South Side Story

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008


The figures are stilled in lovely black-and-white portraits along the walls of Josephine Wade's soul food restaurant here on the South Side. There's Lou Rawls. And Aretha Franklin. "I do all of Aretha's cooking when she comes to town," Wade says.

There's the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., from 1966, sitting next to the Rev. A.R. Leak, Wade's godfather. Both men are in suits and thin ties and grinning broadly. There's Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, who died in office in 1987 and remains a mythic figure across this city.

The Captain's Hard Time eatery, despite its name, is a swanky place, with pink napkins and white table linen. A waitress in soft-soled shoes glides by -- slowly, no need to rush -- carrying a plate of chicken wings, collard greens, candied yams and corn bread.

"A good many of the judges elected in Chicago got elected right here in my dining room," says Wade. She's talking about the schmoozing, the dealmaking, the quest for endorsements and votes that draws aspiring pols here come election time.

The South Side never had the silky ties to whites and international celebrities like Harlem and its famed literary renaissance. But building on the once-plentiful jobs at the city's meatpacking plants, it developed its own economic, cultural and political muscle and launched a who's who of black American achievement. Richard Wright, Lou Rawls, Mahalia Jackson, Albertina Walker, Harold Washington, comic Bernie Mac and "Dreamgirl" Jennifer Hudson all came of age here.

But it is a sad fact, too, that many South Side dreams do not come true. For this is a place haunted by urban nightmares and the weight of entrenched poverty. It's a place where a community organizer looking for genuine challenges might come and get down to work. The vast area -- it covers about half of Chicago -- feels like an edgy, screechy film with that silvery El train looping around it like an electronic snake. It's a community that struts -- and yet starves for a break. It has an urban Northern vibe, yet sings the Southern song of the gospel and blues.

"When I was a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago," Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama will often say not long into his stump speeches. And then he leans into a narrative about job losses and poverty. It becomes a tale about the things that are redemptive about the South Side. And the things that continue to draw blood.

Novelist Richard Wright described those living on the South Side as "characters in a Greek play." Study the populace if you wish, he warned, but added: "You may have to wrench your mind rather violently out of your accustomed ways of thinking."

A Clarion Call to the North

In 1905, Robert S. Abbott, using his landlord's kitchen as his workspace, launched the weekly Chicago Defender. Abbott -- Georgia-born and a college graduate -- had hoped to become a lawyer but gave up that aspiration for newspapering. The Defender encouraged Southern blacks to come North, especially to Chicago, and Abbott proclaimed his newspaper "the mouthpiece of 14 million people."

No one benefited as much as Abbott from what would come to be known as the Great Migration. Newspaper sales rose, and he became a wealthy man. In 1910, Chicago had 44,000 blacks. In 1920, that number swelled to 109,000. By 1930, 234,000 blacks were residing in the city.

But so many arrived that overcrowding became a stark problem. Shacks were thrown up along the edges of Lake Michigan. Men hustled into pool halls to keep warm during the fall and winter months. Crime grew.

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