An Alley in Chicago

“Very Close to an Economic Miracle”

“In that case,” Jack Egan assured a Macnamara determined to organize contract buyers, “I will wholeheartedly support you.” Immediately, Macnamara set up what would become the Contract Buyers League in the dining room of his apartment in Lawndale. Along with Joe Putnick, another Jesuit seminarian, Macnamara researched at the County Building the status of homes recently purchased in Lawndale. They carefully copied out names of former owners, sale price, resale price, terms of deal. Their case studies showed a pattern of homes unloaded by frightened white sellers at low prices and resold to blacks for high prices, on contract. Because redlining insurance companies would not insure them, the new “owners” also bought their insurance from their contract-holders.

Macnamara invited all local residents who’d bought their homes on contract to a Wednesday night meeting in the Presentation Church basement. He laid out for them the facts he and Putnick had collected at Chicago Title and Trust and the Cook County Recorder of Deeds. Lawndale residents were as aware as Father Egan that there’d be consequences if they took any action, and as leery as he was. Asked to rise and protest the grievances Macnamara and Putnick had documented, they slunk in their seats. No one wanted to admit that he or she’d been taken. Finally, a brave black woman rose majestically from her hard folding chair and broke the damn choking Macnamara and Putnick’s next move. Ruth Wells, who would be known as the Rosa Parks of Presentation, took that first step of the legendary thousand mile journey. She admitted she’d been victimized. “And I’m willing to do something about it,” she added staunchly. With her declaration, the Contract Buyers League could be born. Other contract buyers were prompted to say, “If Ruth Wells can fight this setup, then I can, too.” Pretty soon there were three, four, five hundred people coming faithfully every Wednesday night to the school basement. One by one, they rose to share their stories and shore up their self-confidence from the well of their common concern.

Macnamara and Putnick had organized their information according to the pattern of sellers. According to Peggy Roach (who left her NCCIJ niche to provide the same kind of backup as office manager to Macnamara and Putnick during the week that she was giving Jack Egan on the weekend), they’d found “that twenty-five contract buyers would have bought from this guy, thirty from that guy. With that information, the CBL people could go after the holder of a whole group of contracts at one time.” The first move was on Ruth Wells’ contract-holder. Ruth Wells, Jack Macnamara, and Monsignor Egan appeared at the appointed hour to ask her contract-holder to renegotiate her contract into a standard mortgage. The office setting overwhelmed the black woman unused to corporate Loop offices. As Peggy reports, “Ruth Wells was absolutely scared to death.” But she held her chin firm as her contract-holder tentatively assured her, “You got a very good deal here.” Ruth Wells was in command enough to observe that she wasn’t the only one threatened by the circumstances. Later, she reported to the two Jacks about her contract holder, “When I saw his hand shaking, I knew I had him. He’s scared because he knows he’s wrong.”

Gradually, the Contract Buyers League honed its techniques. The first move would be a group visit to the offices of the contracts holder. If refused admittance, the group would picket on the street outside. If they got no satisfaction from this action, they would travel to the suburban homes of the contract holders. There they’d pace the pavement, disporting their signs. Neighbors’ shades would flutter as they peeked out to read charges that, “Your Neighbor Is a Slumlord.” According to Peggy Roach, “That invasion of neighborhoods really made (the holders of the contracts) mad.”

By March, 1968, the Chicago Sun-Times was calling CBL successes “very close to an economic miracle.” They credited the 30-year-old Macnamara, six white college students, and several hundred Negro home-owners for reducing “the high cost of being black.” CBL had just reported to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights “an agreement by an investment firm to renegotiate the terms under which some 300 Lawndale residents were paying for their homes.”

The paper credited Macnamara and his college team for digging up evidence that many Lawndale home-owners paid an average of $20,000 more for their property than whites with access to conventional mortgages buying in a real estate market that wasn’t racially inflated. The newspaper account made a point of blacks’ fear of losing all they had paid into their homes because they lacked equity.

For the hard cases, CBL escalated the action to rent strikes both on the West Side and on the South Side where CBL had helped families initiate a second CBL chapter. Instead of paying their rent to the contract holder each month, strikers made out money orders to themselves and deposited them at CBL in escrow against the day when the contract holders would negotiate. Some of the contract holders went to Sheriff Joseph Woods who sent his police to evict CBL members for nonpayment of rent. Macnamara contacted the newspapers who sent photographers to cover the evictions.

Chicago realtor/author Dempsey Travis notes in An Autobiography of Black Chicago that about four hundred and thirty families withheld their payments. He watched Cook County Sheriff’s Police carry out the belongings of twelve families on South Eggleston Avenue. “The sidewalk and streets became filled with rocking horses, beheaded dolls, baby carriages, rolled-up bedding, dining room tables, refrigerators, sofas and television sets. There were also paintings of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy heaped up in the mud and unseasonable snow of April 1970. The watching crowd, kept back by burly police officers, added their tears to those of the ex-homeowners.” Travis helped negotiate new mortgage packages with lending institutions.

Jack Egan involved religious cohorts from the Interreligious Council on Urban Affairs in both the contract buyers dispute and in appeals to local groups to accept neighborhood integration. “I can’t believe the courage it took for you, an urban priest, a member of the establishment, to go into churches where people were terrified of losing their homes and preach integration,” Rabbi Robert Marx told Jack Egan over dinner one evening at Marx’s home. “I remember you and me and Edgar Chandler [Church Federation of Greater Chicago] spending countless evenings going as a team into churches, mostly Catholic, and telling them how life could be beautiful in a society where all people were equal. You took the lead in doing that.”

Rabbi Marx, Jack Egan’s loyal IRCUA ally, remembers first meeting Monsignor Egan at an IRCUA session shortly after Marx arrived in Chicago in 1962 as the head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “There was this dynamic Catholic priest—bald even in those days—talking about community organizations.” As a result of Jack Egan’s work, Rabbi Marx “got into something which was to change my life directly.” When Saul Alinsky called the attention of the Merrill Trust to the fine work Rabbi Marx was doing in The Woodlawn Organization, a vice president of the trust came to Marx’s door with free good-doing grant money for the rabbi.

As Marx tells it, only minutes after the Merrill Trust vice president handed over the $15,000 check made out to Rabbi Robert Marx, Marx’s phone rang. At the Jewish Federation office, a former professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin was asking about a job. “In that moment.” Rabbi Marx says, “the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs was created. We used the $15,000 to hire the bearded scholar Lew Kreinberg, an esoteric human being, and set him to work on housing with the Northwest Community Organization.” (In 1990, John McCarron would call Kreinberg “a man of a million causes,” in the Chicago Tribune.)

The first complaint JCUA handled, Marx says, “related to a slum landlord who happened to be Jewish.” Called into Marx’s office, he agreed to remove housing code violations. “We had our first successful resolution of a problem related to the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs,” Marx reports. As a man who has given much thought to the situation of Jews in society, Rabbi Marx saw how easy it was to focus on the role of the Jews holding blacks’ contracts in Lawndale. While it was true there was “a group of unscrupulous businessmen, I’m sorry to say most of them Jewish, who went around Lawndale, which was primarily a Jewish neighborhood in the early sixties, saying `The blacks are coming,’” there were other contributing groups. The mortgage houses, the banks, the insurers, all had redlined Lawndale.

John McKnight, Midwest Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, suggested that the Federal Housing Authority was “one of the leading villains in ghetto land deals. When the FHA pulled out of older inner-city neighborhoods and financial institutions followed, the vacuum was filled by speculators who gutted the area and robbed the people,” McKnight told the Chicago Sun-Times. “As far as I’m concerned, the white racist institutions—particularly the old FHA—are even guiltier than the speculators. They created the conditions.”

It’s Marx’s view that Monsignor Egan brought the Jewish Council into the Contract Buyers League “because he didn’t want it to be an anti-Semitic issue.” They both remember a bitter January day when, Jewish rabbi and Catholic priest together, they helped cart furniture of evicted CBL families back into homes it had just been carted out of. An unsafe practice in Lawndale in 1967. Marx recalls the armed guards hired by the realty companies “in the basement of the home. There was gunfire. Looking back twenty-two years later, we could have been killed.”

Some of the families, thoroughly frightened, took their money out of escrow and paid their fees to escape eviction. By this time, the Contract Buyers League had filed a class action suit against the sellers on the grounds the buyers’ civil rights had been violated. The CBL clients were getting good advice from lawyers like Tom Boodell who never missed a Wednesday night opportunity to update the contract buyers on the progress of their cases. Tom Sullivan of Jenner and Block, one of the city’s most prestigious firms, worked alongside the contract buyers. The CBL case gained more weight all the time. It was a page one story in the Chicago Sun-Times on July 9, 1968, when U.S. Attorney Thomas A. Foran announced that he would seek federal indictments of ten local real estate firms and savings and loan companies.

According to the Sun-Times, the companies were to be charged with misapplication of funds and misrepresentation in selling homes in Lawndale and large tracts of vacant land in the suburbs. “There is no racial discrimination when a quick profit could be made,” Foran said. “They exploited everybody—white and black.” Foran may have disagreed with Egan on urban renewal, “but I was all the way with Jack on CBL.”

The pressure built until one night a discouraged Jack Macnamara got a request to meet a seller at a coffee shop on the North Side about 9:30 or 10 o’clock. Across the table from Macnamara, a man who had sold overpriced homes at exorbitant interest rates to some of the city’s poorest people broke down. “I had no idea,” he said, “that people were so hurt by what I was doing. I just thought it was a good business deal, buying for fourteen and selling for thirty. But being confronted with that husband and wife who both work two jobs to meet the payments, realizing they leave their kids unsupervised, I knew that I had to meet with them and renegotiate the package and get them on a mortgage.”

When Jack Macnamara saw Peggy Roach the next morning, the Jesuit seminarian couldn’t wait to tell her, “I think I’ve just heard my first confession.”

In the end, the Contract Buyers League renegotiated contracts to save Lawndale buyers six million dollars. “Local efforts like CBL,” Peggy Roach adds, “helped legislators see the need for federal regulation to outlaw redlining. They also undergirded efforts to achieve the Community Reinvestment Act (spearheaded locally by Gail Cincotta) stipulating that any bank taking money from a community must plow a certain amount back into the community from which it came.”

Jack Macnamara and the other seminarians responded to the contract buyers’ plight out of a sensitivity sown by community organizer Tom Gaudette. When Jack Egan brought Gaudette in to teach the seminarians how to make communities out of their blocks, Gaudette drilled them on two main techniques: listen to the community and confirm community involvement. The people of the community had to venture their own capital, even if it wasn’t money.

After Gaudette’s sensitivization, Jack Macnamara and the other seminarians who surveyed their block/parishes were conditioned to hear the cry of the contract buyer when they got out on the streets. By Macnamara’s lights, Jack Egan functioned as a CBL enabler “for activities, particularly organizing activities, which would never have happened if it wasn’t for his initiative.” Egan provided a base at Presentation. He reassured the Jesuit provincial of the legitimacy of the seminarians’ activism. He introduced the seminarians “to scores of people who could be helpful because they were funding sources, political allies, etc. At every turn, he brought in new supporters including such notables as U.S. Attorney Tom Foran and Midas International President Gordon Sherman who proved to be a steady backer.”

John McKnight arranged the dinner meeting when Monsignor Egan met Gordon Sherman. It’d been a wearing day for Jack, “the kind of day you wanted to end quickly.” Jack’s mind was blank as he fought traffic, rushing downtown. He and Tom Gaudette had stood on their heads all day to convince some thirty Jesuit scholastics that community organization was fundamental to the common weal. When Father Egan got to the Standard Club at six p.m., he looked small, fragile, and pale to Gordon Sherman.

Jack was “so bushed”—his phrase—he didn’t know whom he was supposed to be meeting. “I was tired. I just wanted to get out of there and get home.” Then John McKnight, Midwest director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, beckoned him across the nearly empty dining room. “Well, what is it you want of me?” Father Egan abruptly and uncharacteristically challenged the president of Midas Muffler when he was introduced. Gordon Sherman told Jack he was the fourteenth person he’d talked to about putting a quarter of a million where it would do the most good for the people of the city. Jack’s mind immediately cleared. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars! He had an immediate graphic vision of the Lawndale community organized, his people taught to take charge of their own lives, the very vision that had taken him that day to rouse the young Jesuit seminarians. He told Sherman how much he’d like to see Lawndale organized the way Woodlawn was, the work directed by Saul Alinsky. Now Sherman came to attention. “Do you know Saul Alinsky?” Sherman asked eagerly. “He’s a dear friend of mine,” Jack said.

Jack intended that Alinsky should flesh out Jack Egan’s aspirations for the people of Lawndale. He never dreamed that Alinsky would flesh out his own dreams, persuading Gordon Sherman that putting his quarter million in a training institute for community organizers was more desirable than funding a community organization in Lawndale. Egan’s sop was the promise—never fulfilled—that he would get the first four black organizers. Initially furious, Jack “felt betrayed, I felt double-crossed.” Egan soon forgave Alinsky because he loved the man. He even brought himself to suggest later that, “I knew Saul was right . . . because Alinsky had no black organizers to put in Lawndale. And that was 1969—months after King’s death.”

Midas Muffler money did flow into the Contract Buyers League. Macnamara found another generous “angel” in the father of a fellow Jesuit seminarian. Peggy Roach describes opening envelopes and catching checks for five or ten thousand dollars from a man who in time (after Jack Macnamara left the seminary) would be Jack Macnamara’s father-in-law. That money was a major factor in CBL’s successful renegotiation of contracts into regular mortgages to save that six million dollars for Lawndale residents.

Renegotiating those contracts was a structural, not cosmetic, change. It twisted a noose on a monetary practice that was hurtful to some, profitable to others. Somehow the city couldn’t tolerate it. Rabbi Robert Marx is convinced that due to that structural change, “directly as a result of the CBL battle,” the three leaders of the Interreligious Council on Urban Affairs were gone from the city within six months. Before Father Egan left Lawndale, the area suffered a paroxysm that overshadowed the CBL contest. In April, 1968, the blocks around Presentation went up in flames. James Earl Ray had assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis. King had risen above the country’s divisions by his personal inner strength and his gift for reaching an audience. When he was killed, there was no holding the dispossessed of the cities.

The morning after the tragedy, the children at Presentation took their seats, sorrowing but calm, as did children at the neighboring schools. Soon surface composure was ruptured by hundreds of black students in nearby high schools leaving their classrooms and taking to the streets. They were soon blocking traffic and breaking store windows on the West Side. The tempo of the rampage accelerated rapidly.

Presentation teachers, trying to help children express their grief, felt the atmosphere slowly changing. “About noon the parents started coming for the kids,” says Mary Dowling who lived and taught at Presentation in the 1960s. “Each parent who showed up would have another message of something burning.” The people of Presentation were as terrified as the shopkeepers on Madison Street. Parents reported high school kids at Crane and Marshall east of Presentation were provoking riots around their schools.

By the time the last of the Presentation children had been collected by their parents, “the streets were full of people,” Mary Dowling remembers. “It was awful, terrible, a blackout situation,” as night came on. Shops on Madison Street were looted. Roving bands stopped frightened drivers, smashing their windows. Soon the women in the convent building could see smoke coming from every direction. Coming closer. A Sun-Times reporter noted smoke “billowing hundreds of feet in the air in the area of West Madison Street.” The teachers were awestruck. “We were actually surrounded by fire within a block all around us.” With the electricity out, the only information came from eyeballing the terrain and listening to transistor radios. “We could see a lot of shopping carts pushed by looters. The kids justified the thefts the next day, saying they saw police stealing television sets.”

The teachers felt they were in a war zone. None of them slept that night as they watched reflected flames dancing on their bedroom walls and heard helicopters chopping the sky overhead. Nonetheless, they were shocked at Mayor Daley’s shoot-to-kill order, as was the rest of the country. All teachers had seen was teenagers without weapons. All the crimes were against property.

By Saturday thirty thousand National Guard troops were patrolling troubled areas. Presentation personnel were relieved to see the National Guard come in. The tanks looked threatening, but the soldiers were friendly, waving to the kids. The fire department had half the city’s fire fighting equipment on a two-mile stretch of Madison Street just north of Presentation. The newspapers were calling the street a battleground. “With looters and others milling about them, the firemen battled raging fires and wondered when a rock or something worse might come their way.”

Nine civilians were reported dead as looting, fire-bombing, and sniping continued. Ninety police officers were injured, two of them shot by snipers. Police used fire department searchlights to illuminate buildings to locate sharpshooters. Forty-eight civilians were wounded by gunfire. Over three thousand were arrested. Ten thousand plus police worked twelve hour shifts with no days off. The property damage was in the millions, due to one hundred and fifty major fires and two hundred and fifty major cases of looting. Three hundred were newly homeless. Most of the destruction was on Chicago’s West Side, within one bus stop of Presentation.

Assuming responsibility for his parishioners as well as the cluster of whites living and working in rectory and convent, Father Egan encouraged all Presentation personnel to walk the streets to reassure the neighbors. He suggested precautions. “That was the only time I ever heard Egan give an order,” Mary Dowling recalls. “If we went out, we were to wear veils. I wasn’t even a nun, mind you. (Even in the sixties when most nuns went mufti, Father Egan did not lose his belief in the power of symbolic dress.) People sloshing through streets slippery from the hundreds of gallons of water used in firefighting were relieved to talk about their fears with members of the Presentation community.

For decades, those who braved the 1960s at Presentation continued to exchange stories of the heightened experience that was theirs. That need to sift through reminiscences of the turbulent sixties also affects Rabbi Robert Marx whom Jack Egan (who sees himself as an unorthodox priest) characterizes as an unorthodox Rabbi. “The beautiful thing, the sad thing,” Marx says of the actions the two men shared in the sixties, “is that our greatest moments of glory have been fighting the institutions we love the most.”

People in CBL and Presentation succeeded ultimately in bringing society to some realization of the nastiness of redlining and of denying mortgages to home buyers. They encouraged some hope in Lawndale. They forged some wonderful friendships—always a byproduct of Jack Egan’s projects. But structural changes were limited and, as Kathy Pelletier assesses Presentation days in hindsight, “our efforts were pitiful” against the need.

Next Chapter . . .