Founded in the late 1950s by a group of seven juvenile delinquents, the leader of whom had been rejected by other street gangs, the Conservative Vice Lords’ reign of terror in the North Lawndale neighborhood between 1957 and 1964 was singularly violent. Other gangs in the area, like the Imperial Chaplains, Cobras, Morphines, Clovers, and Continental Pimps, were primarily social societies, holding parties and dances, although fights frequently broke out. The Vice Lords, in contrast, were primarily a fight club where members boxed and wrestled each other during the day, then went out at night and used knives, Molotov cocktails, and pistols to take control of turf from other gangs and terrorize residents. I have already written of one example of the extreme violence of which the Vice Lords were capable during this period.
By 1964, the Lords had 28 “sets” – micro gangs controlling a particular block or two – and up to 10,000 members, and they patrolled the vast majority of the territory between Pulaski and Western Aves., and from Lake St. south to Ogden. But by this point, some of the founding members, who were 16-18 years old when the gang began, were reaching maturity and had families. With the broader view maturity brings, they saw the destruction their activities had brought upon the neighborhood and the attraction of power and money that would continue to draw disaffected youth into the gang. They were also afraid of some of the younger Vice Lords.
Among these leaders were Edward Perry, sometimes known as “Pep” or “Peppilow,” the founder of the gang, his second-in-command (and cousin of Eugene Hairson, founder of the Blackstone Rangers), Leonard Calloway, Alfonso Alford, a former construction worker who took over Perry’s spot at the top of the gang that year, plus Bobby Gore, an early member who would later become the public face of the group. In July, 1964, this group was hanging around getting drunk on the corner of 16th and Lawndale, when a younger gang member approached them to propose a violent attack on a rival gang. Realizing the cycle of violence they had started (and possibly also realizing they might no longer be able to control it for their own purposes), Alford suggested the group do something constructive by opening businesses in the neighborhood.
The idea of opening a business wasn’t immediately feasible – while the gang held control over the streets of North Lawndale, they had little money, and no business experience – but Perry, Calloway, Alford, Gore, and other leadership members began looking for ways to use their street power for positive change. Turf wars with rival west side gangs diminished during the mid-1960s, and the Lords began meeting with the police, especially the new, black commander of the nearby Fillmore Street station, George Sims. Of course, the Lords were still a violent gang, but they realized that in order to grow further, they would need the support, not merely the fear, of residents.
(Pictured: Conservative Vice Lord members at a fundraising drive for the American Cancer Society)
The nascent civil rights movement was also critical in the Lords’ attempts to break from their violent past. As one Lord later put it,
The militants came in and say why be a gangbanger and kill each other when you can kill the honky, and we began to see that the enemy was not black. Elzy, who was about twenty and had been on the streets for eight years as a Royal Knight and junior Vice Lord, felt that “we were scared of the honkies, but this awareness thing has kicked all that b---s--- aside and made you think of what you really are.” (Dawley, David. A Nation of Lords: The Autobiography of the Vice Lords, Waveland Press, 1973).Many impoverished black residents of Chicago were inspired by the Watts riots of 1965, and during the summer of 1966, the west side erupted in rioting after the police released a white man who had attacked and killed a black man with a baseball bat. Vice Lord members were heavily involved in the rioting and looting that followed. Media attention paid to the impoverished area brought greater awareness by police and politicians, as well as efforts by national black organizations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to bring peace to Lawndale. Everyone especially wanted to find a way to reach and reform the “hard core” youth who had been at the center of the riots, and who would likely continue to make trouble.
Martin Luther King, Jr., even moved into the neighborhood, living in an apartment on 16th street at Hamlin for a few months. He specifically attempted to work with the major street gangs of the city, inviting the Vice Lords, Blackstone Rangers, and Gangster Disciples to a Soldier Field rally, and reaching out to their leadership for cooperation. While the Vice Lords were flattered by the attention, they were also suspicious of King’s intentions as an outsider, and the relationship was generally cool. As one Lord said,
Gangbangers were involved [in rioting] because young dudes just didn’t have any other way to go. This was just a helluva way to let go of the frustrations and depression. The civil rights organizations that came to Chicago were not working with the hard-core people anyway. They were supposed to have been for the grass root but the middle class was running them. They didn’t know the people. The people who wouldn’t mind being in a riot were never touched. They were still out there standing on the corners, laying in the alleys, and in the summertime sleeping in the park at night. (Dawley, ibid)During a heavy snow storm in the winter of 1967, the police were unable to penetrate the streets of Lawndale, and the Vice Lords again led looting efforts of white-owned stores on the west side. There were also rumors that the Black Panther Party was heavily recruiting in the neighborhood, and was attempting to foment rioting. Everyone predicted that the summer of 1967 would be even more violent than 1966, and so special efforts to reach out to the Vice Lords’ leadership were made by city politicians, Commander Sims, and west side business owners.
24th ward Alderman George Collins pledged that if there were no serious rioting or gang violence incidents during the summer, the Alderman would help the gang open a restaurant that fall. Commander Sims’ efforts to befriend gang leaders began to show fruit when, in August of 1967, one Lord set, the Albany Vice Lords, turned over to him one of their members who had been implicated in a slaying. The Tribune reported:
The gang leaders also tipped police as to the location of the murder weapon which was found in a garbage can in the rear of 1116 S. Whipple st. Sgt. John Hawkins said that since the gang began cooperating with the police more than 12 guns have been surrendered. Hawkins said the 16-year old was surrendered because the gang leaders feared Sims thought the shooting was a gang slaying and would “put the heat” on he neighborhood. In return for their cooperation , Commander Sims has been finding jobs for gang members and has met frequently with them to seek solutions to their problems, Hawkins said. One gang member, who declined to identify himself, said the group was aiding police as “a matter of self-survival”.Another article around the same time noted:
The commander attributes his success to the belief that he has offered the young men in the community an alternative to the black power militants, to whom they would otherwise be attracted and the white social workers, whom they reject. Since he took over the district in June, 1965, he and his four plainclothes intelligence men have been meeting regularly with the gang members, “not just as police, but as men who know the score and talk the same language.”…. Sims’ major objective is to eliminate the gangs as warring factions but retain their top men as leaders in the community.Major west side businesses, including retailer Carson, Pirie, & Scott and Sears Roebuck, afraid of the losses they would incur if rioting erupted, formed a cooperative group called Operation Bootstrap with the Vice Lords and two other west side gangs, the Roman Saints (a Vice Lord derivative gang) and the Cobras, long-time Lord rivals. The group held meetings throughout late summer 1967 to organize constructive dialogue between gang members and business leaders.
Another momentous event that summer was the arrival in the neighborhood of a highly unlikely prospective Vice Lord member, David Dawley. Dawley, a self-described “tenth generation WASP whose ancestors landed at Newburyport, Massachusetts and later moved by ox sled to Bath, New Hampshire,” grew up in Westminster, Mass., where he became an Eagle Scout, then graduated at Dartmouth College in 1963. After college, he joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Honduras helping communities organize banks and health clinics. Upon his return to the United States in 1965, he became involved in community organizing, radical politics, and civil rights, marching through Mississippi with Stokely Carmichael in 1966. In 1967, Dawley took a summer job with the TransCentury Corporation, a non-profit Washington DC survey firm which had a government grant to evaluate urban youth attitudes towards federally-funded social programs. TransCentury sent Dawley to Lawndale to conduct surveys, and he took up residence at the Kedzie YMCA.
In those days, the west side was not a safe place for whites. As gang leader Bobby Gore later wrote,
…this guy had come over on Kedzie and Madison at night during the Black Power era. And he came by himself – nobody brought him. With all the bad press we were getting, I thought he was a gutsy guy for being there. (Dawley, ibid)(Pictured: David Dawley)
Dawley quickly learned that the Vice Lords ran the west side, and anyone who wanted to understand conditions among youth there needed to deal with the Lords. He started telling people he wanted to meet with the gang leaders and putting himself in places where Vice Lords congregated. One of the Lords’ major charitable efforts that summer was a series of fundraisers to help poor blacks in Mississippi, the plight of whom had recently been highlighted by civil rights efforts there. Black power slogans and threats of mayhem and revolution were a regular part of these fundraising events, and police in riot gear typically attended. Early in the summer, Dawley attended one such event at the Senate movie house, and was the only white person in the packed 3,000-person auditorium. During the speeches, he felt a hand touch his shoulder and a voice tell him to go to the lobby if he wanted to meet Vice Lords leadership.
Dawley complied and a brief meeting with Perry and Gore led to a more extensive conversation at Vice Lords headquarters in the pool room at 3720 W. 16th. Dawley hired Gore and several other Lords as interviewers and consultants, and kept in constant touch with the gang, slowly gaining their confidence. During that summer, he lived in Lawndale and, if not for his close links with the Vice Lords, likely would not have lived through the season. As he put it,
Out of thirty friends, I was the only one who two years later hadn’t been shot, cut, wounded or killed. My first apartment was set on fire; I had a gun pointed to my head and my car was shot, but when the West Side rioted after Martin Luther King was killed, I walked through the flames with tape recorder and camera. (Dawley, ibid)At the end of the summer, Dawley returned to Washington and finished his report for TransCentury, then loaded up his old Volkswagen and returned to Lawndale in November to continue working with the Vice Lords, this time with an eye to turning the gang into a serious political and social force in Chicago.
With Dawley’s help, the gang incorporated as a non-profit organization in September, 1967: Conservative Vice Lords, Inc. They then applied for, and received, a $15,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which was matched with an equal amount from the corporate members of Operation Bootstrap. This was followed by $25,000 from the Field Foundation, $130,000 from the Ford Foundation, $36,000 from the Department of Labor, and $60,000 from philanthropist W. Clement Stone. These groups saw partnership with the Vice Lords as a way to reach those most desperately in need. As Bobby Gore, gang spokesperson, put it, “We are of the same community and on the same level as community people. The average man in the street can’t articulate to people wearing ties.”
With these funds, Dawley and CVL, Inc. turned the north side of the 3700 block of W. 16th St. (pictured above), which had previously been a strip of dilapidated, mostly abandoned buildings, into a thriving business and community center. Between the fall of 1967 and 1969, the gang opened:
Teen Town, an ice cream parlor catering to youth, opened with the help of Ald. Collins and Operation Bootstrap, at 3700 W. 16th.
The African Lion, an afro-centric clothing shop, at 3702 W. 16th. Behind the African Lion, a garden was planted underneath a large mural depicting black history in the United States.
(Pictured: the interior of The African Lion, clothing store run by CVL, Inc.)
The House of Lords, a recreation center for teens with ping-pong, jukeboxes, books, and card tables, at 3724 W. 16th (a second House of Lords was later opened at 3414 W. 15th).
Art and Soul, a free, open-door facility for community members to paint and engage with art, opened in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Illinois Sesquicentennial Commission, and the University of Illinois – Circle Campus (now known as University of Illinois – Chicago), at 3742 W. 16th.
(Pictured: an onlooker watches a young artist during a CVL "open house" at Art and Soul)
CVL, Inc., also opened two Tastee Freez franchises, one at 18th St. and Pulaski Rd., and the other at California Ave. and Fluornoy St. In Vice Lords headquarters at 3720 W. 16th, the gang used Department of Labor funds to start a management training institute to develop business skill. They also planned an Avon-like cosmetics line called “Simone,” with color tones made especially for black women, and marketed the product in conjunction with entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., although it seems that Simone never actually got off the ground.
During the summer of 1968, the Catholic School Board awarded CVL, Inc. 100 neighborhood youth jobs to clean and beautify public areas. The gang also organized a tenants’ rights pressure group which assisted neighborhood residents in negotiations with landlords. There were also July 4th and Christmas dinners open to the public at gang headquarters. In 1969, the Vice Lords, along with other major Chicago street gangs, including the Gangster Disciples and the Black P. Stones, worked together with civil rights groups to demand more jobs for blacks in Chicago’s traditionally white labor unions. The gangs disrupted scores of building sites on the south and west sides, including the University of Chicago’s new school of social work, and McCormick Place. CVL was becoming not only a community organization but a major political force in Chicago.
With the help of CVL, Inc., the crime rate in Lawndale actually fell in 1969, while it rose substantially throughout most of the rest of the city. Thus, in 1968, the future seemed practically unlimited for the former violent gang members and their community; however, a number of factors led to the decline and fall of CVL, Inc., eventually returning it to its former status as a tough street gang.
First, with the exception of Dawley, CVL leadership were high-school drop-outs, not MBAs. Maintaining a successful business is difficult for anyone, and most new business fail; the gang’s lack of management skill compounded this problem. In addition, unlike other business-owners, CVL chose the locations for their retail shops not based on proximity to customers, visibility, or liklihood of profit, but a desire to invest in a particular neighborhood. The group was explicitly protectionist, believing that operating businesses in Lawndale instead of other areas “kept the money in the neighborhood”. As one Lord put it,
I want to be able to run our own community. If we get this to rollin’, we don’t need that honky. I want out own black banks, our own black currency exchange – I don’t want no honky to take my check and take forty or fifty cents: I want a brother to take it. I know when them honkies take it, its goin’ back out to Oak Park or Lake Forest; it ain’t doin’nothin’ for the black community. (Dawley, ibid)In general, this type of “local self-sufficiency” is the route to poverty (Cuba and North Korea also have only their own banks and currency exchanges and do not rely on trade with neighboring countries, and they have failed to become rich for it). For all of these reasons, even if nothing else had gone wrong, the economic deck was stacked against the long-term success of CVL, Inc.
Moreover, while Vice Lord leadership were using these programs to remake themselves into a bona fide community and political powerhouse, many of the thousands of rank-and-file Lords members, who were still facing conditions of poverty and blight (CVL, Inc., leaders took yearly salaries between $10,000 - $15,000; Dawley never revealed his own salary), continued to act as violent criminals. Traditionally, leadership of a street gang goes to the biggest, strongest, and most violent members, and these leaders must constantly be on guard against newer, younger members, who attempt to prove themselves even more violent than their leaders. This is how the Vice Lords had always operated, and now Perry, Alford, Gore, and others, who by the late 1960s were in their late 20s, faced thousands of power-hungry teenagers bent on rising in the gang hierarchy, especially a subgroup of young Vice Lords calling themselves the Black Aces. Thus, violence was difficult to avoid.
October, 1967, saw inter-gang warfare between the Vice Lords and the Cermak Boys over turf. More shootings involving Lords occurred in May and November, 1968, the latter of which involved the death of a 5 year-old boy. In July, 1968, CVL President Alfonso Alford was arrested and charged with murder, though he was acquitted two months later. In May, 1969, gang member Robert Weatherall (brother of one of the original Vice Lords), was shot and killed point blank in front of Teen Town, and the shooter then entered Vice Lords headquarters next door, where he shot and wounded Alford. When questioned, Alford refused to identify the shooter (who was likely a young Vice Lord), saying only “We’ll take care of it ourselves.” In October, 1969, a Vice Lord allegedly kidnapped two women off the street and raped them repeatedly inside the African Lion.
At the same time, 1969 saw Mayor Richard J. Daley and State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan declared a “war on gangs.” Gang members would always claim that Daley feared the Lords and the concentration of black political power they were developing. In any case, November, 1969, saw the arrest for murder of Bobby Gore, who had served as the primary spokesperson for the gang, and later took on most of the role of CVL president, after Alfonso Alford suffered health problems in early 1969. Gore eventually ended up serving 11 years in prison.
At the same time as the leadership of CVL was facing trouble with the law, the gusher of money from the government and philanthropic organizations petered out. This was partially linked to the group’s legal troubles. At Gore’s indictment, State’s Attorney Hanrahan told reporters “We think these brutal acts should cause foundations and others to intensify their scrutiny of persons seeking money from them to make certain their funds are not used to arm street gangsters or for other idleness.”
Another reason for reduced funding levels after 1969 was a major scandal involving the misuse of government grant money by another Chicago street gang, the Black P. Stones, which eventually led to Stones leader Jeff Fort’s imprisonment. While there is no evidence that CVL was similarly misappropriating funds, the notion of philanthropic organizations working with street gangs was irreversibly tarnished. At the same time, the radical political atmosphere of the late 1960s was changing, and movements that presented a serious threat of revolution and anarchy in 1967 and 1968 were on the decline; it was their power that had inspired in many philanthropic organizations attempts to use such unconventional means as investing in street gang businesses. The foundations that had once competed over who could give the most money to CVL now moved on to new and more fashionable pursuits, such as environmental causes and nuclear non-proliferation.
Finally, 1969 also saw the departure of the gang’s grant-writer, David Dawley, who returned home to Massachusetts that year.
With their leadership gutted by retirement and prison, violent intra-gang battles over succession and reduced operating income from the government and philanthropists, the gang’s once-proud set of businesses on 16th street slowly closed during 1970 and 1971. During the 1970s, the Vice Lords returned to their past as a notoriously violent street gang. Their position of dominance on the streets of Lawndale positioned them perfectly for the rise of cocaine and crack, and the Lords controlled drug supply and retailing operations throughout the west side, as they do up to the present day.
Between 1975 and 1985, the population of North Lawndale dropped by 30,000 and the share of residents receiving welfare rose by 45% as manufacturing and retail jobs left the community. To today’s Chicagoan, the idea that Sears and Carson Pirie Scott once had retail locations in Lawndale seems absurd.
The buildings that once housed the African Lion, the House of Lords, and Teen Town have long since either turned into vacant lots or reverted to the dilapidated, mostly abandoned state they were in before CVL, Inc. operated them.