I’ve been thinking a lot over the past week about the intersections and connections between individual acts of desperation and the social structure within which we live. In particular, I’ve been thinking about James Hickman.
On January 16, 1947 in a Near West Side building in Chicago, a fire broke out in the attic and took the lives of 4 children: Lester (14), Elzina (9), Sylvester (7), and Velvina (4).
On July 16, 1947 James Hickman, the father of those children, shot and killed his landlord/building manager, David Coleman.
On December 16, 1947 James Hickman walked out of court, a free man, after a jury could not reach a verdict on his murder charge and prosecutors offered a plea deal to a lesser one. Writer and activist Joe Allen recounts Hickman’s story in his 2011 book “People Wasn’t Made To Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago.”
James Hickman was part of the migration of Southerners who moved North to improve their lives. Hickman, a sharecropper, moved to Chicago from Mississippi in 1944. He came without his wife and younger children at first. He lived with his older married daughter and her family for 10 months while working at Wisconsin Steel. He planned to save money and find a place to live before sending for his family. The search for adequate living quarters was long and fruitless. Hickman found some apartments but they didn’t want children. Others took his money but never actually rented him an apartment.
In January 1946, he thought that he had a place to live and sent for his family to join him in Chicago. When the family arrived, the rental fell through so Hickman, his wife Annie, and children had to stay with the older daughter. Her landlord found out and insisted that the family had to move out.
Out of desperation, Hickman located a dilapidated apartment at 1733 West Washburne. David Coleman, a young African American budding entrepreneur, was their landlord. Hickman and his family were living in a tiny kitchenette apartment that was inadequate to their needs. It was a one room attic apartment for six and sometimes seven people. Chicago was suffering from a crisis of overcrowding for black people due to racial covenants and redlining. Many fires were also raging throughout black communities; some attributed to terrible maintenance and others to suspected arson by unscrupulous landlords.
James Hickman complained to his landlord, Coleman, about the awful conditions in his building. He wanted his $100 deposit back so that he could find another place to live. The landlord refused to comply. After several more complaints, David Coleman threatened to “burn [Hickman] out.” Annie and James reported the threat and the terrible building conditions to the police. They took out a warrant for Coleman’s arrest but nothing actually happened. The police never arrested him.
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