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

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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Sam Navarro outside his cottage near Benton Harbor, decades after leaving his Back of the Yards Home.

Sam Navarro outside his cottage near Benton Harbor, decades after leaving his Back of the Yards Home.

Jeffrey Marini

Editor’s note: Read Part 2 of this story, in which Duffie Clark pleads his innocence, Sam Navarro implores his neighbors to stay calm, and both men wrestle with the tragedy's aftermath.

Sam Navarro and Duffie Clark met under odd circumstances. This was in the summer of 1971, in the neighborhood in which both men lived—a pocket of Back of the Yards between 51st and 53rd Streets, Halsted and Morgan. Small apartment buildings here were mixed with single-family bungalows. The lawns were trim, the streets clean and safe. Many of the breadwinners cashed city paychecks, and on Election Day, they and their wives flipped the levers the precinct captain told them to flip. Catholics—Irish, Polish, German—predominated. Until Clark's family moved in that January, only whites lived there.

One evening that summer, Clark, then 19, walked his dog from his home at 5213 S. Green to a weedy vacant lot a half block west at 52nd and Peoria. A group of white kids was gathered in an alley next to the lot, and Clark soon was dodging rocks and bottles and hearing the usual taunts: "Get outta here, nigger!" "You don't belong here!" His mother had instructed him to turn the other cheek, but that ran against his nature. He flung a few rocks back. His dog Lacy, a German shepherd, was snarling and straining at the leash, and Clark considered letting him loose. "But Lacy was vicious, and he ain't coming back once he get in the mix," Clark says today. "I was afraid he would have just went and bit some people who didn't have nothing to do with nothing."

Clark headed back toward his house. More jeers; a bottle crashed next to him. Then, suddenly, he heard a gruff voice snapping at his attackers. He turned and saw a middle-aged white man shooing the troublemakers away. The man approached Clark and introduced himself: Sam Navarro. He said he lived nearby, and he offered to walk Clark home. He apologized for the mob's actions. Clark responded, "This ain't nothing new." Navarro frowned, shook his head, and said, "Some people are just ignorant. But we're not all like that."


They rounded the corner onto Green Street and soon were in front of the bungalow where Clark lived with his mother, stepfather, four brothers, and two cousins. Two of the brothers emerged from the house, eyeing Navarro warily. Clark assured them Navarro was OK, introduced him to his brothers, and everyone shook hands. Navarro told Clark where he lived—just a block and a half away, at 911 W. 51st Place. "If you ever have another problem, come see me," Navarro said. "My door is always open to you."

On a subsequent evening Clark was walking on Peoria when something buzzed past his head. He spun around; a boy down the block was shooting BBs at him. Clark broke toward him. Navarro, who was inside his house, heard the commotion and hurried out front, in time to see Clark chasing a teen who was firing BBs over his shoulder as he fled. Just then a squad car pulled up. The officers jumped out—and seized the young black man. "The kid with the gun took off," Navarro recalls, "and the cops didn't make a move toward him. All they did was grab Duffie Clark." This angered Navarro. His anger grew when the cops shoved Clark against their squad and berated him as they searched him roughly. Navarro rushed over. "Hey, wait a minute, this is not this man's fault," he told the officers. "It's that little sonovabitch with the BB gun." Navarro had recognized the kid as someone who'd recently moved out of the neighborhood. "Now he's coming back here and he's gonna cause an incident where some innocent person's gonna get hurt," he said. The officers released Clark with a stern warning.

Navarro figured his neighbors were irritated with him for aiding Clark, and soon after the BB gun episode, his assumption was confirmed. "Dad, they're calling you a nigger lover," his 13-year-old daughter, Helene, informed him. Helene assured her father that he had her full support. By this time—late summer—several other black families had moved onto Green Street, and the neighborhood's white residents were glumly predicting that Saint John the Baptist, the grammar school Helene attended, would be getting its first black students in the fall. Helene told her dad, "If there are black kids at school this year, I'll be their friend."

Navarro, 44 then, was no militant. He worked for the city as a plumber, and he helped the precinct captain get everyone to the polls on Election Day.

His views about blacks were contradictory, with his hatred of injustice at odds with his acceptance of the neighborhood norms. He referred to blacks as niggers at times "because that's what they were called," he says today. "And I always rationalized it—I says, 'If you look it up in the dictionary, to be niggardly is to be poor.' To me, it wasn't referring to their color, it referred to the fact that they didn't have anything. And when someone criticized me for saying it, I says, 'We got white friends that are niggers, too.'"

He'd stood up for Clark because he thought it was right—and because he wanted to cool passions, which he feared could lead to tragedy.

Navarro's 84 now, white-haired and stooped, with shoulders that ache from years of driving a jackhammer. After working his way up to district foreman in the water department, he retired 18 years ago, and he and his wife moved to a cottage near Benton Harbor, Michigan. Around the cottage are several painted portraits and framed photos of Helene, blue-eyed and blond, in the white shirt and jumper she wore to Saint John the Baptist. In the last of these she's 13.

These days Clark is bald and has a smoker's cough and a middle-age paunch. (He turned 60 in August.) He lives with his daughter on the south side, a few miles north and east of where he lived in '71. Until January he was working for the Uptown People's Law Center, advocating for prison inmates, people whose troubles he understands. Now he's unemployed.

Clark's former home on Green Street and Navarro's on 51st Place were flattened long ago; today they are but two more weedy lots in an area rife with them. The neighborhood's city jobs, safe streets, and white residents are a faint memory.

On Chicago's south and west sides back in the early 70s, there were three kinds of neighborhoods: white, changing, and black. Or—to white Chicagoans—good, going, and gone. As soon as Clark's family moved in that January, the neighborhood was going. The only questions were how long it would take and how painful the slide would be.

Exactly 100 years before 1971, a fire had raced through Chicago, leveling much of the city in little more than a day. Chicago rose triumphantly from the ashes. But it was less successful with its next crucial test: the flood of poor southern blacks into the city, starting with the first World War and lasting into the 1970s, and the fear it kindled in whites. The city's leaders shrugged, let the fear grow, and sometimes fanned the flames. As with the 1871 fire, whole neighborhoods were consumed, one after another.

Instead of helping blacks gradually integrate into the city's neighborhoods, as Chicago's other immigrants did, the city's powerbrokers used a bag of tricks—restrictive covenants, redlining, urban renewal, public housing—to keep blacks in their place: mainly in one big ghetto on the west side and another on the south side. As the growing black population sought more housing, it could only advance in a menacing wave—an ill-fated arrangement. When the ghettos pushed into adjacent white neighborhoods, whites shoved back, and police looked the other way. Panic-peddling realtors raised the heat, and city officials yawned.

As a result, for decades—in neighborhood after neighborhood—both whites and blacks suffered. Whites sold homes at depressed prices, blacks bought them at inflated ones; whites lost cherished communities, blacks merely gained another bedroom for their ghetto.

And some people were injured and killed in the violence that became a fact of life on the residential racial fronts. Most of the victims were blacks—hurt in the bombing, torching, and vandalizing of the homes they'd dared occupy. But the attacks were bound to create blowback occasionally. And when they did, it wasn't just the attackers who got hurt. Sometimes it was people who didn't have nothing to do with nothing.

"I knew something was gonna happen, but God, I never knew it would be to us," Navarro said recently on the porch of his Michigan cottage. His gaze hollowed, his voice shrank to a whisper, and he repeated, "I never knew it would be to us."

Navarro was ten and living on the far south side when his mother, a Lithuanian immigrant, died of cancer in 1937. Following her death, he and his sister and their father moved in with Navarro's aunt, uncle, and their seven children in their brick two-flat at 5206 S. Peoria.

The pocket that the two-flat sat in was one of the classier areas of Back of the Yards—which was like being tall for a dachshund. The nearby Union Stockyards provided jobs to the neighborhood, but at an aromatic price. The jobs were mostly foul ones, drawing those with few options—mainly eastern European and Mexican immigrants. (The packers welcomed blacks, too, when strikes needed breaking, discarding them quickly once a truce was reached.) The enclave Navarro moved into, on the eastern edge of Back of the Yards, was dominated then by the Irish, who'd moved up from stockyards work to more impressive city jobs, like sweeping streets and hauling trash.

Navarro's father's family hailed from Sicily and was one of only two Italian families in the enclave. The Irish kids weren't rich; they just seemed so by comparison. Navarro's uncle sold vegetables off a truck, and the household ate the scraps. His Irish playmates let him use their bats, balls, gloves, bikes, and roller skates, but everyone knew who was lending and who was sponging. He and his friends got along fine except when they fought, which was nearly every day. "Dirty dago," someone would call him. "Lousy mick," he'd answer. And the punches flew. "You got this out of the mouths of your parents and relatives," Navarro says. "But the next day we were playing ball again."

Navarro was fair-skinned and "blond as hell—when I was a little boy, it looked like I was wearing a white wool cap." So in other neighborhoods, he sometimes faced the hostilities of fellow Italians who couldn't tell he was one of them. "My Aunt Lucy at 31st and Princeton, I remember her sending me to the store when I was a little boy," he says. (Thirty-first and Princeton was in an Italian enclave.) "I had money in my hand, and I was walking by this porch—there's three teenagers sitting there. One of 'em says, 'Hey, kid, where you going?' I says, 'To the store.' They come down off the porch"—Navarro shifts into the menacing voice he recalls—"'What's your name?' I says, 'Salvatore Navarro.' 'OK, kid, go ahead.' If I'da said O'Brien or something, they'da kicked the shit outta me and took the money."

Even inside his aunt and uncle's house, Navarro was an also-ran. His uncle and one of his cousins were named Sam, too, so to avoid confusion, his aunt called him by a pet name. "She'd say, 'Where's the bum? Call the bum. Tell the bum it's time to eat.' I thought my name was Bum until I was 16."

He dropped out of high school at that age and joined the army. It was 1943, and he served four years in the Pacific. He remembers being irked by the army's disdain for its black soldiers, who were consigned to separate companies and mess halls and generally disrespected. It isn't right, Navarro thought; they're risking their lives the same as I am.

Back in the neighborhood after the service, he went to work in a cousin's tavern, making pizzas. He drank at another tavern in nearby Canaryville, where the skinny underage bartender, Audrey McKeown, caught his eye. He asked the 16-year-old out until she surrendered.

McKeown's childhood had been a bed of gravel. Her parents were alcoholics. She was six when they unloaded her on an uncle and aunt who lived in the state of Washington. When the uncle died, the aunt dumped her on a train back to Chicago, where her father promptly planted her behind the bar in his tavern. As Navarro learned her story, he found himself liking her even more. "I felt sorry for the way she was living, and I wanted to take her away from it."

McKeown's neighborhood was Irish, too, but even more clannish than Navarro's. "You couldn't throw a stone without hitting a relative," she says. Her parents would have choked on the idea of her dating a "dago," let alone hooking up with one permanently. In February 1949, after McKeown turned 17, Navarro borrowed a car, and the two of them drove to Crown Point, Indiana, where they were married.

They lived at first with a friend on Peoria a couple doors down from where Navarro was raised. It took a few weeks for Audrey Navarro to muster the courage to visit her family and report her mortal sin. "They were so glad to see me they beat the living shit out of me," she says. She was a "little slut" for "running away with that dago," her father and brother said while punching and kicking her.

Navarro's family was more accepting of his new wife than her family was of him. "Hell, I think they liked her better than they liked me."

Navarro's aunt and uncle owned a dilapidated frame two-flat around the corner from their building, at 911 W. 51st Place. Navarro and a cousin jacked up the weary structure, put in a foundation and a full basement, leveled the cockeyed floors, and installed new wiring, plumbing, and drywall. The newlyweds moved into the second-floor apartment during the rehab, renting it from Navarro's aunt. In November 1949 they had their first child. The neighborhood seemed a fine place to raise a family.

The area was white as far as the eye could see. Less than a mile east, blacks had finally gotten a toehold west of Wentworth Avenue, and the neighborhood there, Fuller Park, would be "gone" in a few years. But a broad stretch of railroad tracks discouraged further westward expansion. South of the Navarros, whites in Englewood were so terrified about race invaders that when a handful of blacks attended a union meeting one evening in November 1949, at a home at 57th and Peoria, it nearly started a riot. News raced from house to house that "niggers" had bought the place on Peoria from the "dirty Jews" who owned it, and neighbors flocked to the building and battered it with rocks. A 20-year-old black man was snatched off a streetcar at 56th and Halsted and beaten.

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