Timuel Black

The History of African American Gangs in Chicago.

Full text

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.

Jane Addams


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.

The 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.

Early 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.

Drugs in the 1930s


. 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 embarrassed.

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. (Laughs.)....

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.

Jeff 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. Pilsen.

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 protection.....

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.

Concluding Comments


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 much.

Undergraduate Research Conference on Gangs. November 9th, 2000.


Opening Remarks by LAS Associate Dean Gerald Graff

Gang Research in Chicago, by James F. Short, Jr.

Timuel Black on Hull House

Timuel Black on Jeff Fort and the origin of the Blackstone Rangers, Vicelords, and Cobras.