With all the talk about political conventions in the news lately, I can’t help but think of what happened right here in 1968. Many of the writers in my memoir classes were young adults in Chicago then, but when I assigned “1968” as a topic, few of them chose to write about the Democratic convention that year. Their essays definitely spoke of the times, though.
Judy’s essay opens in the 1950s, when she was lobbying the Yellow Springs, Ohio Board of Education to let her Antioch College classmate Corrie Scott student-teach there. Corrie was barred from working in the Yellow Springs schools, and when she and Judy got together at an Antioch reunion years later, Corrie said that school officials used to tell people she’d left “to marry some preacher.” Judy described the loving smile on Corrie’s face as the two friends shared the irony. Some preacher. The essay ends with a description of what a sad year 1968 was. It’s the year her friend Corrie’s husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered.
Maria and her husband had immigrated to America from Italy in the early 1960s. Maria was enjoying a lovely April day in 1968 at a park with her three and four-year-old boys when she heard the news on her transistor radio. “The Dallas drama was repeating itself. This time it was Martin Luther King,” she wrote. “In what kind of country had I come? Were my children going to grow in the midst of this violence?”
Sheila returned from a six-week training course in NYC in 1968, accepting a job as a TWA Reservations agent in Chicago along with 19 fellow graduates. “Our triumph was short-lived,” Sheila wrote. “More than half the class was fired the first day in the Chicago office.” All the women who were fired were Hispanic, Black or Jewish. “We Caucasians spoke up about the obvious reason our friends had been fired. TWA told us to shut up, or we’d ALL be out of a job.”
Bob grew up on the South Side of Chicago and was raising his boys there, too. His oldest son would be starting high school in 1968, and with tuition so high at the Catholic schools, Bob and his wife opted to move the family to the suburbs.
Gwen’s essay came right after Bob’s. Gwen and her husband had decided to move in 1968, too, but that’s where the similarities in their stories end. From Gwen’s essay:
On the day of the closing we took our sons out to see their new home. It was located in the far South Side in the Rosemore area of Chicago. The boys were excited to have a larger home, although they didn’t want to leave their friends. My husband and I were happy that the house had been vacated by the former owners and we had immediate possession.
Gwen’s husband called her at work the next day with disturbing news. Someone had tossed a chemical into their house after they’d left – the chemical simmered throughout the night, eventually burning through the floor. A worker from People’s Gas Company who’d been sent out to take a final reading from the meter the next morning noticed the windows were all black from the smoke. He called the fire department. “The fireman, who knew how to enter a burning house, told us that if we had opened a door the house would have exploded and been completely destroyed,” Gwen wrote. “We were completely unaware that we were the first Black family to move into that block. Had we known we would have skipped that area. I did not want to put my children in danger.” Their three-year-old was afraid to enter the house, so the family moved into her brother’s attic for a few weeks until her husband decided it was time to clean up the house and move in. He checked on the house every evening during the process, hoping the culprits would return.
“But of course they didn’t,” Gwen wrote. “And I was glad. I didn’t want a confrontation.” The family finally moved in a year later, in March of, you guessed it: 1968. Gwen said it took a long, long time before they could relax in the house. “It seemed that every time we started feeling comfortable there, the weather would turn humid and the smoke smell would seep down from The attic.” They lived there for 20 years, and after the kids were grown they moved to the south suburbs. Gwen told me she’d buried this whole ordeal deep inside until I gave the assignment to write about 1968. “It all came back to me then,” she said, still refusing to allow the incident too make her bitter.
Her essay concluded with these words: “We cannot allow the actions of a few to poison our minds and cause us to react in a manner that would be completely contradictory to what Martin Luther King and other Black leaders have preached and marched against.”