A letter to our colleagues, partners and friends on the journey we’ve taken at the Field Foundation from our President, Angelique Power
Rooted in past, aiming as high as the sky for the future
past present future past
One hundred years ago, in the summer of 1919, Chicago was on the precipice of immense change. World War I had recently ended, bringing home soldiers of all races and backgrounds hoping to trade in on the civic values they had fought so hard to defend. The Great Migration was in full swing with African Americans coming up north to Chicago seeking an escape from rigged sharecropping economies and the cruelty of lynch mob realities. Immigrants from all parts of Europe continued to flock to Chicago, particularly the Polish, Irish and Italian, moving in with families already allowed to establish themselves here and hoping to build more and thrive. The first significant wave of immigrants from Mexico arrived at this time as well from places like Michoacán and Jalisco, seeking solid jobs and stable stakes to put in the ground to build better lives for loved ones temporarily left behind.
Chicago in 1919 was not quite the place deserving of so many people’s dreams.
Many of the founders and innovators of Chicago’s civic architecture had died or were fading – with the city losing the likes of Marshall Field, Daniel Burnham; and even the prolific architect Louis Sullivan was succumbing to alcoholism and despair. The next wave of Chicago’s revolutionary founders and innovators were in infancy or just barely on the rise. Jane Addams had a year yet before she co-founded the ACLU. Gwendolyn Brooks was 2, Margaret Burroughs 4, and Langston Hughes was in his teens and still living and dreaming in New York.
Chicago’s designed segregation and subsequent overcrowding, substandard housing and the challenge of finding work – especially for fair pay – is what actually awaited many of those dreamers. As production in factories slowed at the end of the war, the cross-section of competing dreams and racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds became tinderboxes rather than building blocks of a changing city. Who could thrive and provide for their families? Whose dreams were allowed to be realized? Whose would be crushed?
On the swelteringly hot day of July 27th, 1919, with temperatures nearing 100 degrees, a seventeen year-old African-American boy named Eugene Williams floated on a homemade raft near 31st Street Beach in the lazy rolls of Lake Michigan seeking relief. When the raft drifted to an area deemed by the Italian, Irish and Polish beachgoers to be for them alone, stones began to rain into the water at the teenager, ultimately causing him to drown. This murder, part of a series of national incidents around racially motivated hate crimes, solidified Chicago’s place in what would become known as the Red Summer nationally, and in doing so set off a chain of local events.
Uprisings occurred with over 500 harmed and ultimately killing 23 black people, 15 whites. By Fall, steelworkers across ethnicities were on strike nationally, shutting down Chicago factories calling attention to unfair labor practices and treatment. And by the time the White Sox fell to scandal by accepting bribes over the title in the 1919 World Series, the dark poeticism sullying this emblem of the American dream and favorite pastime could not be ignored.
Corruption. Racism. The widespread economic exploitation of working poor. These are the hallmarks of the 20th century Second City. By the end of 1919, Congress passed The Volstead Act, prohibiting the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol moving into an era of prohibition, informal economies and sophisticated structures within mafia/gang business models.
Fast forward 100 years.
A seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald is showered with bullets as he drifts across a city street streaked with rain and police lights. He becomes the latest sacrificial lamb, murdered for being black and not obeying rules spoken and unspoken; testing our city to see if our better selves can emerge. Our new Mayor, the city’s first Black, female and openly gay leader, has set a mandate for ethics reform, nipping aldermanic prerogative, proposing police reform, seeking to place race and racism in the center of issues and promising reinvestment and equity across every neighborhood. The prohibition of cannabis has ended – making it legal for the first time in our city in the coming months – breaking up a thriving informal economy and promising a disruption in the marketplace. The Chicago Defender announces it will no longer print its newspaper, long held as the reason the Great Migration began, a beacon of light reflecting Chicago’s black community, its oft unheard voice.
One hundred years later. The population size of our city is roughly the same. The issues are roughly the same. The opportunity to make a massive difference? Yet unknown. Where are invisible lines that divide us and threaten us – from policy to practice, in philanthropy and business. Are they as difficult to see as the one Eugene Williams innocently crossed in the blue of our ever-rolling lake? With the astounding publishing of the 1619 Project, the publishing of Eve Ewing’s book of poetry entitled 1919, we are in a moment of revelation and honesty about our past, our present; sending after shocks that must change our future.
With new administrations, new commitments, a focus on changing the systems while confronting racial inequity – will it be enough? How can Chicago, the magnet for a constantly expanding cross-section of competing dreams and diverse backgrounds fulfill that promise it broke for so many long ago? How can we double down to be the bold and grounded plain where all can thrive and provide for their families? The city of skyscraper-sized dreams made for anyone to find fulfillment. The place where the lake welcomes and cools, where beach-goers gather and rest, where neighbors talk across the fence acknowledging difference and celebrating the necessity of it.
Each of us a red star in between bold ribbons of blue.
As the Field staff prepares for the fall, we close out a summer of crisscrossing neighborhoods meeting with so many of you, listening and learning. We have also spent time reflecting on our work and asking ourselves about what our role is in delivering a changed Chicago for the next hundred years. We are working to sync our work in Community Empowerment through Justice, Art, Media & Storytelling and Leadership Investment with Chicago’s history and promise of the future.
We are trying to see ourselves in all parts of these unfolding chapters of Chicago. The stone thrower and the stoned. The hard worker within the informal and formal economies. The dream driven migrants and immigrants that make up Chicago, all guests on the land of the Ojibwa, Potawatomie and Odawa.
As always, keep an eye with us on the artists, organizers, journalists, storytellers, dreamers and builders who are seizing on this moment to build a new Chicago.
Rooted in past, aiming as high as the sky for the future,
President, The Field Foundation