Reaching Out and Revolutionizing Race Relations, 1955-1964

Prior to the turn of the twentieth century, many northern cities, such as Chicago, were predominantly ethnic European and white. That, however, changed in a period that lasted approximately six decades, from the turn of the century through the late 1960s, when hopeful blacks left their troubled history in the south behind to find a better future in the cities of the north. Historically, scholars have loosely referred to this process as The Great Migration.[1] The first wave of African-American migrants to leave the south were educated, had a stable family life, and held steady jobs.[2] Those who moved to East Garfield Park were considered “well-off.” Indeed, according to former Marillac Director, Sister Mary William Sullivan, “The first [blacks] to move to [the area around Marillac] were those who could afford it.”[3] They quickly adjusted to urban living by relying heavily on their church and on each other. The other waves of migrants, however, did not fair as well as they faced additional challenges of urban living coupled with sustained racism.

In fact, migrants who left the south did not necessarily leave the problems of prejudice and racism behind them. Those who came to Chicago, for example, were often met with substantial and deep-rooted racism that kept them contained in the worst parts of the city, most notably, the south and west sides. According to historian Arnold Hirsch, as the country as a whole moved toward desegregation, “Chicago moved in the opposite direction by institutionalizing a greatly enlarged black ghetto.”[4] This is what Hirsch termed “the second ghetto,” and it corresponded to the rise of urban decay.

By the early 1950s, cities across the north were in a period of disrepair, what urban and race scholar Thomas Sugrue has called the “urban crisis.”[5] After the war, northern cities suffered during the demobilization process. Many industrial businesses shuttered their doors forevermore. Chicago was not immune to this mass exodus of the manufacturing sector and the joblessness it generated in its wake. Politicians and businessmen worked together to revitalize downtown Chicago, but they failed to take into consideration how funneling so much money into some neighborhoods would affect those that were not deemed worthy enough to save.

Moreover, the revitalization efforts of the 1950s disturbed race relations in the city. African Americans had been leaving their homes in the south since the turn of the century and by mid-century, their numbers had dramatically changed Chicago’s demographic data. In fact, between 1910 and 1960 the percentage and numbers of African Americans living in Chicago increased from approximately 2% of Chicago’s population, or 44,000 persons, to 32%, or 1,000,000 persons.[6] Displaced because of revitalization efforts, Chicago’s African Americans needed somewhere to go. The solution generated a public housing boom in Chicago. It began with Cabrini Green in 1943, and then it grew exponentially. In the decade between 1955 and 1965, “the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) was one of the nation’s busiest public housing agencies, building approximately 10,000 apartment units.”[7]

In the late 1950s, public housing came to East Garfield Park. The Rockwell Gardens Housing Project, consisting “of eight massive high-rise buildings that provided apartments to seven thousand people,” opened in 1958 and attracted recent African-American migrants.[8] This project immediately altered the demographics of the neighborhood as a whole, as within five years of construction, Garfield Park went from approximately 15% African American to 65%.[9] Marillac knew it was going to have to help in easing tensions. Thus, its goal with regard to the Rockwell Gardens housing development was two-fold. First, “to prepare a neighborhood for the new residents in a public housing development,” and second, to “orient these residents to the neighborhood.”[10] Ultimately, they hoped “that such a process might integrate the public housing area and its residents with the life of the total community.”[11]

In order to help their older neighbors adjust to the new ones, former Marillac Social Center director, Sister Mary William Sullivan, noted that Marillac moved quickly. In 1959, Marillac sought volunteers to serve as a “welcoming committee” to the new tenants of Rockwell Gardens. In addition, they offered “‘Neighborhood Nights’ to bring new and old neighbors together in a social setting.”[12] Additionally, “Block clubs were started in each block,” Sister Mary William Sullivan proudly noted, and “people met together to discuss beautifying contests of front lawns, alley fairs, [and] better street lighting.”[13] These block clubs were quite successful in that “club members began to understand that ‘working together for a common good benefit[ed] each of them individually.’"[14] In these ways then, Marillac brought community members to the Projects.

But Marillac also worked diligently to help Rockwell Gardens residents adjust to urban living and their new community. According to Marillac scholar Winifred Kilday, DC, people in the projects in/around Marillac, “face[d] an entirely new and impersonal environment, which [was] often a world of overpowering buildings, most of them high-risers.”[15] Moreover, she continued, “These tenants frequently lack[ed] experience in city living and in addition have serious problems of meager income, poor health, isolation from a normal neighborhood participation or social life and psychological difficulties.”[16] Thus, “to acquaint new residents with” the agency, Marillac sponsored “Family Nights” at the institution.[17] Additionally, realizing that their new residents might need additional encouragement, Sisters Mary William and Rosalie Larson (then director of Marillac), worked with the Chicago Housing Authority to secure a four-bedroom apartment (apt. 104) on the first floor of the 2517 W. Adams building of Rockwell Gardens.[18] Opening on January 6 of 1960, Rendu House (named after Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity who worked to eradicate poverty in Paris in the nineteenth century) operated as an extension of Marillac and as a “clearing center, a meeting place, [and] a center of communication,” between various organizations and the residents of Rockwell Gardens.[19]

Within a year, Sister Mary William and her two assistants had “succeeded in organizing each floor of the eight high-rises into building councils that functioned like Marillac’s successful block clubs.”[20] Other projects at Rendu House included a Halloween party, a local “watch group,” and a pre-school cooperative. By year’s end, the “Rendu House Extension Annual Report of 1960” readily proclaimed that the role of the Marillac staff and volunteers, “has crystallized into one of secondary leadership as the skills and confidence of the resident leaders grow through experience on committees, with teen councils, and in work on special projects.”[21] Rendu House was so effective at reaching out that residents of Rockwell Gardens came “for just about any reason, or no reason at all.”[22] Despite the fact that Marillac was able to help their neighbors lead the best lives they could in a poor community, the sisters realized that in order to effect lasting change, they would need to advocate for justice. In the coming years, a social revolution would sweep over most of the United States, and even some of the sisters of Marillac Social Center would help spread its message.

Works Cited:

[1] Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Random House, 2010).
[2] Christopher Robert Reed, “Beyond Chicago’s Black Metropolis: A History of the West Side’s First Century, 1837-1940,” Journal of Illinois State Historical Society 92, no. 2 (1999): 126.
[3] Letter from Sister Mary William to Richard ???, 11 October 1965, p. 2; box 3, folder 9, MSCA.
[4] Hirsch, Second Ghetto, 215.
[5] Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Princton, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
[6] Stewart E. Tolnay, “The African American Great Migration and Beyond,” Annual Review of Sociology 29 (2003), 221.
[7] Larry Bennett, “Restructuring the Neighborhood: Public Housing Redevelopment and Neighborhood Dynamics in Chicago,” Journal of Affordable Housing and Community Development Law 10, no. 1 (2000), 55.
[8] Hoy, Good Hearts, 132.
[9] Letter from Sister Mary William to Richard, 11 October 1965, p. 2; box 3, folder 9, MSCA.
[10] “Rendu House—Extension of Marillac House,” box 3, folder 13, MSCA.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Kilday, 73.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Suellen Hoy, Good Hearts, 146.
[15] Kilday, 43.
[16] Kilday, 43.
[17] Ibid., 73.
[18] “Minutes of the Meeting of the Board of Directors of Marillac Social Center,” 2 September 1959; box 2, folder 14, MSCA.
[19] “Rendu House—Extension of Marillac House.”
[20] Hoy, Good Hearts, 134.
[21] “Rendu House Extension Annual Report, 1960;” box 3, folder 13, MSCA.
[22] Hoy, Good Hearts, 134.

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