A Home Denied
Chicagoans Harvey and Johnetta Clark planned to make a home in the suburbs in the summer of 1951. As Black Americans moving into an apartment in all-white Cicero, a process known as pioneering, they walked into a storm of hate and intimidation. The Clarks’ new neighbors stood across the street shouting racial slurs and throwing rocks. The next night the couple fled, and while the apartment sat vacant, a mob of approximately 4,000 white people ransacked the Clarks’ new home.
It took three days for the National Guard to put down the mob that rioted against the Clark family, but only the Clarks’ landlord and the rental agent were indicted, both for inciting a riot by renting a home to a Black family. The Clark Family’s ordeal served as a reminder of northern hostility to migrating African Americans and echoed Illinois’s long history of “sundown towns”—places that violently enforced Black exclusion. Towns like Anna, Pekin, and Villa Grove often posted warning signs, had sirens, or a strong Klan presence that indicated that Black people should leave by sunset. Other places like Cicero posted no sign but enforced the racist policies just the same.
Article Featuring the Clark’s Story
The July 23, 1951, issue of Time magazine featuring the Clark’s harrowing story.
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Ugly Nights in Cicero
Grimy Cicero, Ill. (pop. 67,000), which huddles close to Chicago’s west boundary, has never had a reputation for being exclusive. During the roaring ‘20s, the Torrio-Capone mob roared through Cicero’s streets in armored cars, ruled its wide-open gambling joints, honky-tonks and whorehouses. Cicero is also an industrial town, with tree-lined neighborhoods of workingmen’s homes, and friendly corner taverns where jukeboxes play lively polkas and the talk at the bar is in many languages. Though its history is pockmarked with crime and violence, Cicero makes one proud boast: no Negroes live there.
That is one thing that Harvey E. Clark Jr. didn’t know. Clark, a negro, graduate (A.B.) of Fisk University and a World War II sergeant, was sick of living in a tiny apartment on Chicago’s South Side, with his two kids sleeping in the window-less hallway. He rented an apartment in Cicero.* But when he tried to move his family in last month, two Cicero cops refused to let the Clarks unload their furniture because they had no “permit.” Beefy Police Chief Erwin Konovsky arrived, ordered the Clarks to leave town. The real estate agent who rented the apartment said Chief Konovsky struck him several times and shouted: “Get out of Cicero and don’t come back…or you’ll get a bullet through you.”
Growing Crowd. Clark, a Chicago bus driver, decided to make an issue of it. He filed a $200,000 damage suit in federal court against Cicero officials and the town of Cicero. The court issued a temporary injunction, warning Cicero police to see to it that the Clarks were not molested.
But when they returned to Cicero last week and moved their furniture into the apartment, they found a handful of Cicero and Cook County police—and a large hostile crowd. Frightened, the Clarks left—but the crowd didn’t. Until midnight, the crowd milled in the street, booing, and jeering when Cook County Sheriff John Babb ordered them to disperse, occasionally throwing rocks.
Next night the crown was back again, bigger and in an uglier mood. The 50 cops made no effort to stop teen-agers who, from well-hidden positions, tossed stones at windows in the Clark apartment.
Violence at Midnight. Around midnight the crowd got bolder. A dozen or so young bloods rushed the cops at the doorway to the apartment house, pushed past them, smashed in the front door, clambered upstairs to the Clark apartment. Out the window, to the accompaniment of cheers from the crowd, went all of the Clarks’ furniture, including the piano. Then the young vandals tore out the door and window jambs, gouged holes in the walls, ripped out the light fixtures, smashed radiators, a refrigerator and stove, bashed in the toilet bowl. For good measure they ripped up two apartments below the Clarks (the tenants, like most of the 19 families in the apartment house, had long since fled). The mass of the broken furniture on the lawn was set afire and the cheers grew louder. Police did not make a single arrest. At about 2:30, the mob once again faded away, but everybody knew it would be back.
At daylight, Sheriff Babb put through a call to Governor Adlai Stevenson, who called out five companies of National Guardsmen. Most of the day was spent in making preparations for the night. Vans, trucks and private cars shuttled back & forth, trying to save the belongings of tenants. One tenant, a retired Chicago cop, said, as he helped with the moving, “I saw a lot of things as a policeman but never anything like that. These people are savages.”
“Go! Go! Go!” By 7 o’clock the mob was back again and pressing against police lines, which blocked off the area around the apartment house for a full block. Mostly, they were young fellows in T-shirts and dungarees, but there were also housewives in cotton dresses, a father holding his child on his shoulder to give him a better view. The crowd was good-natured, as if going to a game, and cops acted like ushers politely handling the overflow at a football stadium. But as darkness fell, some in the crowd got false courage from the night. They tossed firecrackers over police lines. Pressing forward inch by inch, the mob began to push the police back. From time to time the crowd would chant, “Go! Go! Go!”
At about 8:30 there was the first tinkling of glass from the apartment house: a steel ball bearing, fired from a sling shot, hit a window. Police lines gave slowly, and within another half hour, the crowd, chanting “Go! Go! Go!”, had crept up to within 150 yards of the building. Cook County Police Lieut. Jack Johnson, an ex-marine who was in charge of the police detail, kept muttering: “Why the hell don’t the Guard come on in?”
Shortly before 10 o’clock, the mob moved close enough to hit the apartment house with bricks and stones. The chant of “Go! Go! Go!”, the firecrackers and the sound of breaking glass became a steady din. Then, just as the mob seemed to be getting out of hand, there was the sound of sirens down the street and a cry: “It’s the Guard!”
As the jeeps, trucks, and yellow school buses filled with helmeted soldiers moved slowly up the street, the crowd booed, showered the convoy with firecrackers, bricks and stones, called out, “You lousy finks,” “Why the hell aren’t you in Korea?” Out of the cars tumbled frightened-looking young Guardsmen, summoned that day from their jobs in grocery stores and gas stations. Each Guardsman has his bayonet fixed. The crowd inched backwards. Some in the front row of the mob were nicked by bayonets, and several Guardsmen were felled by bricks and ball bearings fired from slingshots. Around the corner, several young vandals lit and tossed red railroad flares atop the apartment house; Cicero firemen braved a rain of stones to put out the fire. Gradually—though it took four hours—the Guard got the best of the mob, and emboldened police started dragging the most obstreperous young fellows out of the crowd. They took their prisoners over to look at a line of wounded Guardsmen, then loaded them into paddy wagons. Totals for Cicero’s three violent nights: 23 hurt, 119 arrested.
Harvey Clark was still determined to move in. Said he: “They destroyed everything we owned, everything we had accumulated in nine years of marriage—even our marriage certificate. I sure didn’t think all this would happen over one Negro family.”
*Only 3 ½ miles from the Oak Park, Ill. home of Dr. Percy Lavon Julian, famed Negro chemist. Hoodlums tried to burn the Julian home in November, tossed a bomb in the front yard last month.