"Why are whites afraid of blacks?"



Geneva Banks
Geneva Banks came to Chicago from rural Georgia in 1936, when she was ten. She didn't want to be here at first. Life had been hard in the south, but she was used to it.

Her father owned a small farm outside of Greenville, and the family raised crops and some hogs. "You had to eat the worst part of the hog," she says, "because the best part, the ham and the pork chops, you had to sell to the white man. That's why black people eat pig feet and pig ears. Have you ever heard of chitlins? That's the part that all the BM is in, so naturally you're not gonna sell this to a white person—you're really supposed to throw it away, but you got to eat what you can." She and her siblings often went barefoot because her family couldn't afford shoes.

But there were things she liked about country life. "We had peach trees all around, pear trees, pecan trees. We could go in the field and get a watermelon and bust it open and eat the heart out. When I got to Chicago, I didn't have as much to eat—because you gotta go buy everything, and my mom didn't have too much money."

When I ask her if only black people lived near her in Georgia, she laughs. "Of course! You didn't live among no white."

That was one thing that life in the south had in common with life in the north.

Banks, 86, has short gray hair and a rounded back. She's animated and quick-witted in conversation. We're talking in her brick three-flat in South Shore, her home the last 48 years.

After Banks arrived in Chicago, she lived with her mother and some of her eight siblings in several small apartments in the city's "Black Belt"—the narrow ghetto that south side blacks were hemmed into by government policies and the violence of whites in the adjacent neighborhoods. "We didn't know anything about whites, 'cause you didn't see 'em," she says. All of the students at her grammar school, Forrestville, were black. Likewise at her high school, Wendell Phillips, from which she graduated in 1944.

Banks in 1944, at her graduation from Wendell Phillips High School
  • Banks in 1944, at her graduation from Wendell Phillips High School

In 1948, her mother was able to buy a two-flat in a racially mixed section of Hyde Park just west of the University of Chicago. The area turned black, and in 1963 the U of C's urban renewal project forced her mother to sell. The "negro removal" project, as critics called it, displaced thousands of low-income Hyde Parkers, most of them black.

By then Banks was married and had five children, and that's when her family settled in South Shore. The neighborhood was still mostly white; when her family came to look at the building, the owner made them come back after dark so the neighbors wouldn't see he was showing it to blacks. By 1970, South Shore was 69 percent black; by 1980 it was 95 percent black, and it's been about that ever since.

"Why are whites afraid of blacks?" Banks asks me. "Why do they always run from us?"

That's been especially perplexing to her because she grew up with plenty of reason to fear whites. In the south, "you knew you didn't mess with them," she says. "If you went to town you'd say yes ma'am and no sir to them."

And in Chicago, she knew it was dangerous to stray outside the Black Belt.

Banks's husband was in a social club, and on a July afternoon in 1957, the club held its annual picnic in Calumet Park, which is on the lake between 95th and 102nd Streets. Banks, 31 then, and her husband took their children. About a hundred blacks attended the picnic. It was a public park—but the neighborhood was white.

"All of a sudden, this group of white men came up, and said, 'You niggers, get outta this park!'" Banks recalls. "We didn't know what in the world was happening. Our cars were parked on the side—they took the garbage cans and started breaking out the windows."

Banks's family got to their car. But "it was a railroad crossing there, and we could not go by because there was a train." The white men began menacing the black families in their cars. "They took my husband's car and they shook it. I said, 'Please don't turn the car over.'" She told them they had children in the car. "And you know what one of them said to me? He spat in my face, and said, 'What do we care about nigger kids?' Finally the train left and we were able to get out of there.

"This was one of the most painful things in my life," Banks says. "And that's when I began to wonder—why are white people so cruel?"

Thirty victims of the attack were taken to hospitals, and 25 cars were damaged, according to the story in the Chicago Defender.

Banks's husband died 22 years ago. Her children have grown children, and some of her kids and grandkids live in suburbs that are a little less segregated than the south side. A granddaughter recently married a white man. Banks still thinks a lot of white people are prejudiced against blacks, "but I don't feel it's true of all of them."

She thinks that if there had been more integration in her lifetime, "We would have learned to understand each other. We would have learned that there's good and bad in every race."

Steve Bogira writes about segregation every Thursday.

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