‘Pioneering is dangerous’ | Small Screen | Chicago Reader

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‘Pioneering is dangerous’

Housing and the haunting of segregation in Lovecraft Country

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Warning: This review contains spoilers.

When HBO's Lovecraft Country started filming in Chicago, excitement surrounding the upcoming TV show quickly spread. And halfway through its debut season, the drama delivers on its examination of both supernatural horrors—ghosts, monsters, and magic—and very real ones such as economic inequity, the inhumane treatment of Black bodies in science, and housing segregation. It's all rooted in racism, of course, and racism? It haunts you.

It's eerily familiar. In the 1950s, much like today, Chicago's segregation and the people, policies, and systems behind it were evident as clear dividing lines that dictated who lived, worked, and played where. Decades into the Great Migration, the city's Black population still largely lived in the Black Belt and that strong cultural presence is felt in the city's first appearance in episode one: an all-Black community with Black businesses and Black celebrations.

But, it's in episode three that the deep-seated issues of Chicago housing come into play when heroine Letitia "Leti" Lewis (played by Jurnee Smollett) buys a huge old house on the city's north side. As an opening title card reminds us, "pioneering is dangerous," and to stay in this home, Leti battles both physical and spiritual evil. But as scary as the supernatural storyline may be, nothing is quite as chilling as knowing what a group of Black folks have to face when moving to an all-white neighborhood.

The show is set in 1955, which lands it right in the midst of a string of very real, very violent encounters with white neighbors throughout the city. In Chicago in 1953, white men attacked a Black family in the Trumbull Park Homes housing project on the far southeast side. The Howards, who were fair-skinned, were placed in Trumbull Park because Chicago Housing Authority workers thought Betty Howard was white when she applied. Created in 1937, it was CHA's unwritten policy to keep families segregated by race.

Days after the Howards moved in, the apartment manager realized that the family "might be Negro." That's when the violence started. The Howards had to board up their windows to block the bricks and sulfur candles white people threw through them. Months later, CHA moved in more Black families—intentionally this time—launching riots that lasted for almost a decade.

And before the Howards, there were more incidents of violence caused by white residents aiming to keep Black people out of their neighborhoods: when eight Black families moved into the Fernwood Park housing project in 1947, when the Clarks moved to suburban Cicero in 1951, and even when two white couples, the Bindmans and the Sennetts, moved to Englewood in 1949 and invited over Black guests. In the show, this history would have been top of mind for a Black woman like Leti who is knowingly integrating a community. But like she says to her sister, Ruby, "There's strength in numbers."

At the time, boarding houses were still common in Chicago, and Leti says her decision to purchase the house is to create a space for her, Ruby, and other Black people in need of a place to stay. She moves in her boarders, one being James Baldwin, on a Sunday while most of her neighborhood is at church. But although that conflict is slightly delayed, it's definitely not avoided. Leti's neighbors welcome her and her group with stares and never-ending car horns caused by bricks tied to steering wheels. "Here we go," Ruby tells Leti as they stare back at the white men attempting to intimidate them. "I told you it was going to be Trumbull Park all over again."

As expected, things continue to escalate. Very soon, signs that say, "We are a white community, undesirables must go" are posted in lawns, and it seems one of her adversaries has adjusted the heater to make the house scorching. They're trying to force Leti and her boarders out, and as noted by Atticus "Tic" Freeman (played by Jonathan Majors), excessive heat and noise are the same tactics he used in Korea while in the military.

Still, Leti persists. She throws a huge housewarming party and angry white neighbors glare out their windows as Black folks of all ages swarm in for live music, food, and drinks—Emmett Till and Gil Scott-Heron are among the young guests there.

But the revelry is interrupted when white neighbors burn a cross on Leti's front yard. It's the final straw. A bat-wielding Leti storms out of her house and busts the windows of the cars that, days later, still have their horns going. With the perfect use of Dorinda Clark-Cole's "Take It Back" playing in the background—"Everything that the devil stole, God's giving it back to me"—Leti fires back at her neighbors and is arrested and abused by police as they deny receiving any of the 21 complaints she made about the harassment.

Now, while Leti and Tic are fighting racist neighbors, they're also fighting a racist ghost, one who wants them out of the house. To kick him out, Leti calls on community; she calls on her ancestors. "I can't live in fear; I won't," Leti says. "I gotta face this world head-on and stick my claim in it."

That attitude was how Black people have attacked housing segregation in Chicago. In subsequent years after the Trumbull riots and others, the fight for fair housing continued as a collective effort. Recognizing that segregation and discrimination had a different face in cities like Chicago than in the south, Martin Luther King Jr.'s time in Chicago was spent on the Chicago Freedom Movement campaign, which centered around ending slums and was a collaboration between the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations in Chicago.

During a 1966 demonstration in Marquette Park, a white neighborhood at the time, hundreds of white people threw rocks and bottles at King and other marchers. He was struck and later told reporters: "I've been in many demonstrations all across the south, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I'm seeing in Chicago."

More than a half-century later, the city's not-so-invisible lines have shifted but still exist. More than 50 years after the Fair Housing Act of 1968—which prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability—Chicago still ranks high on every list dedicated to identifying the nation's most segregated cities. We still have the same ghosts. We're still haunted by inequity.   v

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