Saturday, August 22, 2009

Woodlawn Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church

A previous post discussing the history of the Blackstone Rangers street gang during the 1960s and early 1970s illustrated the perverted genius of gang founder and leader, Jeff Fort, in subverting social and community organizations to help cartelize criminal activities in the Woodlawn neighborhood.

One of the earliest of these efforts was a close relationship with Ed Woods, extension director of the Woodlawn Chicago Boys Club. Together with Fort and gang co-founder Eugene Hairston, Woods searched for a space where the gang could create a supervised teen hang-out. They found their first location here, at Woodlawn Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, 6401 S. Kenwood Ave. The lot where the church edifice once stood is now an empty lot.

The early 1960s were a time of increasing racial strife in Woodlawn. For the past decade, the neighborhood, which was previously majority-white, had seen an influx of black residents from residential areas to the west, plus additional black immigration from southern states. “White flight” out of the neighborhood was increasing rapidly, and the economic prospects for Woodlawn seemed poor. In 1964, median family income in Woodlawn was $4,199 (roughly $30,000 in 2008 dollars) – not poverty-level, but well below the city average, and on a downward trend.

Hyde Park, just to the north of Woodlawn across 60th Street, remained primarily white, as students and faculty from the University of Chicago dominated the housing market there. Hyde Park residents were increasingly concerned about the changing nature of Woodlawn (as well as Kenwood to the north and Washington Park to the west), and the University feared a growing inability to attract students from wealthy families into the city if conditions in the neighborhoods surrounding it did not improve.

Thus, the U of C began floating ideas about building a “south campus” between 60th and 61st Streets, and sought city support for a massive urban renewal campaign intended to demolish much of the decaying housing stock between 60th and 63rd. The effort would have undoubtedly improved the condition of these blocks, but understandably, the program also raised the ire of some poor residents of Woodlawn, who feared losing their homes. Into this political minefield stepped the Industrial Areas Foundation, an organization headed by the famed radical, Saul Alinsky, “to unite dispossessed peoples into power groups”. The IAF worked with the pastors of two Woodlawn churches, Rev. Charles T. Leber of First Presbyterian, the oldest congregation in the city, and Rev. Arthur Brazier, pastor of the Apostolic Church of God at 63rd and Kimbark, to found the Temporary Woodlawn Organization (T.W.O.) (after the new group proved not to be temporary – it still exists today – it was renamed “The” Woodlawn Organization, keeping the same initials).

T.W.O. spearheaded the opposition to the U of C south campus plans, and also began attempting to consolidate power in Woodlawn, promoting itself as the singular representative of the community. T.W.O. organized “rent strikes” against slum building landlords, picketed in front of the homes of school principals who they accused of facilitating back-door segregation, and attempted to change the zoning laws to rid 63rd street of saloons.

Given that T.W.O. was founded by church leaders, it is unsurprising that the Greater Woodlawn Pastors’ Alliance held a membership position in the organization. Nevertheless, not all Woodlawn-area churchmen supported the group’s efforts and radical political positions. Associate pastor Otto Sotnak at Woodlawn Immanuel Lutheran Church criticized Alinsky’s role in T.W.O., arguing that black residents saw him as patronizing and an interference. He described Alinsky’s IAF as “an agency whose organizing tactics are based on the cultivation of fear, hatred, and useful antagonism.” Along with five other Woodlawn pastors, he resigned from T.W.O. because, as he wrote to me in recent correspondence, “we realized the philosophy of the organization was essentially totalitarian, and therefore our ideas didn't matter.”

Woodlawn Immanuel was founded in 1899 with 25 members, styling itself as “Immanuel English Evangelical Lutheran Church”. At that time, most Lutheran services were confined to the historically-Germanic north side, but, as the new church’s name suggested, it offered services on the south side in English. The original meeting place was at 43rd St. and S. Champlain Ave, and the church built its first edifice at that site in 1903. In 1917, the Lutheran General Synod (forerunner of the modern United Lutheran Church) was seeking an opportunity to build a congregation close to the University of Chicago, in order to support Lutheran students at that institution. Immanuel English Evangelical answered the call in 1921, and moved to Woodlawn, meeting at the Masonic Temple at 64th St. and University Ave. for three years while a new edifice at 6401 S. Kenwood was under construction. At that time (also the congregation’s 25th anniversary), the church added “Woodlawn” to its name.

(Pictured: Woodlawn Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church)

The church that had begun with 25 members grew quickly under the skilled ministry of Rev. Dr. Clarence E. Paulus, who had found his way to the congregation as a guest minister in 1914, and remained at the church until 1951. By 1948, when the church paid off its debt for the building in a “mortgage burning ceremony,” the membership stood near 750. The church served the community continuously in those years, offering its sanctuary for use by Boy and Girl Scout groups, women’s clubs, youth groups, and other civic organizations. In 1960, the church offered free polio innoculations for Woodlawn residents.

As the neighborhood changed during the 1950s and 1960s, Woodlawn Immanuel responded to residents’ concerns regarding crime. Already by 1952, crime in the neighborhood was serious enough to warrant a mass meeting of neighborhood groups at the church to discuss the problem. At that meeting, Woodlawn Immanuel’s new pastor, Rev. Carl H. Berhenke (who had recently succeeded Rev. Paulus) argued that the solution to growing street crime was to “help the people to realize they are not standing alone in their demand for a good, clean, and decent community, and that by working together we can bring it about.”

Woodlawn Immanuel and T.W.O. were not the only organizations growing in size during the early 1960s. Juvenile delinquents Jeff Fort and Eugene Hairston founded the Blackstone Rangers in the late 1950s, and by the summer of 1963, their control over the streets of eastern Woodlawn was complete, with purse snatchings, robberies, fights, and bloody turf wars with the Cobras, Disciples, and other gangs becoming increasingly commonplace.

Ed Woods, extension director of the Woodlawn Chicago Boys’ Club, worked assiduously to develop a rapport with Fort and Hairston, and in 1964, fearing another vicious summer, he approached Rev. Sotnak at Immanuel Lutheran about opening a youth center at the church where gang members could play basketball, pool, car games, ping pong, and checkers under adult supervision. In an email to me regarding a previous post, Rev. Sotnak described the origins of the Rangers’ hang-out at Immanuel Lutheran:
In the summers of 1963, -64 and -65, gang activity had become a growing threat to residents and business people in South Chicago, which included Englewood and Woodlawn. I remember a block club meeting held in our church basement when we invited a youth officer from the Woodlawn Police Station to speak to us. Afterward, he begged me to do anything I could to get those “kids” off the street.

By coincidence Ed Woods, who was director of a detached worker program at the Chicago Woodlawn Boy's Club, stopped at my office to ask if they could use our church facilities to open a center for the Blackstone Rangers, since the Boy's Club building was in rival gang turf at that time, and the Rangers wouldn't go there. I agreed, and that was how my church and I got involved.

We had about a dozen gang members the first night we opened. After that we had over 100, and the number grew ever larger after that. The Chicago Woodlawn Boy's Club got funding to hire detached workers to mingle with the gang members, gain their confidence and encourage them to leave the gang and either get into school or some kind of legitimate career that, "Put money in their pockets," since most of the gang members, given a choice, would rather not hustle.

We had several success stories. One gang member said he always wanted to be a chef. Mr. Woods found him a job at Passavant Hospital in the kitchen. To the best of my knowledge, the fellow left the gang, at least for a time. However, we learned that leaving any gang is difficult. It's like going AWOL from the army.
Employment was a key part of the program. At the time of his work with Rev. Sotnak and Immanuel Lutheran, Ed Woods told reporters, “In the past, social workers were sent here when trouble was brewing,” but argued that employment would provide a more permanent solution to the gang problem: “If a man has pride it can make him a king, and a job can give the boy the necessary pride.” Jeff Fort himself found himself employed through Woods’ efforts, earning $1.25 per hour.

In 1965, Rev. Sotnak left Woodlawn Immanuel, and the collaboration with Woods and the Rangers ended. As Rev. Sotnak described it to me,
In 1965, I left Chicago and moved to Minneapolis, where I became pastor of Lake of the Isles Luth. Church. That summer was also a long hot summer on the streets of Woodlawn. Pastor John Fry became pastor of First Presbyterian Church at 64th. & Kimbark. The interim pastor at Woodlawn-Immanuel was afraid to get involved with the gang, so Pastor Fry invited the gang to use his church facilities (just a block west of Woodlawn-Immanuel).
First Presbyterian’s previous pastor had been a founder and charter member of T.W.O., so when the Rangers moved their headquarters, they also came into contact with T.W.O. leadership. By 1967, T.W.O. was working together with the Rangers in running a federally-funded job training program, in which the gang leadership (most of whom were high school drop-outs) would administer classes in reading and arithmetic. As preposterous as it may sound today, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission supported the effort to the tune of nearly $1 million between June, 1967 and June, 1968. Like Rev. Sotnak, Rev. Fry, the EEOC, and the community of Woodlawn were facing desperate problems of poverty, crime, and racial strife, and they were willing to adopt unconventional approaches where traditional ones had failed.

The relationship between the Rangers, T.W.O., and First Presbyterian can only be described as a total debacle. The police accused Rev. Fry at First Presbyterian of not only offering space to the Rangers, but actively participating in and supporting their criminality, blessing their attempts at extortion, and passing information about “hits” between gang members. The gang-operated training centers turned out to be a complete farce, with a Chicago Tribune investigation revealing that eight of the program’s top administrators, including Fort and Hairston, were either awaiting trial (for crimes including rape and murder) or had lengthy rap sheets. Police surveillance of the “classes” found no textbooks, rulers, paper or lectures, but dice-throwing, sleeping, and discussions focused on women and sports. The only books available were of the comic variety.

For their part, T.W.O. blamed the bad publicity the programs received on Mayor Richard J. Daley, who, they claimed, despised T.W.O. for the fact that the job training programs they and the Rangers administered were the only government monies in Chicago not directly under city control.

Nevertheless, between June, 1967, and June, 1968, when the EEOC chose not to renew T.W.O.’s grants, two program trainees and one instructor had been charged with murder, three other staff members were arrested for assault and robbery of a youth who had refused to join the program, and one teenager was shot during a class. A subsequent congressional investigation found that the Blackstone Rangers had demanded kickbacks of nearly 50% of the federal checks that students in the program received. Gang leader Jeff Fort eventually went to prison for three years starting in 1972 for his role in defrauding the government.

Perhaps, given his experiences with T.W.O. and the Blackstone Rangers, Rev. Sotnak could have predicted some of these problems. In a speech to a church group shortly after he left Woodlawn Immanuel, he called claims that T.W.O. was improving conditions in the neighborhood “absolutely pathetic”. In recent correspondence, he wrote to me, “As I see it, Mr. Woods and the Chicago Boy's Club completely lost control of the Blackstone Rangers in the summer of 1965. Given the duplicity of the gang's leadership, it was an inevitable development.”

Woodlawn Immanuel Lutheran Church closed in 1973. By that point, the neighborhood had completely changed from the one in which the church had been built in 1924, and there were other Lutheran congregations in Hyde Park and elsewhere that could serve the University community. The edifice at 64th and Kenwood was sold to a Baptist congregation, which worshipped there for a decade, until the building was destroyed. It remains an empty lot today.

The Woodlawn neighborhood continued to deteriorate into slum conditions in the 1970s and 1980s; however, over the last fifteen years, real estate values have improved substantially and crime has declined. The green line elevated tracks, which once darkened 63rd street, were demolished in 1996, and the street which once primarily served as a one-stop shop for liquor, drugs, and prostitutes, is now overwhelmingly empty lots. Since 2001, University of Chicago police have extended their patrols down to 64th St., and the area between 60th and 63rd is increasingly populated again by University students and faculty. Many beautiful and expensive new homes and townhome complexes have been constructed where the dilapidated buildings the U of C once sought to demolish once stood. The recent recession notwithstanding, continued gentrification in Woodlawn seems likely.

It is difficult to imagine a similarly close relationship developing today between street gangs and community and church leaders. Partially that is due to the increasing violence of gangs and their role in retailing crack and other illegal drugs. It is also a reflection of the differences between that time and ours. Then, rioting in ghetto neighborhoods threatened to destroy the city, and radicalism bordered on revolution. As Rev. Sotnak wrote in recent correspondence:
Would I do what I did again? I probably would. Just because life is fraught with danger doesn't mean one should shrink from it. "Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead."

I suppose those of us who tried to "straighten-out" gang members were naive, but we were also desperate. Someone ought to do something, so we did what we could. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, "Politics is the application of proximate solutions to insoluble problems."

Those were indeed the days.

1 comment:

Mike said...

What's interesting, too, is that the church was located a couple of doors north of the Kenrose Hotel.