An Urban Education 

I am Annetta Allen. I was born in Greenville, Mississippi, in January 1948. My mother became very ill with epilepsy after I was born, so my father took over raising my brother and three sisters. My mother's sister-in-law Willette raised me. In 1957 we moved to Sycamore, Illinois, to live with her brother. Sycamore was a mostly white town. A white family lived on one side of our house and a white family lived on the other. The neighborhood was nice, clean. Lawns were manicured. It was beautiful. I played with white kids and spent the night at their homes. Even a white teacher of mine had me stay overnight at her house a few times. No one ever called me a racial name. There were no barriers.

When I was in high school, I hung out with my white and black friends at the malt shop on the main road. We all went to school pep rallies together, too. I never experienced racism, but a black classmate of mine was shot at for going steady with a white girl. After that, I started noticing little things about race, like the fact that more black people lived on the opposite side of town and that Sycamore didn't have any black police officers. I realized that blacks mostly did factory work, housecleaning, and hard labor. My aunt cleaned and ironed clothes for a white woman and worked at a corn canning factory. Her brother worked for a cable factory and he was a deputy for the sheriff's office, but they never gave him a uniform. That was probably like an Uncle Tom situation. Anyway, I never heard my aunt or uncle complain about racism. When I was 17, blacks won voting rights, but I didn't hear anyone talk about that. I learned about it from hearing Dr. Martin Luther King on TV.

When I was in high school my aunt became really sick with diabetes, and I began nursing her. She was an alcoholic too--had been since I was about ten. I tried to help her stop drinking. I kept telling her how bad it was for her. I enjoyed helping my aunt, and the whole situation really inspired me to want to become a doctor. I wanted to be like a Marcus Welby, going to people's homes and not charging them anything. But I didn't get to go to college because my aunt died when I was a senior in high school. After I graduated I began preparing food for a cafeteria at Northern Illinois University and I also worked as an aide in a nursing home in De Kalb. In 1968, my brother Sherman invited me to Chicago to live with him and his wife. He promised to help me find a job so I could raise money for medical school. I moved into his three-bedroom apartment in a black part of Englewood.

When I first got to the city, I couldn't believe how much racial segregation there was here. It's all just like plantations of people, separated. I saw it every day on the bus. First all ethnic people is on the bus, then all of a sudden you look around and there's nobody but blacks on the bus. One day I was with my cousins on a bus full of black people. My cousins got off the bus and I was trailing behind. I hollered at them to wait up for me. All of a sudden everybody on the bus started laughing. I asked one of my cousins why they were laughing, and she said it was because my accent sounded more white than black. It's so crazy how things is. You live one way, then you find yourself having to live another way.

My sister-in-law was a registered nurse at Rush-Presbyterian hospital. She got me on in medical records there about a month after I arrived to the city. I earned my nurse's assistant certification about a year later, and I began working with the elderly. Rush wasn't the best place. I didn't like the way the doctors talked to the staff. You felt like you were being talked down to a lot of times. I had a run-in with a supervisor because she thought I didn't work fast enough. I guess because I grew up in a small town I worked at a slower pace than people in Chicago, and that became a problem. In De Kalb I could take the time to make sure my patients were comfortable, but I couldn't do that here. I remember something else: my supervisor told me to wear a net over my Afro, but she didn't ask the white women to wear nets. I felt like I was being picked on. I just felt that blacks were being treated different. Around this time I was becoming aware of racism in the country. I was really getting into Stokely Carmichael and Julian Bond. I was reading civil rights literature and listening to the news. I was also beginning to realize that my aunt and her brother had never really talked about civil rights. Maybe they felt I was too young to deal with it.

While I was at Rush I started a second job in a nursing home in Lakeview. I also rented a basement studio just a few blocks from my brother's place. I grew up young. I got old quick. I started dating a guy who worked as a laborer at the Oscar Mayer plant. About a year into the relationship, I got pregnant. I wanted to go somewhere in life, and my boyfriend didn't. Our relationship ended. So did my dream to become a doctor. I worked all the way up until my son was born in September 1970, then I moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Englewood. After I came back from maternity leave I resigned from Rush, but I kept the Lakeview job and took on a second nursing home job, in Rogers Park. It was me and my son against the world.

One morning I was leaving my building for work when this man named Henry Allen was coming in. He had just returned from marine service in Vietnam, and he was stopping by to visit his grandmother. We just said hi. He was tall, and I guess I was just attracted to him. Henry and I began dating. We married in April 1971. I kept working at the nursing homes, and he worked as a butcher for a meatpacking house called M&M that went from 39th to 47th on Racine. After we got married we moved into a big apartment on 68th and Perry. About a year later we moved into a home at 6438 S. Hoyne. It had belonged to a Polish couple who were trying to get out of the neighborhood. Other whites lived on the block. I was glad to live in a racially mixed area, but my neighbors weren't friendly. Some looked at you, but they wouldn't speak. I don't know why I didn't stay on the north side, because I liked the north side.

After we moved over here, it seemed like our white neighbors started moving like cockroaches. They would move over around Kedzie and Cicero. The closer we got to them, the further west they'd move. If blacks moved a street, whites would jump three streets. I hated it here. I wanted to move. My husband didn't want to go. He's from Cleveland. He liked Chicago. His family was here. I took him to Sycamore. We looked at a nice house, but he didn't like it. He didn't like listening to the crickets. He didn't like driving down the roads that didn't have lights. It wasn't his cup of tea. On that trip I saw something I'd never seen. The house Henry and I looked at had an outrageous price, and I felt it was done that way because of our racial background.

In 1974 Henry and I decided to buy a house in the city. I was so busy working, so I let him pick it. He used his VA loan to buy a Victorian from a white woman who had just gotten a divorce. It was just about a block from where we were living. Across the street there was just the train tracks and Conrail railroad. The land was clean and the grass was mowed. They used to spray up there for insects and mosquitoes. It was really nice. Our alderman's and senator's offices were within walking distance, on Western. Saint Rita High School used to be in the neighborhood. We also had a cab service over there across the street by Saint Rita. The police were in the gas station, between Damen and Seeley, all the time. You felt safe.

After we moved over here it seemed like the bubble just burst. Everything went really crazy. I remember looking in my mailbox one day and finding a piece of paper that said "one-way ticket to Africa." I remember a billboard on 71st and Western said something like, "No niggers allowed." I'd never seen anything like this. The Ku Klux Klan's headquarters was nearby. Some whites smoke-bombed the house of a black woman who lived a block over from us. I remember a bunch of white women chanted "Nigger go home" to a little girl who wanted to attend Marquette School. I saw whites marching in Marquette Park against blacks moving into the neighborhood. I remember one day getting off the bus at Western and this white guy threw a cup of ice at me. I got ice water all on the back of me and I didn't say anything. A white guy shot a black neighbor's son at a White Castle on 69th and Western. He had about three bullets in him. It's amazing he did not die.

Through all this, I even watched the names change on my taxes. When I first moved over here it was called Southtown, then it was Albany, now I'm West Englewood. Then I hear some people say Englewood. Some of the blacks who moved over here when I did, they resent it because they say we weren't Englewood, we weren't a part of Englewood. Englewood used to stop at Ashland, or Halsted. Now all of a sudden, we're dumped in with the rest of it.

I had a daughter in 1975 and another daughter in 1977. As my children were growing up, the neighborhood began to turn bad. The first sign I started noticing was the prostitution. It was happening all up and down 63rd. My corner, it seemed like it was more. My kids were coming home telling me they saw ladies doing things. I'm like, Oh my God, on the streets? They were just blatant with it. They didn't hide it. That amazed me. They were having oral sex and intercourse. I saw it happen on my own block. They'd park across the street. They just didn't care. I just couldn't deal with that. I couldn't understand what was going on in the neighborhood. I started hearing about drugs. I didn't see it but I would hear neighbors talking. You'd find needles in the alley by the garbage can. Being a person from the 60s who believed in standing up for your rights, I just couldn't sit idly by. I didn't want my children to look at this.

For the first time in my life I decided to get involved in my community. I wanted to get together a group of residents who wanted to save the neighborhood. I thought maybe I could get some housewives involved, so I went door-to-door and I talked with them about forming a coalition. This was the late 1970s. One lady on the block, Gloria Morgan, wanted to help me spearhead the group. We got together about 30 or 40 neighbors and we made signs that said something like, "We don't want prostitution in our neighborhood." One of the neighbors told us that we used to have a block club called the 63rd Hamilton Hoyne Block Club, so we reorganized it and called it the 62nd & 63rd Hamilton Hoyne Block Club. I had the idea to add the other block to the name. I became the president of the club. We marched up and down 63rd from Damen to Hamilton, day and night, until 11 or midnight, with at least 15 to 20 people. We'd take down the johns' license-plate numbers and hand them over to police. Sometimes we would use water hoses to spray johns' cars. There was a tavern on 63rd that catered to them and the prostitutes. The business let them inside to hide from the police. We started picketing the tavern. A few months after we started our crusade, the kids could walk down the streets without seeing the prostitution. The tavern closed. It's a church now. TV and radio interviewed me. Years later I received an award for my accomplishments from Southwest Community Congress and [U.S.] Congressman Gus Savage. The congress asked me to become a board member, and I accepted its offer.

Our block club dealt with other problems, like the prejudiced policemen in the Eighth District. The officers would come over here at night and harass the young blacks. My son was sitting in his car one night with one of his girlfriends, who is a Chinese-American, and they pulled up on them. They asked what she was doing over here. They told my son, "Nigger, you should go in the house." I saw what the police did to Hispanics. They'd be trying to sell their little food, pushing their little carts. The police would take bottles of bleach and pour it on their food. I saw all of this. I saw all of the different racisms. I saw them dragging this little black boy down the street because they claimed he had supposedly stolen something from Sears. He had on shorts and a T-shirt. What did he have? Where would he hide it? The police cursed me out. They told me to stay out of it or they would take me to jail. They put him in the car. He hollered out his phone number and told me to call his mother. I called his mother and told her they were taking her son to the Eighth District police station. The lady thanked me and said she would get right on it. I never did hear the outcome of that.

My block club helped expose Operation Silver Shovel. The corner of 63rd and Hamilton was a dump site. We took pictures of license plates and gave some of them to the newspapers, and the alderman, and Streets and Sanitation. Whatever was necessary. One day I confronted someone dumping and he said he had permission from a politician to dump. I don't remember the politician's name. I called a newspaper reporter with the tip and he came over and did a story. All the dump sites came to light and they were exposed. I guess that exposed our alderman, Virgil Jones, who wound up going to jail.

While Operation Silver Shovel was going on, there was a move to put high-power lines up by the railroad tracks after Conrail abandoned the property across the street. I went all the way to Pennsylvania with another board member of Southwest Community Congress to speak out against the lines at a big meeting at Conrail's main office. We won a fight to keep them away from neighborhood schools until at least 2006. Today CSX transport company is where Conrail was, across the street. They drop these truck trailers over there. It goes on all night. It's terrible to wake up to hear this booming sound, to feel your house vibrating, or see a picture falling off the wall and cracks in the basement wall. Or having your little grandchild wake up saying, "Grammy, what's that noise?" That's very frightening to a child. You don't know exactly if it's a gun or what. You hear these noises and you become jumpy. It's kind of unnerving. Or at nighttime, to walk out on your porch and smell diesel, stinking to no end.

I never felt racism until I came to Chicago. I'm going to be very honest with you, in Sycamore it was just different. I remember I had a crush on a white guy in my high school. We always used to look at each other but we never crossed the line. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had married him and stayed in Sycamore. Had I seen the things that I've seen now, I wouldn't have ever moved here. My husband would have went one way and I would have went another. Here, I'm adjusting and making the best of it. But had I lived in the world I was used to and felt more comfortable in, I would have accomplished more and probably exhaled more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.

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