"History of Fight for Housing Project Told"

Chicago Defender

by A. L. Foster
Saturday, October 26, 1940
Part III, Page 16

Table of Contents

1 [Introduction]

Although Chicago citizens had been clamoring for better housing for its less privileged residents and Negroes had participated in these efforts for several years, the first actual steps to help solve the housing problems were taken when, on Nov. 3, 1923 (sic [1] ), a small group of seven persons met upon the call of A. L. Foster, executive secretary of the Chicago Urban League, at 34 East Forty-seventh street, "to discuss HOUSING."

Present at this meeting, in addition to Mr. Foster, were Robert R. Taylor, Dr. M. O. Bousefield, Charles S. Duke, Mrs. Lula E. Lawson, Bishop Snowden and Judge Albert B. George. The minutes of that first meeting as recorded by Mrs. Lawson who served as secretary, stated "after an exchange of ideas on how a committee of representative people for a cross section of social and civic organizations might function in moulding sentiment and in advising the Chicago Housing Commission (this commission had been appointed by Mayor Dever and Mr. Foster was a member thereof) relative to the Negro in Chicago, it was decided to go into a permanent organization. [2] Robert R. Taylor was elected chairman." It was further decided to organize a steering committee of twenty-five persons and a committee of five consisting of Foster, Taylor, Bousefield, Duke and Snowden was appointed.

2 Committee Enlarged

At the November 7 meeting the committee was enlarged to include William H. Riley, Wilson Lovett, George R. Arthur, Dr. Richard Jackson, Mrs. Lillian Summers and James E. Stamps. At a meeting November 21, Wilson Lovett was named permanent chairman and Robert Taylor secretary. The area bounded by 35th and 39th streets, Cottage Grove and Rhodes avenues was selected for a proposed low-price housing development and the fight which culminated in the present Ida B. Wells low-cost housing project, was started.

At this meeting, Mr. Duke was named consulting engineer and architect; Judge George was named attorney and Messrs. Stamps and Riley were made responsible for making studies and compiling figures relative to all facts dealing with property appraisal, taxes, assessments and other questions relating to the real estate phases of the development. Mr. Duke was asked to make preliminary sketches and estimates of costs in accordance with the information desired by the Federal Housing Corporation. A telegram was framed by the committee, addressed to the Federal Housing Corporation, requesting instructions as to procedure in connection with making application for Government approval for the erection of the proposed project.

By December a State Housing Board had been appointed with Alfred K. Stern as chairman and the committee which had adopted the name "Lakeside Housing Committee," immediately sought the board's assistance. George R. Woodson was added to the committee and was asked to assist Mr. Duke in securing complete figures on assessed value of property located within the suggested area.

3 Final Plans

On February 11, 1934 final plans and a formal application for a low-cost housing project for the south side was forwarded to Washington by the committee's chairman Wilson Lovett, thereby becoming the first plans and application to be submitted by any group of citizens of Chicago. The Chicago Sunday Tribune under date of February 25, 1934 carried an article under the caption, "Huge Housing Plan Submitted to Washington," illustrated with a picture of the chairman and of the plans of the project. The Daily News and Herald Examiner also carried articles.

Mr. Foster served as publicity director with the responsibility of developing a public opinion among Negroes and with the splendid co-operation of the Chicago Defender, Chicago Bee and Chicago World, this was accomplished. The entire cost involved in stenographic services, correspondence, prospectus drawing of the proposed building and other incidentals was borne by the committee on a pro rata basis.

Thus endeth the first chapter in the Negroes' fight for a low-cost housing project in Chicago's great south side.

4 Meets Opposition

Members of the committee whose work has been described had no idea that the proposal of a low-cost housing project in the Negro community would meet with great opposition but it was soon discovered that powerful influences were at work to prevent carrying forward the plans. It has been mentioned before that plans for the south side project were the first to be submitted by any Chicago group and persons may be amazed to know that in March, 1936, construction was begun on the Julia Lathrop and Trumbull Park Homes and on the Jane Addams Houses in December, 1935. Construction on the Ida B. Wells project was started August 25, 1939, four years after the Jane Addams and three years after the other two. Yet on October 28, 1934, condemnation proceedings for the Ida B. Wells project were filed--and later withdrawn.

When Honorable Harold Ickes was appointed administrator of the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration, August 19, Chicago organizations immediately got in touch with him and urged the carrying forward of plans for the south side project.

In the meantime the Chicago Council of Negro Organizations had been formed with A. L. Foster as president and this council had appointed a special Committee on Housing with Attorney J. Gray Lucas as chairman and Attorney A. M. Burroughs as vice chairman.

In a letter to Foster, dated, February 4, 1937, Secretary Ickes said, "We are hurrying acquisition of this property and the demolition as much as possible. The new housing authority, which was appointed by Mayor Kelly, has now in its charge an application for funds for development of this project and I wish you would take the matter up direct with them. Mr. John R. Fugard, 520 No. Michigan, I understand is chairman of this Authority."

5 Discuss Situation

On March 29, 1937 a committee composed of Lucas, Burroughs, Foster, F. T. Lane, Mrs. Lilliam Proctor, Bryant Hammond, A. C. MacNeal and Howard D. Gould, met with the Housing Authority and discussed the entire situation. In the meantime a committee representing opposing forces said to have been the Chicago Real Estate Board, Drexel State Bank, etc. went to Washington to object to the proposed project. Dr. M. O. Bousefield, Attorney Theophilus Mann and others also appeared before Co. Harrington and successfully defended our position.

To further confuse the situation, employed persons went through the community, urging Negroes to refuse to consider any price what-so-ever for their property and the negotiations for the sale of the property within the site area was held up for months. Mass meetings were held and hundreds of letters were sent to Washington, stimulated by the Council of Negro Organizations. Delegations appealed to Mayor Kelly who pledged his cooperation. The weekly press kept the public stirred to a high pitch of expectance and for once in the life of Chicago Negroes there was practically unanimous cooperation in a fight which meant everything to them.

6 Proposed Abandonment

At one time in the fight the attorney representing the Federal Government appeared before the federal court and proposed the abandonment of the project and the return of the check held in escrow by the local court to the United States Treasury. A. M. Burroughs, representing the Council of Negro Organizations as well as clients and Attorney Heber T. Dotson also representing clients appeared also before the court and succeeded in defeating this move thereby saving the project for Chicago Negro citizens. Foster immediately wrote to the Attorney General and demanded the resignation of the District Attorney who had represented the Federal Government.

The demand that a Negro be appointed to the Chicago Housing Authority had been carried on for several years but it was not until November 30, 1938 that Robert Taylor was appointed to take the place vacated by William J. Lynch. With Taylor's appointment things began to move much more rapidly and on December 1, 1938 a loan contract was signed beteen the C.H.A. and the United States Housing Authority for $8,674,000, [3] regarding the Ida B. Wells Homes.

The Ida B. Wells project was threatened again when it was decided that unless public housing projects were exempt from the regular taxes they could not be built as low-cost projects. In June, 1938 bills intended to exempt such projects from taxation were introduced in the Senate by one Senator and in the house by one Senator. The Chicago Council of Negro Organizations sent a strong lobby to Springfield to force the passage of the bills. This lobby consisted of Dr. Clarence Payne, Alderman William L. Dawson, Foster Lane, Attorney Aaron Payne, Joseph Jefferson and John Sengstacke and other citizens. Messrs. Lane and Dawson appeared before the Senate and made strong speeches while other members of the delegation button-holed senators and urged that they vote for the measure. The bills were opposed by the Chicago Real Estate Board and other powerful lobbying groups. The bills passed and again the project seemed safe.

Later a strike was called and again the council and other important organizations called upon the Mayor to end the strike so that work could proceed. The Industrial Department of the Chicago Urban League was largely responsible for the large number of skilled persons employed, although other organizations worked faithfully to that end. Special mention should be made of the work done by the American Consolidated Trades Council and the Brotherhood Club of brick masons.


[1] The correct date was Nov. 3, 1933, according to Arvarh E. Strickland, History of the Chicago Urban League (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966), 126. Additional evidence of the fact that the year was 1933, not 1923, is that the State Housing Board, referred to in the article, was established in 1933. See the Illinois State Archives description of the Board, at http://www.sos.state.il.us/depts/archives/di/415__002.htm#A1
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[2] According to Thomas Philpott, the Chicago Housing Commission was created in the summer of 1926 by Mayor Dever, who appointed 42 commissioners. These included seven members of the real estate community, two bankers, ten corporate, industrial and utilities executives, Alfred K. Stern representing the Rosenwald Fund, and Werner A. Wieboldt representing the Wieboldt foundation. Also appointed were reformers Mary McDowell, Edith Abbott, Graham Taylor, Professor Richard T. Ely, Professor Ernest W. Burgess, Charles Ball, A. L. Foster and Charles Duke. The commissioners chose William Zelosky of the Chicago Real Estate Board (and "chairman of its Own Your Own Home division") as chair. The Commission met four times and then "quietly faded into oblivion without issuing any formal report of its activities, accomplishments, and demise. However, Alfred Stern continued to act as a kind of one-man commission." See Philpott, The Slum and the Ghetto, 252-254.
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[3] Or, $8,874,000 -- photocopy of microform is not clear.
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