Black and White Together in
published in Chicago Sun Times, 11.13.08
In Grant Park, Barack Obama was giving his victory speech, and I was 2,000 miles away in Washington State watching him on TV, overcome with emotion and tears. I wanted to call my father in Chicago immediately, to hear what he had to say, because Obama's words were virtually the same ones Dad said a thousand times: "America is a place where all things are possible…."
It was an immigrant's refrain and my dad was one, a refugee from Nazi Germany who'd arrived in America on St. Patrick's Day, 1939, with little English and no professional credential, his training in pharmacy disrupted by decrees against Jews. In Chicago, with little more than brains and ambition, he created a successful company selling chemicals, mixed and bottled by hand in a rented storefront on 75th Street in South Shore.
My father's proudest achievement came when one of his products was used on the Apollo 11 spacecraft in 1969. "Imagine," he told us, "I helped send man to the moon!" Only in America.
Yet another accomplishment in my father's life made him just as proud: being a great neighbor in his community, South Shore.
In 1952, when my parents bought a red brick bungalow on 74th and Bennett Avenue—just a block from where Michelle Obama grew up on Euclid Avenue—approximately 99 percent of South Shore's residents were white. Half a century later, my parents still lived in the house—in a neighborhood that was 99 percent black. Being the only whites in a black neighborhood, said a sociologist studying the neighborhood's racial transition, was an "untenable prospect." But in America, as Dad said, anything was possible.
Not that it was always easy. Initially, as black families moved into houses on the block and white neighbors fled to the North Side, stubbornness propelled my father's decision to stay. He'd been forced to leave his home once before, he declared, and he wasn't going to do so again. "Love thy neighbor as thyself," he said—but held the line at our front door. In the mid-60s, my father yelled at me one day after I'd invited a black classmate from South Shore High home to study. "Not in my house!" he said. I yelled back, shocked that he, of all people, harbored such prejudices.
But the neighbors didn't remember him that way. This summer, when I visited South Shore, they gathered to tell me how much they cherished my parents' gracious welcome decades before. My parents had brought homemade cookies, given vegetables from their garden, watched over their houses, they said.
"Your parents welcomed us to the neighborhood," said Rosie, next door. "I'll never forget that."
Over time, my father's private attitudes changed too, as he got to know his neighbors as individuals. John Williams, for example, who lived two doors down. A Chicago Transit electrician, John helped my father with home repairs, picked up the newspaper when my parents were out of town. Likewise, when John was away, my father checked on his wife daily. After John's wife died, my parents drew even closer to him. My mother brought rhubarb pies, my father persuaded John to join the community garden at Rainbow Beach—and gardening became another source of conversation and companionship.
About five years ago, when I was home visiting, John Williams told my father he was considering moving to South Carolina. "If you leave, John, I'll have to leave," Dad replied.
I didn't know what was more remarkable—my father's attachment to John or that the conversation took place in our living room.
"What people don't understand is that we have to get along with our neighbors," Dad told me. "You can't just move away—that doesn't solve the problem. We stayed. And now all my black neighbors have been in my house and I have been in their houses. I consider that an accomplishment."
I couldn't call Dad after Barack Obama's speech—he'd died at 93 in 2004. So I did the next best thing: I called John Williams, who'd stayed in South Shore after all. He told me the neighborhood was dazed and happy, and we agreed we'd have a toast when we saw each other next. As we talked, I imagined Dad's response if he'd been alive to hear President-elect Obama's speech in Grant Park. "I told you so," he would have said. "In America anything is possible."
Eric Sonneman and John Williams at the community garden, Rainbow Beach, Chicago