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She Remembers

One of the few fluent Oneida speakers left in Wisconsin, Maria Hinton “recently put the finishing touches on an exhaustive recording of the Oneida dictionary,” American Indian News Service reports.

“Taking five years of almost daily work, she recorded 12,000 audio files, including tens of thousands of Oneida words, and told stories she first heard in her mother tongue.”

The 99-year-old Hinton was recently named one of the first recipients of the Prism Award from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.  More than 50 years ago, her dedication to keeping alive the language, stories and culture she grew up with was recognized at an Indian gathering that gave her the name, Yake-yahle.  Translation: She Remembers.

“I am not completely retired,” Hinton told AINS.  She lives in Oneida, near Green Bay.

Frank Lumpkin

Frank and Bea Lumpkin

Word has come that Frank Lumpkin, a true working-class hero, passed away on Monday at the age of 93.  Many years before Republic Windows closed leaving its employees in the lurch, Lumpkin led the Wisconsin Steel Save Our Jobs Commitee in an epic struggle after workers’ final paychecks bounced and promised benefits disappeared when the plant closed without warning in 1980.

After 17 years of battles in the courts, in the streets, and in legislatures going all the way to the U.S. Congress, the committee (and its lawyers including Tom Geoghegan) won a $19 million settlement.

Along with the company, Lumpkin and his fellow workers also had to take on a company union dominated by Alderman Edward Vrdolyak’s machine which cooperated in shafting the employees.

Frank is best remembered in Always Bring A Crowd, the biography by Beatrice Lumpkin, his wife of 60 years, published in 1999.  It’s the story of a brave and caring man — and also of the role of the left-wing black workers (including Frank’s mother and sister) in fighting racism in the decades before the civil rights movement.

Born in Georgia in 1916, one of ten children, Frank came north with his entire family (to Buffalo, N.Y.) in 1940.  He became a steelworker at Bethlehem’s Lackawanna plant two years later, served in the Merchant Marines during the war, married Bea and moved to Chicago in 1949, started at Wisconsin Steel in 1950 and worked there till it was shut down thirty years later.  He ran for state representative as an independent in 1988.  His slogan was, “Send a Steelworker to Springfield.”

He never seemed to be without his hat, an old-style fedora.  A passage in Bea’s book suggests one possible reason.

After a racist mob shut down Paul Robeson’s 1949 Peekskill concert, a second concert was announced for the next week, and Frank and four other steelworkers decided to make the trip from Buffalo.  They got there late, and the mob was waiting outside.

As Bea recounts it, Frank recalled:  “Having experience with that kind of action, I had my hat on, because that hat had cushioned many a blow for me.”

[Lumpkin’s age was given incorrectly in an earlier version.]

U of C Folk Festival turns 50

The University of Chicago Folk Festival celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend, and the Sun Times has a nice piece on what it means to younger fans and musicians (like Chicago’s star Irish fiddler Liz Carroll, who appears Saturday and Sunday nights).

The Gary Post Tribune gives a good sense of what to expect:  the range of styles at the evening shows at Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th (bluegrass to blues, Creole to bagpipes); the lovely ambience of the free daytime workshops that fill Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th (“Wear your dancing shoes and join a room full of folks learning barn, Cajun, Irish or Scandinavian social dancing from experienced instructors, then dance to live music…join in sea shanty songs or hear programs like the story of the accordion through the ages”); not to mention that jam sessions that fill the nooks and crannies of the building all day.

A few weeks ago the Hyde Park Herald talked to a number of veterans of the festival’s early days.  The emphasis on traditional, noncommercial folk is what distinguished it from East Coast rivals in the heyday of the 1960s folk revival, noted Nina Helstein.  “It’s not Peter Paul and Mary,” she said. “It’s what people play on their back porch and learn from their uncle.”

And Bob Kass remembered a 1962 trip through the South with Larry Kart  to recruit rural performers, which earned them a solo performance from Mississippi Fred McDowell in his sharecropper’s cabin.

Fiddler Genevieve Koester, a native of Charleston, Illinois, and resident of Uptown, has gotten some hometown press (the Journal Gazette-Times Courier and the Times of Northwest Indiana) for her appearance Saturday and Sunday with the traditional string band New Mules (they also play a barn dance session Saturday afternoon).  According to the Times, Koester and company are renowned on “the barn-dance circuit that stretches from Valparaiso to Evanston,” performing “fast, fiddle-powered tunes steeped in the string-band tradition of rural Illinois.”

Lawndale: Stories of struggle and hope

Historian Beryl Satter speaks Monday evening at Mt. Sinai Hospital in North Lawndale, the neighborhood where much of the action occurs in her widely acclaimed book, Family Properties, which was released last year.

The book grew out of the author’s curiosity about her father, Mark J. Satter, born and raised in then-Jewish Lawndale.  A scrappy left-wing lawyer, Mark Satter crusaded in and out of court against the extremely exploitative system of contract buying (enabled by the FHA’s refusal to insure mortgages in black areas), featuring crushing terms that forced African American homebuyers into debt peonage, a system that inevitably engendered slum conditions.  After Mark Satter’s premature death in 1965, the book follows the story as Martin Luther King moves into the neighborhood the next year to organize against housing discrimination and slums, and a couple years later as the Contract Buyers League, spurred by Monsignor John Egan and led by Lawndale residents like Ruth Wells, initiated a major organizing campaign including two federal lawsuits.

A couple themes of historic continuity emerged in Beryl Satter’s talk with Andrew Patner on WFMT last year (mp3). One is the  long history and crushing impact of systematic denial of credit to African Americans, stretching from southern sharecropping to northern redlining and, today, to predatory lending and a foreclosure crisis which has hit Lawndale hard.

The other is the way well-fought but unsuccessful campaigns build on each other and create momentum. Mark Satter faced repeated frustration, King’s campaign was deemed a failure, the Contract Buyers League lawsuits were unsuccessful – but all contributed to two signal victories against housing and credit discrimination, the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, won under the leadership of yet another scrappy West Sider, Gale Cincotta.

Beryl Satter will discuss her book in Mt. Sinai’s Glasser Auditorium (1500 S. California) at 5 p.m., Monday, February 8; a reception follows at 6:30.

Lawndale Christian Development Corp. has said that Mark Satter’s story will be honored in the Martin Luther King Exhibit Center that is being built as part of the Dr. King Legacy Apartments, affordable housing now under construction on the site of the two-flat where King lived during his Chicago campaign.

Landmarks in Black History

Lorraine Hansberry remembered the house at 6140 S. Rhodes, which her family moved into when she was eight years old, as being “in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house.”

She recalled “being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school.” In “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” the posthumous collection of her writings, she remembered her mother keeping watch all night with a loaded gun while her father was out of town.

The family’s struggle when they moved into Washington Park in 1937 — including a lawsuit which went to the Supreme Court — is reflected in Hansberry’s groundbreaking play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” which opened on Broadway in 1959.

On Monday, a City Council committee is expected to consider a recommendation from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to list the Hansberry House as one of four buildings representing the Chicago Black Renaissance literary movement of the mid-20th century.

Lorraine Hansberry’s father was a successful businessman and prominent activist – visitors to their home included W.E.B. DuBois, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Jesse Owens, Paul Robeson. When a white neighbor sued to enforce a restrictive covenant barring African Americans from buying homes in the area, Carl Hansberry took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, with Earl B. Dickerson as his attorney.

In 1940, in the landmark case Lee v. Hansberry, the Supreme Court overturned the Washington Park covenant.  The case helped lay the groundwork for a 1948 ruling that declared all restrictive covenants unconstitutional.

Other buildings being considered Monday include the homes of Richard Wright, 4831 S. Vincennes, and Gwendolyn Brooks, 7428 S. Evans, as well as the George C. Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library, 4801 S. Michigan.

Wright lived in Chicago from 1927 to 1937, publishing his first stories, writing his first novel (published posthumously as “Lawd Today!”), working with the Federal Writers Project of the New Deal and founding the South Side Writers Club with writers like Arna Bontemps, Margaret Walker, and Horace Cayton.   His most famous novel, “Native Son,” is set on Chicago’s South Side.

After he got a post office job in 1929, Wright was able to move his mother, aunt and brother out of a rooming house and  into the second-floor, four-room apartment on Vincennes, where he had room to read and write.  They lived there till 1932.

Gwendolyn Brooks wrote poems of life in Bronzeville and of protest against segregation and brutality.  Her career bridged the Black Renaissance of the 1930s and ’40s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s.  She succeeded Carl Sandburg as Illinois poet laureate and was the first African American named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  With her husband and children, she lived in the modest house at 7428 S. Evans for over 40 years.

The Hall Library opened in 1932, headed by Vivian Harsh, the first African American branch librarian in Chicago.  She developed a remarkable Special Negro Collection (it’s now the Vivian G. Harsh Collection and housed in its own wing at the Woodson Regional Library), along with community programs including a biweekly literary forum which attracted leading authors.  Located at the heart of Bronzeville, the library was also central to the Black Renaissance.  Harsh served as head librarian until 1958.

Landmark status would mandate approval by the landmarks commission whenever building permits are requested for any of the buildings.

Last year the Illinois Supreme Court declined to review an Appellate Court decision that found the criteria for selection in the landmarks ordinance to be unconstitutionally vague.  The original case will be reheard later this year in circuit court.  The ordinance remains in effect.

The overturning of longstanding precedent stunned preservationists and called into question the future of landmark preservation law in Chicago.  In December a state court in Washington rejected a similar argument which cited the Illinois ruling.  (Vince Michaels of the School of the Art Institute blogs about it at Time Tells.)

Another Bronzeville landmark, the South Side Community Art Center, launches a 70th anniversary celebration next month.  The last remaining center developed by the New Deal’s Federal Arts Project, it was founded by Margaret Burroughs among others and dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941.

Reparations for Haiti

At the Tribune, Oscar Avila writes about the historic debt many African Americans feel to Haiti for its historic and heroic role in overthrowing slavery.

At Commondreams, Bill Quigley of the Center for Constitutional Rights takes it a bit further.  The United States owes Haiti billions of dollars in reparations, he argues.

After the Haitian revolution, the U.S. instituted an embargo that lasted from 1804 to 1863.  Haiti was forced to turn to U.S. banks for loans to pay 90 million francs in indemnification for the value of freed slaves, which was demanded by French warships in 1825. (One U.S. bank loan was finally paid off in 1947.) The current value of the total paid to France and to U.S. banks, Quigley writes, is $20 billion.

The U.S. (under Woodrow Wilson, who made great speeches about self-determination) invaded Haiti in 1915 and occupied the country until 1934, controlling customs, collecting taxes, and killing many thousands who resisted occupation.  From 1957 to 1986 the U.S. backed the Duvalier kleptocracy.  After Baby Doc was expelled, an IMF loan (to pay off the family’s raids on the treasury) was conditioned on Haiti opening its markets; cheap rice from Florida flooded the country and wiped out its agricultural sector.

Haiti used to feed itself.  Today, thanks to the IMF, it imports nearly all its rice and sugar.

And George W. Bush, who backed the overthrow of Haiti’s elected president in 2004 (against the counsel of Colin Powell) has been appointed co-chair of U.S. relief efforts.  What they say is true: be careful of frauds.

Now CCR and other groups are calling for grounding relief efforts in human rights principles.

“The magnitude of the catastrophe is not entirely a result of natural disaster but rather, a history of deliberate impoverishment and disempowerment of the Haitian people through a series of misguided polices,” said Brian Concannon Jr. of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

“Lack of donor accountability and continued aid volatility will only guarantee even greater suffering,” he said.

Public workers mark King Day

Remembering Martin Luther King’s support for labor, a new rank-and-file group of public workers is marking his birthday with a march for jobs and public services.

jones01Public Workers Unite! will rally at the offices of the CTA, 567 W. Lake, at 11 a.m. on Monday, January 18, and march through downtown, past City Hall and the Commercial Club (and stopping at the offices of corporations that have received public largesse), and ending up at the Board of Education, 100 W. Randolph.

The group was formed largely by members of transit, teachers, and welfare workers unions who felt the need to push back against “a one-sided class war by the rich that has public employees in its sights,” said Steve Edwards, an activist with the welfare workers union.

Effective resistance “won’t happen if we just carry on lobbying our representatives,” he said. “We’re trying to the extent we can to move it back into the streets.”

It was in the streets where Memphis sanitation workers backed by King took on the local power structure, forty-plus years ago.  They held daily marches and mass meetings to protest degrading and dangerous working conditions and the city’s refusal to bargain with black workers.  “I’ll never be known as the mayor who signed a contract with a Negro union,” said Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb III.

Twelve days after King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, under national pressure, Mayor Loeb signed.

Today public workers face what Edwards calls “creeping privatization” and attacks on pension funds they’ve paid into steadily while politicians have raided them.  The CTA is planning to cut 1,000 transit workers next month, CPS is poised to announce another round of school closings, and welfare workers face two or three times the workload that’s considered manageable, Edwards said.

PWU calls for taxing the rich, ending the wars, expanding public services, stopping privatization, labor law reform, and health care and pensions for all.

Edwards says it reflects central aspects of King’s legacy — that some would prefer to overlook.  He reads off what he says is his favorite quotation from King:

“For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values, a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

Back to South Works

In this month’s Progressive, Luis J. Rodriguez accompanies a former steelworker as he returns to Chicago and visits his former place of employment, the old site of South Works.

Near the entrance of the now-razed plant – it once covered 600 acres, had 70 coke ovens, employed nearly 20,000 workers (their softball league had 63 teams) – the two come across a Chicago police officer sitting in his car.  They ask what he’s doing and he says he’s “waiting for the high school kids to come out.”

Says the cop:  “Not much to do here but stop the fights after school.  It’s a daily occurrence.  It never used to be this way.  When the mill was running, there were hardly any gangs.  You had good hard-working families.”

Says Rodriguez, also a former Chicagoan, the largely Mexican community around U.S. Steel “thrived when the blast furnaces and massive forges went at it all day and all night.  In those days, there was little crime, everyone knew each other, most people owned their own homes, maybe two cars.  Now apartments sit empty, many families have moved out, and the Latin Kings and other street associations roam parks and gangways, surviving on drug sales, vice, and robberies…

“Tony and I turned onto Commercial Avenue, the once thriving strip of shops, businesses, and three-story flats.  Tony recalled the annual Christmas parade that brought thousands of people out into the street.”

The two bear witness to “the destruction that capitalism has wrought to many of our once-thriving, working-class communities,” he writes.  “While wealth continues to get accumulated into a smaller and smaller number of hands – helped by government bailouts – our country is rife with communities that have been written off.”



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