Friday, May 15, 2009

"Mushmouth" Johnson's Sister Breaks the Color Barrier at U of C Sorority


July 21, 1907 was an especially hot day in Chicago. All across the city, men in felt hats and women in Victorian bustiers were straining to catch a lake breeze as they went about the ordinary business of their lives. Streetcars were rumbling down Clark and Wells streets, and on Michigan, busy shoppers admired the windows in dry goods stores. On the Westside, the saddest of possible words, "Tinker to Evers to Chance," were being cursed by Cubs opponents as the team slugged its way to the first of two consecutive World Series titles. Everything seemed normal. Too normal. Little did the city's denizens know of the incomparable evil that was stirring in the Southside Hyde Park neighborhood.

Was there a serial killer on the loose? A sex predator? Anarchist terrorists? A rabid dog, even? No, this was something far, far worse. Something that would make page one of every major Chicago newspapers for the next three days. If there are any young readers out there, any with sensitive constitutions or prone to fainting spells, I urge -- plead -- with you to turn away now and spare yourself the shock and horror of it all.

There was a black sorority girl at the University of Chicago.

The Tribune's lede paragraph the next day told of the scandal:
Sorority circles and the social set at the University of Chicago are aghast at the revelation of the identity of one of the school's most prominent women students. Received into a secret society, made a belle at the proms and dances, the girl has been found to be a mulatto.
The girl in question was Cecilia Johnson, and she was the sister of John "Mushmouth" Johnson, the city's gambling and policy (lotto) king, who owned a major State street casino, as well as the upscale Frontenac Club on 22nd street. The family home where Mushmouth, Cecilia, their sister Dora, and their mother, Ellen lived, was at 5830 S. Wabash, pictured here.

Unlike the other three, Cecilia was unusually light-skinned, which caused their neighbors to wonder whether she might have been an adoptee, or perhaps of a different father than her siblings. Cecilia was also exceptionally intelligent, and had completed her baccalaureate at Chicago the previous year with a double major in history and music. She won a scholarship in the history department, and was continuing her studies in a master's degree program.

But it was her membership in Pi Alpha Phi, a university sorority, that brought the city to an uproar that summer. Cecilia had joined the secret society in 1904, her sophomore year, and was quickly made president. As one fellow member later said, "She is bright, witty, and attractive. She dresses in fine clothes, but I do not recall that she ever overdressed, although she had quite a display of jewelry. She always seemed a girl of excellent taste."

Cecilia attended all major social functions at the University, as she had while at the all-white Englewood High School, where she had first met many of her future sorority sisters. She was very popular with the college men.

The other girls found out about Cecilia’s race when one of them read a newspaper account about Mushmouth Johnson in which he mentioned his home at 5830 Wabash, an address they recognized at Cecilia’s. The girl who made the unfortunate discovery explains:
We never for a brief moment suspected she had colored blood in her veins. I remember one time Cecilia was absent from school several days. I received a phone message from her mother to come to see her. It was the first time I was ever in the house. A negro maid opened the door and I was ushered into a well furnished parlor with beautiful oil paintings. Soon a white nurse appeared and took me to Cecilia's room, which was darkened. I thought then I saw the picture of a colored man on the wall, but it was too dark to say definitely. I did not meet any of the members of her family then.

I was invited back in a few days, and I saw our picture hanging on the wall in the library, surrounded by several colored persons. I was surprised, of course, but I did not think much of it, as I had heard her mother was a nurse of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln's, and I thought it likely she might have become acquainted with negroes at that time. But after I read that article in the paper about "Mushmouth" Johnson, I knew she was related in some way to him.
The other sorority girls had long wondered about the source of Cecilia’s wealth. They were jealous of her beauty, her popularity, and her wardrobe. When they heard that she was hiding a secret, a conclave of the sisters (sans Cecilia) was held to hash out the matter. A minority of the girls calmly suggested that Cecilia’s secret remain within the group, that she be allowed to remain in the sorority unmolested, but the majority insisted on a confrontation. The meeting was apparently so rancorous that the sorority disbanded (the majority later restarted it, minus Cecilia and those who stood by her).

When news leaked to the press, all of Chicago’s major newspapers printed the story on page 1, along with condescending quotes from some of Cecilia’s former sisters:
"Certainly she had the best of everything, and I am sure she is a fine girl. It's too bad, but I suppose it would have to come out sooner or later."

"Cecilia is a fine girl in every sense of the word and if it were not for her color I would willingly have her in my sorority.”
When questioned by a reporter, Cecilia admitted her race and heritage. “Certainly,” she said when asked if she was sister to the city’s gambling king.

The next day, when reporters showed up at the family home on Wabash, they found no one to talk with:
The Johnson house at 5830 Wabash avenue was shut all day. The shades were drawn, windows locked, and there was no answer to the doorbell or the telephone. In the flat above, which is occupied by a negro family, it was stated that the Johnsons had refused to see anyone, including the postman.
On the third day of the scandal, the Tribune published a mea culpa, which indicated that, yes, Cecilia Johnson was black, and she was a co-ed at the U of C. However, the paper admitted that some of the details printed in their earlier stories had been incorrect, and issued a public apology to Miss Johnson. The note did not indicate which details were incorrect, however. Was she, not, in fact, related to Mushmouth Johnson? If so, then why had she responded “certainly” when asked that question by a Tribune reporter? Was she not a member of a sorority? It’s hard to imagine the paper could have gotten that critical detail wrong.

Perhaps the scandal weighted heavily on Mushmouth Johnson; his business had brought shame to a family member with a very bright future. Mushmouth died less than two months after the story broke.

Regardless of which parts of the printed accounts of Cecilia Johnson are true, the story indicates the deep racial boundaries that existed in Chicago at the time. Twelve years later, those boundaries would rupture into an all-out race riot. Even today, Chicago is one of the most (de facto) segregated cities in the country.

One of the ways social scientists measure segregation is with a “Dissimilarity Index,” which measures the extent to which blacks and non-blacks live in different areas of a city. It can be interpreted as the fraction of black residents who would have to move to a new neighborhood in order to attain an even racial distribution. A (hypothetical) city in which all blacks lived in one neighborhood would have a Dissimilarity Index of 1.0, since 100% of blacks in that city would have to move to other neighborhoods to achieve perfect desegregation. A city where blacks were dropped out of a helicopter (with parachutes!) randomly over an entirely white city and then built houses wherever they landed would have a Dissimilarity Index of 0.0.

Chicago’s Dissimilarity Index in 1910 was 0.69. By 1970, it had reached 0.91 (nearly completely segregated), before falling to 0.84 in 2000. By contrast, New York and Los Angeles had values of 0.81 and 0.67 in 2000, respectively. Chicago was the fourth most segregated city in the country in 2000, bested only by Detroit, Bergen-Passaic, NJ, and Gary, IN.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

The cubs were still playing at the West Side Grounds at this time. They have never won a World Series at Wrigley field.

Kendall said...

Good point. Thanks very much for the correction.

C. Rae White said...

Great story, thanks for sharing! Although, Celilia was light skinned she was not mulatto. Her mother Mrs. Ellen Johnson was light skinned with fine wavy hair and of mixed heritage, but was not a white woman. It's clear that Cecilia looked a lot like her mother, but it's not unusual that black couples have children of varying skin color within a family. It just so happened that Celilia was the lightest of the offspring obviously having her mother's hair texture. It's funny, in the 1910 Census (at the same address) Eudora and Cecilia are listed as white. From the one photo I've seen of Eudora, she looks brown skinned with distinctive black features. I'm hoping to come across a photo of Cecilia to see how white she actually looked. BTW; In the 1900 Census (at the same address) the Johnson family are all listed as black (John Sr., Ellen, Eudora and Cecilia).