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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The first housewarming gift was airmailed a few days after the family arrived: a brick crashed through a living-room window. "It was like, 'Welcome to the neighborhood,'" Clark says.

It would be an extended welcome. Salvos were launched from the gangways across the street and from the corner—bricks, bottles, and BBs aimed at either the house, or at Duffie and his brothers and cousins when they were hanging in front. An arrow clipped the ear of Duffie's older brother. The main assailants were members of the "One-Way Gang," teens who hung on 51st Place, a one-way street, between Halsted and Morgan (two blocks west of Halsted), and who were determined to eject the intruders.

Clark, likewise, felt he had a mission: protecting his home and family, especially his mother, 11-year-old brother, and seven-year-old stepbrother. He considered himself the man of the house even though he wasn't. His stepfather was an accommodating sort—too accommodating for this situation, Clark thought. Clark's one older brother "would just sit in the basement and watch TV and suck his thumb." Clark was no thumb-sucker. "I loved my little brothers, and I was protective of them. If they're outside playing, and I hear bricks and bottles, I'm heading straight out the house to see what's going on."

Essie asked her sons and nephews not to retaliate. "We'll call the police, let them handle it," she'd say. Clark saw how well that worked. The police took their sweet time arriving, and, by his estimation, couldn't catch a cold. He was willing to follow his mother's directives only so far. As the assaults continued, he positioned a large box behind the hedges in front of the house, and he and his brothers and cousins filled it with bricks and rocks "so we could return fire" when attacked. "We had moved in this neighborhood to try to create a life for ourselves," he says. "I wasn't going to let anything shatter that." He was 19 when they moved in "but I had to grow up quickly, because adult things were happening."

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Sam Navarro knew that no family should be barred from a neighborhood because of its race. But he also knew that when the family was black, the neighborhood was doomed. He considered the Clark family "blockbusters." To academics, "blockbusters" were the panic-peddling realtors who fueled and exploited rapid racial turnover. To Navarro, blockbusters "were the people who bought a place to start to break up the neighborhood."

While breaking up the neighborhood wasn't Essie's intention, it quickly began to happen. After her family moved in, "the people next door, they didn't want to live next to blacks, so they sold," Audrey Navarro says. "Then the next family sold, and more came in."

When Flora Henry, her husband, and seven children moved in on Green that March, they were already the fifth black family on the block. She recalls having to keep her children inside because of the missile attacks, and making sure they were escorted to school by adults so they weren't assaulted on the way. Like most of the black newcomers, she was undeterred. "They wasn't gonna run me outta here," says Henry, who today is 75 and still lives on the block. "I had bought a house, and I was gonna stay."

Some whites in the neighborhood were hospitable to their new black neighbors—but only furtively, Henry and Clark recall. "Nobody wanted to be outcasted for helping these black families," Clark says.

So it impressed him all the more when Navarro came to his aid publicly that summer, both the evening he was walking his dog and the evening of the BB gun incident. "With Sam, it was, 'To hell with what my neighbors think—this ain't right,'" Clark says.

He appreciated Navarro's offer—"If you ever have another problem, come see me"—but never took him up on it. Trusting a middle-aged white man was difficult for Clark. Plus, Navarro's home, on 51st Place, was in the middle of One-Way Gang turf. Clark thought the offer was genuine, but he couldn't be sure.

Instead, Clark tried to defuse tensions in a different way.

A vacant lot at the south end of Green Street had a large concrete slab. Clark and his brothers and cousins converted it into a basketball court, nailing a hoop to a plywood sheet and fastening the sheet to a pole. Just south of this lot, a few white boys in their early teens often congregated on 53rd Street near Green. Clark invited them to join the games on the makeshift court—and some of them did.

This became something remarkable for Chicago in that era: amid the tumult of a changing neighborhood, a group of unsupervised white and black boys were sweating through their summer afternoons together, quarreling over nothing more than fouls and traveling violations. And the spats weren't along color lines, since the pickup teams were racially mixed. Clark was hoping the goodwill growing on the basketball court would spread through the neighborhood.

The white boy he got to know best was 14-year-old Bobby Hisson.

Hisson, now 54 and a mechanical engineer living in Indiana, was well acquainted with life in a changing neighborhood, having spent his early years just east of Halsted, in the area that changed after the Speedys moved in. Hisson remembers the animosity of whites fading to grudging respect when the Speedys wouldn't budge. But respect was one thing, and staying another. Hisson's parents, born and raised in the neighborhood, had been reluctant to join the exodus that ensued. As whites moved out and blacks moved in, however, the balance of power shifted. "We were the last family to move out of there," Hisson says—meaning the last white family. In 1966, after the Hissons' home had been broken into a few times, the family moved just west of Halsted.

Hisson recalls the sympathy that whites in both neighborhoods showed when the first black family moved in on a block—sympathy not for the black family, but for its next-door neighbors. "I heard this time and time again when I was growing up: 'You know they're gonna firebomb that house. The people on either side gotta be worried. Hope they get the right house.'"

Yet Hisson managed to grow up open-minded about blacks, he says. "My feeling is, you gotta give a person a chance before you crucify him."

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So when Clark invited Hisson to join the basketball games, he did—along with a few of his friends. Some of his friends played on the sly, Hisson says, because their parents had forbidden them from spending time with the black kids on Green Street. For those youngsters, the basketball games were a revelation, Hisson says. "They'd get to know these [black] guys and they'd see that they were OK. Then they'd scratch their heads; 'Why shouldn't I be spending time with them?'" The older white boys in the neighborhood, especially those in the One-Way Gang, also frowned on Hisson and his friends associating with the Green Street boys. "They'd say, 'What are you doing hanging with those guys?'" Hisson remembers. "We'd say, 'We're just shooting hoops with them. They seem pretty cool to us.'"

Hisson and a friend of his, another 14-year-old, were soon doing more than shooting hoops with Clark. They took rides in Clark's car, and Clark bought them booze—Wild Irish Rose, Hisson recalls. Like some of Clark's kin and close friends, Hisson called him Stan, Clark's middle name. Hisson considered Clark "a pretty decent guy." Clark says he was more than merely the boys' runner. "We used to just ride, talk. We'd go to the lakefront, to a museum, to Lincoln Park—just hanging out." He says he looked on Hisson as "my younger brother."

By late that summer, though, Clark felt his younger brother was deceiving him. He says he caught Hisson consorting with One-Way Gang members. Hisson says he never did any such thing, but the two parted ways.

As summer's end drew near, the blacks on Green Street were angry and frustrated. They felt like sitting ducks. The barrages were continuing, and the police still seemed indifferent about them. Older black residents began talking about arming some of their young men, Flora Henry says. "I don't know if they got them a gun, but I know everyone around there was trying to find them one, 'cause those other people [the One-Way Gang] had guns and bows and arrows. You had to protect your house."

White residents of the neighborhood were troubled, too, but from a different perspective. By the end of the summer the Navarros were among the many residents who'd decided to move. The neighborhood "was going bad," Sam Navarro says. He'd heard stories about blacks in changing neighborhoods slashing white kids on their way home from school with box cutters and beer-can openers. "Anywhere the neighborhoods got mixed, that kind of thing happened. I felt I had to move—I was afraid my kids wouldn't be safe."

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