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Housing, Race and Murder in Chicago

Burned at the Stake for Being Poor

by RON JACOBS

One of the places I lived at in Berkeley, California in the 1970s was owned by the biggest landlord in the part of California known as the Eastbay.  He owned buildings in the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, El Cerrito and Albany.  In addition, his property management company was responsible for hundreds more buildings.  While my friends and I lived in this particular apartment, the citizens of Berkeley passed a Rent Control Ordinance that was fiercely opposed by the landlords in the city, especially ours.  In response to the new law that prevented landlords from raising rents without approval from the Rent Control Board (where tenants and tenant activists had the majority), our landlord stopped making repairs on many of his properties.  In response, the tenants in our building began withholding rent.  This was also one of the law’s provisions.  This went on for more than six months.  Meanwhile, properties that were in worse shape than ours was came awfully close to being uninhabitable.  In Oakland, where there was no rent control ordinance, a small child whose family rented an apartment from our landlord died in a fire related to this state of disrepair.  Despite efforts by some church and community groups in Oakland, no charges were filed against the landlord.  In addition, the child’s family lost their place to live.

I remembered this incident while reading Joe Allen’s newest book People Wasn’t Made To Burn.    The story therein is of a man, James Hickman, who loses two of his children in a fire that was almost certainly set by his landlord as a means of chasing the tenants from the building so that he could increase his income.  At the time of the fire, the living conditions were already unsafe and unhealthy, yet greed compelled by the desire to increase profit rendered any concerns about this irrelevant.  His children’s deaths eventually drove Mr. Hickman into such depths of depression that he killed the landlord.  After seeing justice for his children’s death denied by the system, Hickman saw no other course but to administer his own.  The murder of the landlord inspired a movement to defend Mr. Hickman and change the nature of rental housing in Chicago.  Allen takes this tragic story and renders it into a chilling narrative that reads like a novel.  Simultaneously, Allen’s description of the efforts undertaken by socialists and others in Hickman’s defense read like an organizing primer.

It was the presence of socialists and other like-minded folks that made sure that the movement against the prosecution of Hickman was bigger than Hickman or his act.  Under the direction of these activists, the movement around Hickman’s defense became an indictment of a system that let slumlords get away with murder. During the period that this story takes place there were  so-called covenant laws that forbade blacks from renting in certain neighborhoods, thereby allowing unscrupulous landlords to charge exorbitant rents for buildings they did not even attempt to maintain.  This aspect of legal institutional racism endangered the poor, especially African-Americans.  

Furthermore, it was the system of profit that encouraged landlords to let their properties slip into dangerous disrepair while overcharging their tenants. It was also the system of profit that encouraged corruption amongst the very officials hired to guarantee safe living conditions. As labor leader Willoughby Abner told a rally on the opening day of Hickman?s trial: "The same government which failed to heed the need of Hickman and millions of other Hickmans is now trying to convict Hickman for its own crimes, its own failures."  Indeed, it is that system that continues to insure that abuses like this continue to this day. 

Allen has written a masterpiece of historical narrative.  The story of James Hickman and his family is an emotionally wrought story on its own. Allen’s retelling leaves none of that emotion out.  Although it is history he is writing down, the manner of the telling makes that history as current as the latest breaking news.  The book is further enhanced by the inclusion of artist Ben Shahn’s illustrations reprinted from a 1947 Harper’s magazine feature about the Hickman case.  Allen ends his story with a description of a 2010 fire in Cicero, Illinois, which is right outside of Chicago.  There were no fire escapes in the building and it was overcrowded.  The people who lived there were violating occupancy laws because they could not afford separate apartments.  That fire killed seven people and was found to be deliberately set by the landlord and his maintenance man.  This time around the authorities were able to get an  indictment of the men responsible for the deaths.  In fact, the prosecution intends to seek the death penalty.  However, the system that Willoughby Abner said "failed to heed the need of Hickman and millions of other Hickmans" continues to force people to live in unsafe living conditions while making it likely that unscrupulous landlords will continue to choose profits over the safety of those who rent from them.  Indeed, it will continue to make it likely that certain landlords would rather burn their properties than take care of them.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available in print and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net