From an address at UIC, November 9, 2000.
|The Context of
the Origins of Gangs
My mission here today, of course, is to deal
with the origins, and to the extent that I can, history that I know
of of gangs in Chicago. And itís not easy to deal with it
out of context. But let me suggest that to understand this kind
of behavior, this kind of organization better, itís also
important to understand the economic, the political, the social,
the cultural context in which this behavior emerges. And itís
important to look at ethnicity, and race, and gender, not so much
gender as ethnicity and race, because when you look at Dickens'
stories of London during the emergence of the Industrial Revolution
in England, and large numbers of people being displaced from agricultural
settings and brought into the urban cities, without preparation,
without protection, their behavior became very, very unmanageable.
When we look at the displacement of, not the
displacement, necessarily, but the people who came from Ireland
in the 1840s, the Irish, I mean, Potato Famine, and they came to
Boston, and they were rejected by even the Irish, their own kin.
They organized into gangs. Eventually, they became politically savvy,
and they took over three basic institutions in Boston. They took
over the police department, the fire department, and they became
the political giants in that area, in Boston. Read the history.
I didnít write it.
In New York, during the Civil War, when there
was about to be a draft, the gangs sought out the blacks, the free
blacks who lived in New York City, and murdered many of them, because
they felt that these are the people who should be going rather than
them. That ís New York City. The juvenile, I'm going to skip
forward a lot, this mike bothers me, but anyway, I'll try.
When we look at Chicago, specifically, and we know that in the
1880s and 1890s large numbers of immigrants came to Chicago from
various parts of Europe, particularly, and because they were in
a new culture, and because they were relatively young, they rebelled
against their families, and against the old culture, and their,
and their relatives. And their behavior was very bizarre, according
to American standards. And they began to go to jail, and they were
jailed just as adult criminals. There was a woman who lived in Chicago
at that time, her
name was Jane Addams. And Jane Addams saw that this was not
helping the situation. And so she did what was going on in London
at the same time, organized a new concept of dealing with young
people and created what we call now, they were then settlement houses.
Jane Addams.... Way before blacks had begun to come to Chicago,
there were these juveniles on the west side, particularly, the children
of immigrants. Jane Addams established a place called Hull
House, and then developed a whole system, a new juvenile justice
system, and created a place for the young people who were juvenile
delinquents to be placed, called, or a new way for them to be even
looked at. Juvenile Court. Now we call it Family Court. Definitely
different kinds of rulings.
Arrival of African Americans in Chicago
Let me deal a bit, then, with the arrival of African Americans
in Chicago. And my somewhat limited knowledge about that. I was--all
of my grandparents were born in slavery. All of them. I happened
to have met, knew my grandfather on my father's side, and my grandmother
on my mother's side. They were born in slavery, and then resisting
and wanting a better life, they were encouraged to come north, as
was true of many, many African Americans at that period of time.
World War I started, and Europeans from certain parts of Europe
were barred from coming to the United States. And the, a very cheap
labor force was necessary to carry on the war effort.
So the Chicago Defender among other encouragements, encouraged
these blacks who were the children of slaves, to come to the Promised
Land. Chicago. It was in that, in that surge, that my mother and
father, my father was working in the steel mills in Birmingham,
Bessmer Steel, right outside of Birmingham. But he and my mother
wanted a better, more free life for their children, an opportunity
to vote, be able to make decisions without harrassment. And they
left the south, and came to the north, to Chicago. What they found
was not a great deal different. But they had the advantages of the
law, that they did not have in Birmingham. They had seen lynchings.
One of the reaons that they left, because one of my father's good
friends was arbitrarily picked off the streets, accused of molesting
a white woman, and was lynched. He was burned. And his bones were
sold in the streets of Birmingham. "The bones of the beast."
It was too much for my father, and the person he was, my mother
was glad that he was too willing to leave. Gangs organized the Ku
Klux Klan. Gangs. For what purpose? Organized to take over whatever
freedom the former children, the children of slaves had been.
And so they came to Chicago in 1919, August of 1919. And a month
before they came to Chicago, there had been a race riot, started
31st and the Lake, Lake Michigan. And the riots were started because
some gangs from Bridgeport had attacked a young black swimmer who
dared to cross the dividing line. There were those who claimed he
did it deliberately. There were those who claimed that he accidentally
swam across that line. But he was stoned to death by the gangs.
I forget, they were called clubs, rather than gangs.
Not to say anything negative about the present mayor, but his
father, who became the mayor of Chicago, was a member of one of
those clubs, from Bridgeport. Gangs. When that happened, a group
of young men returning from World War I broke into the 8th Regiment
Armory, which is at 35th and Giles and is now a military academy.
Men who had served in World War I, and they broke into the armory,
took weapons, and fought back. They were organized. Gangs. Two gangs.
Fighting each other for something that they both, one felt did not
belong to them, and the other felt it did belong to them.
African American Gangs
There was the 31st Street Gang, the 43rd Street
Gang, the 40...58th Street Gang, the 54th Street Gang. And I hung
out with the 54th Street Gang. But what did we do? Played basketball,
and baseball, and football. And we had a few hoodlums in the gang,
the group. And so they began to do things that were unlawful. Snatching
pocketbooks. Sticking helpless people up on the streets. But we
who were in the larger part didnít like that, didnít
approve of it, and soon separated ourselves from those young men,
and some young women.
Looking back at those various people that were part of that, most
of them died before they were thirty. And they died from violence.
Or drug overdose. Not dumb. But did not have the guidance, the strength,
or whatever was necessary to see the future. And before I went to
the Army, we used to go to dances, and since I was a single guy,
and the girls in other communities looked very nice to me--pardon
me, young women, I'm sorry. Iím not used to, I'm still a
bit sexist, you know--but the girls in the other communities, I
had some eyes for some of those girls. Yes I did. But when I went
into certain territories, other areas, I had sense enough to realize
Iíd better leave those as we called them in those days ,
"chicks," to leave them alone, even though they would
scurry up and want to dance, I said, No, I can't dance. Because
I have ants in my pants. In other words, I didn't want to offend
these fellows. We got along very well otherwise....
When I was fourteen, we had a group around 54th and Calumet, and
we were very good in terms of softball. There was another group
at 48th and Champlain that went, had gone to Willard School. We
were, most of us went to Burke School, 54th and now, what is now
King Drive. And we beat them. And they came over to show that although
that we could beat them playing softball, they could beat us fighting.
And they came over one night with their baseball bats, and they
confronted us, and we were surprised, and they began to whack on
us. But we were pretty good at fighting and running. And so I singled
out one guy and outran him. He had a baseball bat. And when I caught
up with him at 54th and Indiana, he turned around and swung the
bat; I threw my left hand up. And he hit me. And I went home, feeling
that I might be paralyzed. And I laid down in the bed and I didnít
know what I was going to tell my mother, or father. Because fortunately
for me, they would not have tolerated me being a part of a gang.
. And I went to my homeroom, the homeroom, and they seated us alphabetically.
And the guy who was sitting in back of me was a young man by the
name of Nat Cole.
Now some of you have heard of Nat Cole. Nathaniel Cole. His daughter
is Natalie Cole. She's writing her own story. And he was talking
about music, and he was talking about...this young guy, fourteen,
fifteen years old, already an accomplished musician. Then I began
to get some new friends. And we began to do some other things. We
were still a group. Commonly understood each other. Go to the dances
together. Go to the movies together. Go to the Sox Park together.
We were a group. You could call it a gang. But our behavior was
different than that group on 58th Street, which was busy destroying
things. My new group was busy building things, confidence, and I
regained my confidence...
When I return from the Army, not only are the neighborhoods changing
a great deal, but something new has come in. Before I went to service,
yes, we had reefer. All of you know what reefers are? Marijuana.
Pot. All that kind of thing? Well, we...that, it was around. I didn't....Iíll
tell you another little story, a little anecdote. And that's so
unusual, you know. And every group has ...When I was ... Because
all of the guys, almost all the guys, the musicians, and there were
a lot of musicians growing up in my neighborhood beside Nat. Nat,
Nat Cole smoked pot all the time. All the time. I mean, he wasn't
He and that, he and Ray Nance, there was Duke Ellington, Billie
Holliday. He would walk around them. You know. I tell the story,
one day I was coming to...I was standing in front of the Regal,
and Ella Fitzgerald came out of the Regal and she was eating an
ice cream cone. Next week, Billie Holliday was at the Regal. She
came out of the Regal, she was smoking pot. Two young things about
the same age, and Billie influenced a lot of young women, because
they thought if they smoked some pot, they could sing like Billie.
But when I came out of the Army, coming back to the story, by that
time a new ingredient had come into the situation, and that was
heroin. And heroin began to be used mostly, then, by entertainers,
people like Dizzy, not Dizzy, but Miles Davis, and others in that
general group around, began to use heroin. And the gangs begin to
see a profit in that. And they begin to organize.
Now they didn't make the heroin. The heroin came into them. And
I had some of my friends who were the victims of that period. They
didn't know how much danger there was in it. And so they began to
use it, to get high, to have a thrill. A little bit of, a little
bit of cocaine began to be introduced. Sniffing. And so one of my
good friends, Louie, good looking guy, he had women all over him,
white women, black women, dark...all kind of women, Louie would...
he was, he was a charmer. He began to use cocaine, because he wanted
to stay a step above everybody else, and cocaine cost more.
Fort and the Blackstone Rangers
And gangs began to gradually
be organized, with a profit motive. A business. You don't have to
work. You don't have to do anything. And they began to get larger.
And then they got a gang called the Four Corners. The Four Corners
were tough. And they began to drag our territory...
Then after World War II the second great migration
began to occur. And most of the people who came in that period,
whether they were from Mexico or Puerto Rico or... they came from
rural agricultural directly to the big cities, like New York, Chicago,
Boston, wherever. And so they had had less urban experience, and
then the jobs began to go away. The jobs began to go away...
I was teaching at Hyde Park High School in the 1960s. There
was a young man in my class, in my class, one of my classes, by
the name of Jeff Fort. Any of you ever hear of a young man by
the name of Jeff Fort? Well, he was in my class. He was alright
with me. To me, he was just another boy. And he respected me as
his teacher. But Hyde Park High School at that time was pretty snobbish.
It was one of the best high schools, public high schools in the
country. And if you graduated from Hyde Park High School at that
time in the upper third of your class you could go to any college
in the country. If you graduated in the other third, the middle
third, more than likely you would go to any public college or university.
So therefore, it was kind of elitist.
Many of the professors from the University of Chicago sent their
children to Hyde Park High School. I had many of them. Jeff Fort
and his group came from that second migration type. They were in
a community called Woodlawn. And Woodlawn rejected, the middle class
Woodlawn rejected these young men, mostly young men but there were
young women, too. Hyde Park rejected these young men. I was fortunate
to keep most of them in the school, because I was like their daddy,
or granddaddy. But they were rejectees.
I had to go to Washington, I could tell this story in more detail,
and I'm seeing people getting tired of me, and I'm going to stop
in a minute ["No, no. Don't stop".] And I was, I was,
I had just, before I went to Hyde Park, I had taught at Farragut
High School on the west side. Now the Farragut High School young
men and women, African American, had, they were the children of
these people of the second, of the second great migration. At Farragut
High School, before that, most of the children were the children
of immigrants. That was, a village, what do you call it? [South
Lawndale?] No, not South Lawndale. Iím trying to think of
where the Mexican population is. [Pilsen?] Pilsen. Little Village.
But those were Czechoslovakian, of mid-Eastern European before,
who didn't want the blacks at their school. And many of the teachers
did not want the blacks at their school. So you''ve got Marshall,
Crane, Farragut, those schools. And at Farragut particularly, they
would jump on the kids. And the kids began to get organized. Now
there were some south siders, from the lower end of the old black
belt, who have moved to South Lawndale. Sophisticated. They helped
these young people who were being attacked to get organized.
Now I don't know whether those were the Vice Lords or the Cobras,
but they organized to protect themselves against the white aggressors.
I was asked to come to the school to teach, to mediate between these
two warring factions. And it was very interesting to watch it happen.
Now later it became between the Latinos and the blacks, in later
years. But this time, it's...so the Cobras and the Vice Lords, the
emergence of those two gangs on the west side. I left Farragut and
I went to Hyde Park, and here Jeff Fort beginning to emerge in Woodlawn.
And Woodlawn, when I went...I'm just skipping over so much...I had
to go to Washington, to a conference on civil rights. And when I
returned, they had put all of these in quotes undesirable boys out.
And I walked around the corner on 63rd Street, near Blackstone,
and said, "Why don't you guys come on back to school?"
And they said to me, "Oh, Mr. Black, they don't want us there."
I said, "No..." They said, "They don't want us there.
But we gonna take it all over."
And this began the activities, the strong activities, of what
became known as the Blackstone Rangers. Jeff Fort was a natural
leader. Had I been able to continue to have Jeff Fort until he got
to be a senior in high school, he would have still been a leader.
But he would have been a leader going towards some college or some
university. What we find is most of those young men and women who
get into gangs are dropouts. Another factor that we find is so often,
too often, they come from single parent households, usually just
a mother. Usually a relatively young mother, who herself has not
had an equal opportunity in life. Usually they also come from poverty-stricken
neighborhoods. They are...
And so along comes the gangs which are organized to protect first
the turf, and later, then, those who saw this opportunity, began
to drop into the leadership, the drugs, heroin, cocaine, all the
drugs that were necessary. And of course, the middle class whites,
the other middle class whites, were by far the consumers. But the
distributors became those less fortunate, and very often they became
addicts. They were promoted to use these drugs so that they were
under control. But the big marketplace was not in the ghetto. The
big marketplace was in the suburbs and other places. And then the
gangs began to fight each other.
I remember a big meeting with Jeff Fort and the leadership of
some of the gangs on the west side. We were trying to get them to
reconcile with one another and to do another thing. And by this
time the Blackstone Rangers had become the P-Stone Nation, and then
the El Rukns. And there sit strappiní, big tough guys. Jeff
said, Oh, there's Mr. Black. He's my friend. And I said, Oh, Lord,
I don't want to be this gu'ís friend! By this time, Jeff
has gone on, and I'm, you know, 'ím nearly, ...but I appreciated
the fact that he remembered me as being someone that was his friend.
I was glad about that, to tell you the truth. It gave me a little
But anyhow, they had hit it big. Now what had happened in the meanwhile?
Two neighborhoods had physically been destroyed. The West Side,
which is now being redeveloped. Woodlawn, north of Kenwood/Oakland.
Grand Boulevard, now being redeveloped. The gangs somehow had cleared
out the resistance and the stability of the old neighborhoods. Now
the land would be much cheaper. Resistance would be much less. Politics
would not play a role, because this was a disorganized group politically.
Organized violently. Organized destructively. But not politically.
And certainly not economically.
Go along those streets. Who wants to shop there? 47th Street. 16th
Street. Just name it. Madison, (inaud.)....The gangs, unwittingly,
may have served a purpose for some others. Where are they now? Jeff
Fort, in prison in Mississippi for the rest of his life. The mortality
rate among the gangs! Young man tells me, I don't know whether I'm
going to live to be thirteen....I mean, I don't know whether I'm
going to live to be twenty, because when I'm thirteen I gotta join
the gang, is what he tells me. I said, why you gotta join the gang?
In order to be safe, Mr. Black.
When I was in the army, there were many days that I couldn't see
tomorrow. But I had to reach back into my ancestry, my mother, my
father, my grandparents. What would they have me do, but to keep
on keepin' on. And so as much of the things that the skills that
we must help all people have, in order to fit into this new world,
because it is indeed a new world. I would not pretend to be as smart
as you young people. No way. You've got me. But what I see among
those who are members of the gang is a loss of the spirit of tomorrow,
that somehow there's gonna be a better day. And the other part that
we must do is help that new day have some substance. We have to
have some jobs, we have to have the preparation, and we have to
have the kind of relationships with those who are more successful,
with those who are tempted to be in the gangs.
I don't know whether I have said anything that makes any sense,
but, for me, this has been a very great opportunity. Thank you so
Undergraduate Research Conference on
Gangs. November 9th, 2000.
ON REAL VIDEO