The price of intolerance, part 1 | Feature | Chicago Reader

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The price of intolerance, part 1

Racial tensions on Chicago's south side had been simmering for years when, on September 1, 1971, the animosity boiled over—forever altering the lives of two men.


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Duffie Clark, on the back of the Yards street where his family lived in the early 70s. - JEFFREY MARINI
  • Jeffrey Marini
  • Duffie Clark, on the back of the Yards street where his family lived in the early 70s.

By the 1960s, Sam and Audrey had five kids. Sam put in lots of overtime in his job with the city water department, and he and Audrey were able to send the kids to Catholic schools. Summers, the family spent two weeks in a rented cabin in Benton Harbor, and the kids water-skied on nearby Paw Paw Lake, tugged by Sam's small boat. Sam coached Little League. Every Christmas he helped the precinct captain distribute turkeys to neighbors, and on Election Day he helped get out the vote. Audrey was a volunteer regional chair for the March of Dimes. Young mothers in the neighborhood called on her for advice when their kids got sick.

"We had a nice church, a good priest at Saint John the Baptist, good neighbors, a lot of friends," Sam Navarro says. People left their homes unlocked in the summer; the "neighborhood watch" was neighbors playing checkers on their porches. Thanks to the decline of the stockyards (they would close in 1971), the neighborhood had even shaken its notorious odor. Mostly. "Every once in a while, when the wind would change, boy, you knew where you were," Navarro says.

The Navarros' second youngest, Helene, born in 1958, idolized her father. When she asked him something he didn't know the answer to, he told her so—and received an incredulous frown. "C'mon, Dad, don't fool around," she'd say. If her questions dealt with social or political matters, he'd suggest she write letters to public officials, and he taught her how to do it. She wrote their congressman, the mayor, the president.

"She was the organizer in the neighborhood," Audrey says. She made Easter baskets for the block's older residents. When a neighborhood priest retired, she recruited friends to wash his windows and cut his grass. After Sam bought her a microscope set, she took blood samples from the fingers of visitors to the Navarro home. She put the samples on slides and labeled them. "She had blood from everybody in the neighborhood," Audrey says.

In the 1960s the neighborhood was still lily white; but blacks were getting closer. In December 1961 the railroad tracks to the east were finally breached. Walter Speedy, a black machinist, bought a frame two-flat west of the tracks, at 5439 S. Union—two blocks east and three blocks south of the Navarros. The apartment building that Speedy and his wife and five children had been living in, near the Illinois Institute of Technology, was being razed for urban renewal. Powerful institutions near the lake—IIT, Michael Reese Hospital, the University of Chicago—had used their clout to redirect urban renewal money to the building of middle-class buffer zones that insulated their campuses from the usual quick and destructive racial change. Blacks displaced in the process only added to the pressure on the blue-collar neighborhoods to the west.


Navarro still remembers, a half century later, the neighborhood scuttlebutt about the sale of the home to the Speedys: "A guy named Walsh sold it and went back to Ireland. We heard stories that he did it for spite, because he was pissed at his neighbors. Or maybe that was just an excuse, because he got top dollar."

In January 1962, the day before the Speedys planned to move in on Union, a bomb tossed on the porch damaged the building extensively. The Speedys made repairs and moved in anyway. After continued attacks on their home, Walter and his wife made it clear they were staying. "We can't raise our children to respect themselves or us if they see their parents running away from race prejudice," they told neighbors in a letter in a local newspaper. The attacks persisted for more than a year, but the Speedys remained, and more blacks joined them.

Just living near a black area made it hard to get car insurance, Navarro says: "I went into an office, and the agent looked at a map, and an area was marked in red. I was in that red area. He said, 'I can't insure you.' I said, 'Why not?' He said, 'If you repeat this, I'll deny it. You're in a bad neighborhood. You're too close to the blacks.'"

As the 1960s ended, the only thing separating the black enclave to the east and the Navarros' neighborhood was a busy street, Halsted. No black had breached Halsted between 51st and 53rd. Then, in January 1971, Clark's family moved into the bungalow on Green, a half block west of Halsted.

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