father. Most of the people came roughly between 1915 and 1950 came from urban areas of the South. They had lived in the rural South. They had been sharecroppers, many of them, like my mother and father. Their parents were former slaves. But they could read, write, and count in the urban areas of the South. In the terror of the South of that period, that so many of them were lynched, abused. When the word got out, and that was primarily because the industrialists and the manufactures were trying break the developing union movement. Immigrants from Europe had learned how organize as they became industrialized earlier in America. They learned how to organize and they brought their skills with them, though they couldn’t speak good English yet. They were needed. The owners of those big businesses sent agents to the South to recruit the children of former slaves assuming they would be cheap labor. The unfortunate thing was that those who were doing the organizing had strong racial feelings about these newcomers and they weren’t going to let them join the union. My daddy, like many, couldn’t join the union, but he had to feed his family.

Robert Abbott, the founder of the Chicago Defender, sent his papers south by railroad porters. They’d leave them at the station and someone would pick those papers up and distribute them. The paper would get read three, four, five times. People in the South couldn’t believe what they were seeing about, “Come North Young Man,” this is what the difference would be, they couldn’t believe that. Then, of course, when they came here they found out he wasn’t completely accurate. But they could send their children to school, like my brother, my sister, and I. Most of the people in my generation, who came at that period of time, graduated from high school, 85-90 percent of them. They either went to college or went into business. This funeral I went to today, the people there with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, they bragged about which college their kids went to. It wasn’t a matter of did they go. They would say “Which one?” Like I can brag about my son going to Stanford, or my daughter going to Bennington and then Northwestern. Which hurt, in a sense, the historically Black colleges and universities like Howard, Fisk, or Morehouse.

The point is that they came and formed, because of the segregation, parallel institutions in the neighborhoods, the ghettos, where they were confined to. My daddy and his friends, they could work outside because they were needed, but they could not have their families living outside, nor could they spend their money outside. So the money came into our community. Our business minded people started business like the funeral business, like buying cemeteries. We didn’t have any taxis we could use so Jackie Reynolds created the “jitney” taxi, and others like him. Banks wouldn’t lend folks any money, so Jesse Binga and others created the banks in the community. The numbers business, the “policy business” as they called it. The Jones brothers were educated in Mississippi, they saw an opportunity to become multimillions. The first ten Black certified public accountants in the country came out of Chicago in that period because there were businesses which could give them the jobs and the money. We weren’t rich but we had models in the same neighborhood.

My father worked in the stockyards and steel mills, but down the street there were doctors, lawyers, school teachers and all. The kids at the playground. I played with Julian Dawson. Dawson had to play with me. I could play better basketball than him, but he had the money to afford the basketball, and we had a good time. A generation later, and this is typical, this is not untypical, when I’m teaching high school I had Julian Dawson’s kids as my students. They would go back and tell their daddy, and he could say “Yeah, we grew up together.” There was a continuity and a kind of positive attitude about the future that existed in my generation and the generation of my children.

The second Great Migration that comes after World War II, they didn’t flee the South. The new agricultural technology pushed them off the land. They were not urban. If you listen to the blues you’ll hear the difference between the country blues and the city blues. One is cerebral and the other is visceral. Those of us who grew up on city blues, we’re snobbish about country blues, although that’s where most of the money was made.

That’s a little bit of the history. Out of that emerged a lot of artistic talent, both in music, in paintings, and in writing. To some extent, Arna Bontemps is a product of that earlier period. But even later you get Margaret Burroughs. You get my late childhood friend Charles White. You get Marie Bryant, who was the choreographer for Duke Ellington. On and on and on. And then you get the John H. Johnsons of the publishing industry.

BD: These are very important figures. Margaret Burroughs is a giant to me. Charles White is a master. So what can you tell me about those two people?

Margaret came a little later. In elementary school, we went to Edmund Burke School together, Charles and I. I just mention him as one person, but there were quite a few others. We knew early on that he was a gifted guy. Even before he graduated from grammar school, the Art Institute of Chicago, learning about this young man, would come and help him put up exhibits in our hallways. Then when he left elementary school and he went to Englewood High School, which was where he met Margaret Burroughs. I went to Englewood shortly, but that’s another story of class, in a sense. That’s where he and Margaret met.

At the time, the Art Institute was searching for young, talented people like them, crossing the color line. And so they began to be nurtured by the Art Institute. Charles, because he went from there to New York, then he politically began to move to the Left. Of course, so did Margaret move to the Left, the way Left. His mother continued to live in the neighborhood until she died. He’d have to come back and see his mom in the “hoodlum” area, which was the term by that time. But she owned the building, I think.

BD: You mention the leftward turn of these figures. What was creating this? Obviously, it was the thirties. What specifically led to that leftward turn?

It was the Depression. In the early part of it, the artistic types, who were also intellectuals, Langston Hughes, all of those artists in New York. That period called the Harlem Renaissance―Chicago was having its own renaissance. There was an exchange between the New Yorkers and the Chicagoans. I wasn’t an artist, but I knew many of them.

We also had, I forget his name, who used to live right down the street. He wasn’t an artist, but he was an agitator. What was his name? In Washington Park, which right across the street from my elementary school, those guys―and Langston Hughes, and Du Bois, and Paul Robeson―they would come in. They had a forum called the Washington Park Forum. My daddy, though he didn’t go that far in school was a bright guy. Of course, at that point in the South, very seldom could anyone go beyond elementary school unless you lived in the urban areas. He read, my mother read. I didn’t know people who couldn’t read until I went to the Army. He was a Garveyite, my father was. Marcus Garvey, who was a Black nationalist. I’m trying to think of this guy’s name.

BD: Ishmael Flory?

Yes. They would be talking out in the park and people like my dad would take their children to listen to these men. The park was right behind Newberry Library, I think they called that Bughouse Square. They cross-pollinated in terms of creating interest among younger people, particularly. We would see that and the school that I went to, Edmund Burke School, was mixed racially in the beginning. You might see middle class-type Jewish people, middle-class type Irish. Just the name itself, Edmund Burke was an abolitionist.

That period, the Depression, hurt. There was no welfare. There was charity, but there was no organized welfare. No social security. None of those things that we take for granted today, but maybe we shouldn’t be taking for granted. If a person couldn’t pay their rent then they were put out on the street with no place to go, except to go sleep in the park. One of these older guys, Ish Flory, or another person, says Ms. Jones has just been put out, let’s got put her back. For us kids that was fun. We’d go put Ms. Jones back in. That was just fun. It was like playing a game. And yet psychologically we were beginning to admire these courageous men and women. This is where Charles White and Margaret got totally enmeshed. I didn’t. That didn’t mean I wasn’t affected in a different way. They really embraced these older, heroic people―who also were bright. They had these talents that they could transfer to other young people like themselves and bring them into the fold.

My brother and sister lived before the Depression, so they had a pretty good deal. The Depression hit me by the time I graduated. You may look in the book Bridges of Memory and you’ll see Bill Green, myself, and his mother in the book, who graduated from grammar school. Bill Green went on to be the first Black Internal Revenue agent in the country. Bill Green, and others like him, it didn’t bother, because his father worked at the post office. That was considered big time.

Since my parents didn’t have that kind of predictable income, I began to hang out with the tough guys. My brother’s already swanky. I’m not saying that in derogation. My brother’s a great guy. He’s the first Black captain of the basketball team at Tilden High School. Lou Boudreau tried to get him at the University of Illinois.

I began to hang with the tough guys, because I couldn’t show off my clothes like these others. It was competitive, for the girls and the boys, how you looked and where did you buy your suit. Well, I couldn’t compete with that. A small group of street guys, not like today’s gangs, just street guys, kind of tough, and they were fun, they were great. But they were great athletes. They could play baseball, football, and basketball. So I began to hang out with those kind. But to my brother’s friends, that was not a serious thing to be doing, you did that just for fun, and you did that in your spare time. Other time you spent reading books and talking about history and all that.

For me, that may have been an advantage because I got a chance to live in two worlds, which my brother and sister never had the chance. Fortunately, I never got into serious trouble because my hoodlum friends knew I was dumb and they wouldn’t let me get into trouble. I would come over to the University of Chicago and go to Rockefeller chapel and listen to the Black scholars, like Julian Bond’s father, who were going to the University of Chicago.

BD: Like Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake?

St. Clair Drake comes later. Drake comes later. The writer, Richard Wright, they all come a little later. Yes, that’s the same time. Cayton and Drake were younger that Richard Wright. These were scholars who could not, at that time, get into Princeton and Yale, but they could go to schools in the South. They came to the University of Chicago, and places like that. The state would pay for them to go to the University of Illinois, University of Chicago, places like that, and the Mississippi, Georgia, wherever it might be.

BD: Arna Bontemps was a student at the University of Chicago as well. They were all, a number of, them graduate students there.

I would go over there and go to the chapel and then I’d come back to the pool room to tell my friends what I had just heard and seen. I was acceptable. And I could shoot a little pool. I wasn’t good, but I could shoot a little pool. But my brother, go into a pool room? I was very much like my daddy, my brother was much like my mother. Both were good people. My mother was more compromising and integrationist, a middle class attitude about money. Her attitude was, “We’re not going to live around these poor white folks,” even though we had a lower income.

What I’m describing is not untypical for the various levels of class in days of my years. After World War II, when Lorraine Hansberry’s father broke the second barrier in Shelley v. Kramer, guys like me returned from the service and started families. Already living with mom and dad, sometimes in crowded conditions, although at that time, my mother and father had a very lovely apartment, almost the size of this. Marrying a young lady, at the time the mother of my children, she wanted her own place. That was typical. We had the advantage of the GI Bill of Rights. To some extent we had better opportunities than those who didn’t have the GI Bill. That’s also true in education.

So we moved out of the old neighborhood after Shelley v. Kramer made restrictive covenants unenforceable anywhere in the country. I had been to Roosevelt University, and I moved over into Hyde Park with my family, although we moved out temporarily when I was working in Gary, Indiana. That solidarity, in terms of the diversity that had existed in the old, what Robert Abbott coined the “Black Belt,” which we now call Black Metropolis, or Bronzeville, we left en masse very quickly.

The newcomers coming from the rural agricultural South, with relatively few skills for the urban world, had been told that Chicago, or Pittsburgh, was the “Promised Land,” the “Land of hope.” When they came there were jobs initially, but those jobs went away, just as the jobs in the South. They had been denied the opportunity to have quality, decent education because they worked by the seasons―spring, fall, summer―they worked by the seasons. They’d better not go vote.

Whereas my father and his generation, that’s what they wanted to do. In fact, my dad would put his pistol in his pocket and go vote. He was considered crazy, because he had a sponsor, in a sense. Hugo Black, whose father was my grandfather on my father’s side slave master. Somehow, Hugo Black and my dad had communication even though Black was a Klansman. When he was nominated for the Supreme Court in 1937 by Roosevelt, I said Dad, you know he nominated a Klansman. My dad, who didn’t like white people in general said, “Oh, he’ll be alright.” I said to myself, my dad’s gone crazy. Black turned out to be one of the most liberal justices. He could not have gotten to where he was unless he promoted the Klan at that time. He couldn’t have gotten through the political mire of the South.

That break came and removed these newcomers, the jobs went away because the businesses began to move into the suburbs. Those of us who had left, our parents are now quite old, could not share with the newcomers the wisdom and experience that had been shared with us when we came in that period of time. They became isolated, schools began to deteriorate. Most of the people like me, and others, took their children out of those schools in those old neighborhoods and took them to better schools. Like my son, the group that grew up with him, most of them spoke at least two languages. They taught Spanish, French in the elementary school. Almost all had Latin. They had algebra in the elementary school. My parents pulled money together and those kids went to France and Spain even in elementary school. Parents like me and others demanded the teachers teach the children.

Even if children like my son and daughter wanted to go back in the old neighborhood, they were not welcome. That makes me know that Barack Obama did not go by himself out to Altgeld Gardens public housing, he had to have an escort. The escort may have been white, because they trusted the white guys more than they did us, because we thought we were smart. We acted like we were white at that time though. And then the gangs became to come in. Those young people’s parents took them out of the public schools altogether and sent them to private schools.

BD: If I can back pedal and take you back to the Depression. Tell me about Washington Park and its history. How did it change during the thirties and forties, fifties and sixties?

The breakthrough was the Hansberry case. Of course, you know Lorraine wrote her play [A Raisin in the Sun] based on Langston Hughes’ poem. With these newcomers losing their jobs, Washington park became more dangerous. We used to go out in the park day and night, didn’t make any difference. I’m not talking just because the park had air conditioning. We could sleep in the park with friends.

BD: Were Black folks allowed in other parks in Chicago?

No. Not in Jackson Park. Not in Lincoln Park. But Washington Park was our park at that time. So there was a lot of camaraderie in the park, and music, and you’d see Joe Louis running around the track, you’d see athletes that were famous already. Cab Calloway would come and his guys would play softball with us. The guys couldn’t play softball, but they could play music. They came out to have fun, and also to be big brothers. The Globetrotters. We learned how to play good basketball, but also how to be good salesmen. They’d come back and talk about the road, and how they had to make adjustments. Because the major thing was to play the game and win. Not to hurt a guy because you cussed him out, but you could make him feel bad because you beat him.

That period of the Depression had helped us learn how to make some social adjustments. Not just against the system, but with one another. Those who lived in the agricultural areas, of course they had things to eat and they thought we didn’t. But we did because Roosevelt then came. Herbert Hoover kept saying prosperity’s right around the corner. Well, we young folks looked around the corner, we didn’t see anything but soup lines. When Roosevelt brought in the New Deal, it had not just a Writers’ Project, but it had the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps. Those guys became so disciplined that when they were drafted in the army, they became noncommissioned officers almost right away. They knew the style and all.

Roosevelt took young people who were less fortunate in terms of income in the family. When the radicals, or the leftists, began to get together, that’s when Roosevelt inserted the Writers’ Project, which gave them something to do. They didn’t stop being radical, but they had something to do. They became better teachers. The Communist Party made more progress during the Depression in the United States than at any other time. Because they were dealing with needy people who also were intelligent. One of the parts of the New Deal was a youth project. My brother was a part of it. We couldn’t go to officer candidates school because we were considered too far to the Left, and that was across race lines.

And then of course World War II comes and jobs became more plentiful. With the passing of the Selective Service Act, all of us became eligible, from 18 to 38, to be drafted in the Army. A lot of guys, like a lot of my friends, who became Tuskegee Airmen, they wanted to be in combat, they wanted to be on the front lines. They were good Americans. They really wanted to be on the front lines. Now I didn’t. Oh, I found that I was a good American. They had a race riot in Detroit. Black males could not, even though they had relatives, I had an uncle and my cousins, they wouldn’t let you go up. My daddy because he knew I was like him. My brother was drafted, he knew how to make the adjustment. My daddy wasn’t afraid, so he said, “You don’t need to be going to Europe to fight, you can to Detroit and fight.”

When they sent me my first draft notice, “Greetings, you have been selected to serve by your Uncle Sam,” I said, “Thanks, but I don’t have an uncle named Sam.” Of course, they sent me another one. My experience, going into the service, although I had been in the South, I was very carefully guarded. During the Christmas season, we would have games with Black high schools in the South, Oklahoma City, Memphis, D.C., whatever. People knew we didn’t know what we were doing so they would protect us. When I went south after I was drafted, it was the first time that I was confronted, though I lived in a segregated neighborhood and all, with the blatantness of segregation. And my father’s spirit came up again. But when I was confronted overseas by Europeans who asked, we see Negro troops under white officers, but we never see white troops under Negro officers, my American spirit came up, “Ain’t none of your goddamn business.” We were going to straighten that out though when we get back home. There were many who felt that way, white and Black, and particularly Jewish people. Because there was a great deal of anti-Semitism still boiling.

The Depression had its effect and, because being African American people in Europe, even our so-called allies, we saw that division and wondered why that division existed, because we thought we were just as smart as the Caucasians, which we were, and, at times, even smarter. I came home with an honorable discharge.

BD: You remember places like the Regal during the heyday of 47th Street?  

I remember when the Regal and Savoy were built. We used to live right down the street. We went to the “Met” [Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church] first. We just began to move into the neighborhood after the 1919 riot, Blacks began to move south and concentrate around 31st Street. The Vendome, where I first saw Louis Armstrong when I was about four or five years old, that talent began to come south from 31st and 35th, to 47th Street, and 47th Street became the jazz street. One of the hangouts was the “The Palm Tavern” which became known as “Gerri’s Palm Tavern” because between breaks all those guys would get together. It was a magnificent street from Michigan to Cottage Grove, it was full of life.

BD: Most of those buildings are gone now. The old Rosenwald apartments are still there.

Yes, the Rosenwald’s still there and we’re still trying to save it. Along with his grandson, we’re still trying to save the Rosenwald. It’s not so much the architecture of the Rosenwald, it’s who was there. All those people that you’re mentioning, they had friends who lived in the Rosenwald, they were not poor people by any means. Most of the people at the Rosenwald moved over here. You see those big mansions and those greystones brownstoners around there where Mr. Barack comes every once in a while. Those are the kind of places they bought when the left the Rosenwald. But Rosenwald was, among the swanky, it was the swankiest in those days. Because I was versatile, I had friends, and I had a lot of good times there. That didn’t break after World War II, and after the Hansberry decision. That’s a physical example of the Blacks that fled poor neighborhoods, and again the competition was moving to Hyde Park. 

A lot of musicians, I don’t know if they lived there, but they spent time there, but the artists, because when they built the Rosenwald, they also built the George Cleveland Hall Brach Library. Mr. Rosenwald owned both the lands there and donated the land to the city, but he built the Rosenwald. Now one of the grandchildren of the first manager of the Rosenwald is now very close to the President of the United States, Valerie Jarrett. Her grandfather was the first manager, Robert Taylor. Mrs. Bowman and Dr. Bowman, the Bowmans, were the mother and father of Valerie. That’s just a sample, in a sense, of carrying that two generations or three generations forward, of the kind of African Americans that the president has around him, they are very confident academically, but experientially they have not been out there in the streets, because mom and daddy wouldn’t have it. I was the same way, particularly after my children’s mother and I separated. I was very protective. You can guess at it, but you never experience it or see it because you’ve been denied the opportunity.

Mr. Taylor was a good friend of Rosenwald’s. He had the responsibility for the design of another public housing way before Taylor housing projects. He didn’t want those houses. I tried to tell Barbara and her sister, take your daddy’s name off those places, it’s a disgrace. The Ida B. Wells projects, which were very similar, but with the Ida B. Wells you had to be low income, but temporarily. Save a little money and move. The Ida B. Wells and the low-rise housing projects in Chicago were built as public housing, and that was to be the younger people who were starting families, come in and move out. And that was true for the housing they just tore down the last building on the west side, that was built for lower class or lower income Italians. The other one on the west side was built for immigrant Jewish people. When the influx of these newcomers came, they moved into there and then they had to build high-rises because there were so many of them and they wanted to control those. And that became the base of the Daley regime.

They then had Black politicians who were here, I don’t want to defame them at all, almost like my adopted son’s father, Metcalfe, who could then help organize those places and the outside would not be accused of being racial. Because Ralph Metcalfe and all those were Negroes. They can now move into the upper echelon income level and do quite well. Until Daley and them removed the base of their power, and took away the patronage system so that the ward committeemen or aldermen couldn’t dictate who would get the jobs and the awards, they had to come straight to the mayor to get those favors.

There’s another thing. You can get old, but you don’t have to act old. That is my point. Ish was like that. Margaret was like that. They continued to be active almost until the day of their deaths. You feel fulfilled. You wake up one day and say, oh boy! I used to be thirty-five, I used to be twenty. Time passes because you have something worthwhile that you’re trying to do, whatever it may be. But you’re trying to do something that goes beyond you. You hit a certain level, you’re going to make enough money to take care of food, pay your rent, or buy a house. What can you say that you gave beyond that. That’s where the fulfillment, for me at least, and I think that’s the reason Margaret, almost all of those people that you’ve been referring to, they lived full lives, to the greatest extent of their ability. Once they were ill, they didn’t live very long. They didn’t want to. They had their fun. 

Managing Editor of Prison Legal News

I am honored and beyond thrilled to announce that I have accepted a position as managing editor of Prison Legal News, the longest-running newspaper written by and for people incarcerated.

PLN was started in 1990 by Paul Wright while he was incarcerated in Washington state. I first met Paul in 2007 when he visited a Books to Prisoners conference at the Independent Media Center in Urbana. I later worked with him on the prison phone justice campaign. PLN has reprinted several of my articles over the years. Several of my friends in prison and formerly incarcerated friends regard PLN as the most respected publication on mass incarceration.

It was my pen pal in Pontiac, Greg Koger, who first told me about PLN. Since his passing over a year ago, Greg has been on my mind a lot, and I would like to think he would be proud of me in my new role.

I am sad to have to leave my job at Parole Illinois where I worked with many wonderful people―Shari Stone-Mediatore, Pablo Mendoza, Melly Rios, Lauren Metlock, Katrina Burlet, Oscar “Smiley” Parham, and many others. You can watch a three-minute video of a recent panel we held with students at Knox College.

I have a two-part series on COVID in Illinois prisons that was published in Truthout. “New Surge of COVID is Spreading ‘Like Wildfire’ in Illinois Prisons,” covers the frightening spike in cases I heard about in Stateville and Danville prisons. “Prioritizing Incarcerated People for Vaccine Quickly Reduced COVID in IL Prisons,” reports on the vaccine distribution that quickly halted spread of the virus. Together, they capture the voices of people living through the pandemic while in prison, and their loved ones on the outside who support them.

Lastly, I enjoyed being with my friend and elder Barbara Kessel, longtime social justice warrior, for her 82nd birthday. I took this photo of us together at her birthday party. Barbara and her friends had gotten the vaccine, it was the first time I was at a social event. While there, I got the call for an appointment to get my own vaccine shot. I went the following Saturday to get a Johnson&Johnson shot at the Douglass Center with 1,000 other people that day. It was in community that I got the OK for being back in community.  

Prison Solidarity in a Pandemic

Parole Illinois in a Zoom meeting with IL State Rep. Sonya Harper (center).

The last year has put me at the center of a whirlwind―working with people incarcerated as they are caged with COVID-19 in their midst. I’ve heard harrowing stories from those inside seeing COVID spread rapidly, and those on the outside fearful for their loved ones who must face the deadly virus with little to no medical intervention.  

I published my most recent article in The Progressive Magazine about COVID responses at jails in three communities―Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, and Peoria. It features the story of Wayne Colson, a friend and a father who was filled with worry as his son sat in the Champaign County jail during the early outbreak of COVID.  

I started working for Parole Illinois in early 2020, just weeks before COVID hit. In April, we held a virtual press conference with testimonies about the spread of COVID inside Illinois prisons that was covered by the Chicago Sun-Times. Parole Illinois co-founder Raúl Dorado gave an eyewitness account from inside Stateville prison: “I witnessed my friends become unresponsive and get carried out on canvas stretchers.”

Parole Illinois is an inside/outside prison campaign founded by men inside Stateville prison, joined by women in Logan prison, and supported by those of us on the outside. In 1978, parole was abolished in Illinois, and in the subsequent years, individuals were given excessively long sentences. The campaign was started by my longtime pen pal Joe Dole, serving life without parole (LWOP) inside Stateville prison. After years of exchanging letters, I began helping Joe publish his articles (like this one and this one), until one of them was read by Shari Stone-Mediatore (pictured above), who is now managing director of Parole Illinois, and, in turn, she hired me as downstate organizer for the campaign.

Most rewarding about working for Parole Illinois is that it has put me in touch with people incarcerated, their families and loved ones. It has been tremendously rewarding.

I continue this work after losing my dear friend, Greg Koger, in March 2020. Greg did ten years in Illinois prisons, more than half that time in solitary confinement. He was the first person to teach me about the horrors of prison. He was released some 15 years ago, but he could never escape that prison cell. Now he is finally free.

This past summer I published an interview with Maya Schenwar and Vikki Law, authors of the new book Prison By Any Other Name, about the failed alternatives to incarceration.

Most of my time has been spent at home with my boy Jake―now 9 years old―playing chess, riding bicycle, and learning to play guitar. While COVID has disrupted our daily life, it has allowed us to become so much closer. It is time well spent. I feel in the future I will actually miss these crazy COVID times.  

I’ve Gone Viral! Writing to Live

DREAAM Azark BD

Here I am with board member Azark Cobbs and youth of DREAAM.

I’m stepping into 2020 on the right foot. My article, “The Trump Administration Just Opened a New Immigrant Prison in Rural Michigan,” published at In These Times, was shared on social media by filmmaker Michael Moore, and then picked up by Elizabeth Warren. It’s the most widely-circulated article of my career.

In These Times cover

Immigration activists protest in Michigan.

Over the last year, I’ve made the transition to making my living as a full-time writer. Sometimes I write for money. Sometimes I write for myself. Sometimes I write to divert resources to projects I support.

I’m reaching a larger audience now than I ever did as an academic. And I’m telling stories not told anywhere else.

I’m grateful to be working with Tracy Dace and DREAAM House (which stands for Driven to Reach Excellence and Academic Achievement for Males). It is an after-school program with the goal of disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. I’m doing fundraising to provide educational opportunities for marginalized youth in our community.

I’m part of a community engagement team at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, along with Tracy Dace and professor Ruby Mendenhall. Our mission is to build campus-community relationships. I’m the writer on the team.

We got the news earlier this year from those on the inside that the cost of phone calls from Illinois prisons is now the cheapest in the country, the result of our prison phone justice campaign. I wrote about the victory for Truthout.

I’ve also been doing media support for the Freedom To Learn campaign, supporting my friends at Education Justice Project, and Prison+Neighborhood Art Project. It grew out of a media scandal over banned books at the Danville prison. My book The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers was among those taken off the shelves. So now I can add to my resumé my status as a banned author.

Lastly, I’m saddened by the passing of Michael Flug, archivist at the Vivian G. Harsh collection in Chicago, who I collaborated with on The Negro in Illinois. Thank you Michael for trusting me to take on the project.

Wishing everyone the stars in 2020!

Why I Write to #AbolishICE

Jake kindergarten last dayOn the last day of Kindergarten, I got a big hug from my six-year-old, Jake. Before he was born, one of my mentors, Antonia Darder, a critical pedagogy scholar, told me that having children gives you a new reason to do social justice work. I didn’t understand at the time, but her words have come back to me. It’s because of my own kid that I have been writing about families separated by Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.

These families have come a long way from small towns in Mexico and Guatemala so that their children can have a better life. I envision a future when all our children can play together. I believe it’s not too far away.

On July 4th, we raised $1,000 and a carload of food to take to a woman whose husband was arrested by ICE agents. While the breadwinner was gone, their three children had eaten all the food in the house. She was also seven months pregnant. I took Jake with me to deliver the donations. My friends Tariq and Kristina and their three children joined us. All the children shared toys in the living room while we spoke with the mother. Her nine-year-old boy, Diego, translated for us. It was the perfect way to spend Independence Day this year.

DiegoDiego’s father is now back home, but federal authorities are moving fast with what they call “removal proceedings.” I plan to write about the father’s arrest, but I have been working to confirm his story, and get permission from the family. There are revelations about Sheriff Dan Walsh’s cooperation with ICE that I cannot yet fully disclose. Families don’t just deserve to be together, but they should have the right to be free, to move, to work, to remain free from state surveillance and criminalization.

I want to tell the story of undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of Midwestern cities like my own. Lucia Maldonado, of the Latino Partnership, has helped me bring these stories to light. My most recent piece in Smile Politely is about one family with four children whose American Dream was shattered by a visit from ICE agents. Their oldest son has hopes of going to college on a soccer scholarship, but now that his father may be deported he will have to work to support the family.

Earlier this year, a man was picked up by ICE named Juan who worked in the kitchen at Siam Terrace, a popular Thai restaurant in downtown Urbana. I wrote about his arrest in another article for Smile Politely, “ICE on Main Street: Undocumented Immigrants Arrested in Urbana.” In June, I helped organize an “ICE Out of CU” rally at the Drury Inn hotel where ICE agents stay when they are in town.

CharlieI also continue to write about families impacted by mass incarceration in the United States. I sat with Black youth at a forum, “Challenging Electronic Monitoring in Cook County,” at the University of Chicago put on by my friend and comrade James Kilgore. I wrote this report for his blog “#NoDigitalPrisons.” Charlie Patton, a youth from Chicago’s West Side, reminded me of the hip hop kids I knew in Los Angeles. One of his paintings was displayed on an easel in the front of the room. Too shy to say much, Charlie sat next to me and doodled in his sketchbook.

Less than a year after I wrote in Truthout about General Inch, Trump’s appointment for head of federal prisons, he has resigned after a fight over national prison reform policy.

Still writing about my academic interests, I published a book review in the magazine Against the Current about Tim Jackson’s long-awaited publication, Pioneering Cartoonists of Color.

Charles White mother and childThis summer I went to see an exhibit of Charles White, African American artist of the Black Chicago Renaissance, whose work graces the cover of my book The Negro in Illinois. I got a personal tour by John Murphy who helped curate the show currently up at the Art Institute of Chicago. Earlier this year we were on a panel at the annual conference of the College Language Association.

At home, I continue to practice #slowgrowth, this year’s hashtag. I take care of my houseplants. I planted a Japanese maple out back by the Boneyard Creek. I picked my first tomatoes in five-plus years. I’ve enjoyed the fruits of my labor―strawberries, raspberries, and cherries!!

 

Paving a Path for #Liberation

Open Scene MN group photo 1My job as a full-time activist at the IMC has been a reminder that we must not only work for our own freedom, but that we must empower others to find their own vision of liberation. I have seen other activist friends burn out, become famous, have babies, face emotional breakdowns, and overcome health crises. When we falter, are there others to help carry the load? How do we pave a path for others to tread? How do we get there together? How do we build our own collective power?

I have been inspired by the youth who have been a part of Open Scene, an NEA-funded series of four workshops held the IMC to build the next generation of artists in Urbana-Champaign. It’s being coordinated by my amazing co-worker Blair Ebony Smith. One of the highlights was a weekend with the hip hop group Mother Nature, who took the above photo with our participants. We’ve seen several fruitful collaborations come out of this project, including a “Self Love” open mic with Uni High graduate Madie Gardner. We’re also starting a new music studio with Jamie Gatson, a friend Kiwane Carrington who in 2009 was killed by Champaign police. One of our other workshop leaders, Derek Linzy, who played with Prince, has rented a room at the IMC to teach music classes.

I have also been working to support Joe Dole, a writer incarcerated in Stateville prison, through creating a Facebook page and publishing his articles in Truthout. Morey Williams invited Joe to read a paper over the telephone for a conference at Villanova University where she teaches. A version of the article, “A Plea From Inside: Prisons Must Offer College Classes” was just published in Truthout. There’s a growing group of people, that also includes Shari Stone-Mediatore, a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University, and Dina Molito, of Minutes Before Six, who are working together to give greater visibility to Joe’s dispatches from beyond prison walls.

A report I co-authored, “We Are the Color of Freedom: Reflections from Resisting Mass Surveillance in the Trump Era,” has been released from a summit I attended at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.. It captures the cutting-edge of grassroots activists working at the intersection of digital surveillance and racial justice. You can read about the summit in the Washington Post.

I also published in The Public i an investigation into the police killing last year of Richie Turner, a homeless man who was a familiar site in Campustown, after corresponding with his sister Chandra Turner who is outraged by his death.

It’s looking like I’ll pass my second bill in two years this summer. HB 2738: Protect Prison Visits Bill has been approved by the Illinois legislature and is headed to the Governor for a signature. If passed, it would be the most comprehensive bill to date regulating video visitation, the increasingly widespread practice of replacing jail and prison visits with Skype-style video screens.

On a more personal note, I’ll be in Chicago this coming weekend for the Printer’s Row Lit Fest. I’ll be signing copies of my book The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers at the University of Illinois Press tent at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 10, 2017. [You can read more about my book in an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune.] Come buy a copy and have it signed!

Thanks to my friends and comrades who have helped me make this move to full-time activist!

 

 

 

 

 

A New Year and a New Career!

It’s been a year since my last blogpost, and in that time I have made the transition to full-time activist. It has been a difficult decision to put my academic career to the side. With the election of Donald Trump, I feel the decision is even more timely. Now more than ever, we need bring our communities together for what will likely be the fight of our lives, indeed the fight FOR our lives.

On the floor of the Illinois Legislature with Wandjell Harvey-Robinson and Sen. Jacqueline Collins for passage of a bill to lower the cost of prison phone calls.

 

I’m now happy to say I’m running a community center, with 30,000 square feet to fill with activities. In August, I accepted a position as Program Director at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center (IMC). It is, I realize, my dream job. I’ve written about community centers during the Depression, but now am operating one. I get to make the IMC a “big tent” for various grassroots activists, youth of color, immigrants, hackers, artists, and community members. I continue to promote popular education though the #PopEd series I’ve launched. I get to host events by talented local hip hop musicians. Through our NEA-funded project Open Scene, we have an assembled an amazing group of local youth to re-vision the IMC and Urbana.

Over the last year, I have taken part in several campaign victories. A highlight was passing a bill in the Illinois legislature to lower the cost of phone calls in prison with my longtime friend State Representative Carol Ammons, and Senator Jacqueline Collins [pictured above]. It was also a chance to work with Wandjell Harvey-Robinson, who I’ve been delighted to watch blossom as she became a spokesperson for the campaign.

More recently, along with Francis Boyle, University of Illinois law professor, Karen Aram, local peace activist, and members of CU Immigration Forum, we passed an ordinance re-affirming Urbana as a Sanctuary City!

It has been a year since the death of Toya Frazier in the local jail, and a million-dollar lawsuit has been filed by the family. I’m hopeful that my story on Frazier’s death has played a role in bringing some justice for her family. The story of three deaths in the county jail over the last year also helped the local organization Build Programs Not Jails defeat a jail referendum and argue for alternatives to incarceration.

I’ve assisted Joseph Dole, incarcerated writer at Stateville prison in Illinois, to publish two of his stories in Truthout, recently one on the closing of the last panopticon in the US at Stateville. I also manage the Facebook page for Joe where you can see more of his art and writings.

I also published several articles myself in Truthout, one of the most important online news outlets today with a solid track record of covering mass incarceration issues. Thanks to Truthout, I was able to write my first commissioned article for a national publication. My second commissioned piece was just published on the “Orange Crush,” what is the first in-depth story of a tactical team that is infamous in Illinois prisons.

mlk-bd

In the past year, I traveled to Oakland with the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), Detroit for the Allied Media Conference, and Washington DC to attend the Color of Freedom summit at Georgetown University. Still keeping a foot in academia, this Spring I attended a regional American Studies conference at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, where I caught up with David Roediger, Betsy Esch, and other colleagues.

I also made some new friends in Chicago, having lunch with Truthout’s Maya Schenwar at Heartland Café, eating pizza with Max Suchan and Sharlyn Grace from the Chicago Community Bond Fund, watching a Cubs game with Freddy Martinez of Lucy Parsons Labs, and drinking coffee with Moni Cosby and Holly Krig who work with incarcerated mothers.

For 2017, I’m making plans for a FOIA workshop with Sarah Lazare, Alternet reporter and former CU resident. We’re holding a forum on solitary confinement with Alan Mills of the Uptown People’s Law Center, as well as my new friend Brian Nelson, and my old friend Gregory Koger, who both have experienced long periods of isolation in prison and lived to tell their story.

Also this year, expect to see me posting more political pieces here on my blog as we fight back against the coming Trump regime.

Thanks to my all of my friends and comrades along the way who have helped me to make this transition.

Wishing everybody love and solidarity in 2017!

BD

 

Happy Birthday Langston Hughes!

February 1 is both the birthday of Langston Hughes, renowned African American poet, and the beginning of Black History Month. I would like to share on of my favorites, a live recording of Langston Hughes performing his most famous poem, “The Weary Blues,” on a 1958 television program.

Now more than ever, we need to support institutions keeping African American history alive like the Carter G. Woodson Branch of the Chicago Public Library. Recently, there was a community forum attended by 100 people concerned about the delayed repairs to the library, as can be seen by the scaffolding which still remains on the front of the building along Halsted Street.

In other news, this March I will be in Lawrence, Kansas for the Mid-America American Studies Association conference, “Battleground Midwest: Defining Who and What Matters in the U.S. and Beyond” at the University of Kansas. I’m on a panel titled “From Coal Fields to Kitchenettes” about Illinois civil rights history.

A review of my first book, The Black Cultural Front, by Graham Barnfield, appeared recently in an excellent issue of Against The Current. It was included in a Black History Feature along with an interview with one of my mentors, Mary Helen Washington, as well as a review of William Maxwell’s book F.B. Eyes by the journalist John Woodford.

A review of The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers by Julia Mickenberg (an old friend from Claremont, CA), appeared in The Annals of Iowa, the publication of the State Historical Society of Iowa. The book contains, she writes, “a lyrical, quirky, and often poetic set of stories about forgotten figures, phenomena, sites, and processes in Illinois history.”

Wishing you health and happiness in the New Year! BD

A Century of Black History: ASALH Events and Du Bois Lecture

Carter G. Woodson

Carter G. Woodson, founder of ASALH

This year the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) is celebrating its 100th birthday! Founded September 9, 1915, in Chicago, it was the brainchild of Carter G. Woodson, known as the Father of Black History.

Harsh portrait

Vivian G. Harsh

I attended an event at the Woodson library organized by the Chicago chapter of ASALH as part of the 100th anniversary events. It honored Vivian G. Harsh, a librarian, collector of black books, and longtime member/officer in what was then called the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. There I got to chat with Michael Flug, archivist and co-collaborator on “The Negro in Illinois.”

M Flug BD

Later in September, I’ll be headed to ASALH’s national conference in Atlanta for the centennial celebration. On the way, I’ll be stopping at the historic Highlander Folk Center in Eastern Tennessee for their annual homecoming.

Also coming up on September 19, at 2 p.m., the Woodson library is hosting a talk by Northwestern Professor Aldon Morris about his important new book, The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology.

Scholar Denied

 

 

Lastly, I’ll be at Jane Addams Bookshop in Champaign giving a talk for “The Negro in Illinois” on Sunday, October 18 at 1 p.m. Stay tuned for more to come!

 

 

Artist and Writer Talks at the IMC: Jason Patterson & Brian Dolinar

Jason Patterson eventI’m happy to be collaborating with artist Jason Patterson for this upcoming event:

“Exploring African American History in Illinois & Throughout the United States”

Saturday, July 18, 2015 – 7:30pm10:00pm
At the IMC Gallery (202 S. Broadway, Urbana)

Talks on Our History and its’ Artistic Representations

With writer Brian Doliner, editor of The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers,
and artist Jason Patterson, who’s work in portraiture highlights cultural and
political significance within the African American narrative.