Memories of 20th Century Chicago
by Grace Herndon
Nov 19, 2008 | 613 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print

I thought of this piece as “The Confessions of a Phone Bank Rookie.” It would be about my experience making a few calls for the Obama campaign. These were “get out the vote” phone calls to registered voters in Precinct 4 – the Norwood area. But then Democrat Barack Obama’s brilliant and historic victory on Nov. 4 overwhelmed my thoughts, taking me back to Chicago in the 1930s – the very segregated city where I grew up.

Still, the story starts here. The Norwood area fairly bristled with “McCain-Palin” campaign signs. Obama posters were few and far between. I actually didn’t get my hands on an Obama yard sign until a few days before the election. A member of my family had earlier posted an Obama-Biden sign in front of his business, but it disappeared. We never knew whether it was the wind or a vandal. But, judging by the campaigns signs everywhere, Norwood looked like McCain country.

Despite my years of experience as a reporter, talking on the phone to everyone from dope dealers to state officials – and one banker in the Bahamas – I was uneasy about making my Obama campaign calls. After all, in the U.S., we cast secret ballots. How you are going to vote is essentially a private matter. But I knew this was how elections were often won – by personal contact – so I began punching out phone numbers from my list.

Mostly, I left messages. To differentiate my pitch from the dozens of recorded state and national campaign calls, I identified myself as “Grace, in Norwood.” That still didn’t do a lot for my sense that I was, in truth, an unwelcome intruder. But some weeks ago, I’d talked to my childhood friend, Dodie, likewise retired and living near her grown children in Ohio. Dodie seemed stunned to learn that I wasn’t sure I’d be an active Democratic campaigner. Dodie and I had both grown up on the very north side of Chicago – in very Republican families. (My mother called herself a progressive Republican and Dodie’s older brother became Illinois’s distinguished U.S. Senator Charles Percy.) Thus spurred on, I kept on dialing.

I did manage to find a few people at home, though, and found the responses both interesting and highly varied. They ranged from “we’re all Republicans here” to “if this is another political call, I don’t want you,” to “we’re all Democrats and we’ve already voted.” But the best, truly inspiring response came from a wonderfully cheery woman with a slight accent. “I’m not a citizen. But I will be soon and I’ll vote in the next election.” Her tone was joyful – even triumphant. How wonderful, I thought. How American.

Then, on election night, we watched on television as Barack Obama stood before a sea of jubilant supporters in Chicago’s Grant Park – a place I knew well from my childhood – the enormity of the change overwhelmed me. I remembered riding the “L” where worn down black women sat on one side of the aisle, returning to the south side of the city from Chicago’s north side – and the suburbs – where they had spent the day cleaning and doing household chores for all-white families. We grew up knowing we simply didn’t cross into black neighborhoods. And while my family was very progressive, tolerant and broad-minded (a.k.a. “liberal”) it was understood that there were certain boundaries you simply didn’t cross.

Years later, post-civil rights movement, while visiting my family in Chicago, my mom and I were excited to learn that a huge “Black Expo” was taking place in the city’s venerable old coliseum on the city’s south side. The Expo was a celebration of Black progress and a young and dynamic Jesse Jackson would speak. My father protested, warning that this was no place for two white women. But, of course, we went anyway. It was the kind of place where you simply parked on a nearby residential street and you “tipped” the local guy, a self-appointed parking attendant, who said he’d protect your car from harm. This was an old inner city protection system, but it worked.

Inside the huge circular stadium, my mother and I were two white faces surrounded by thousands of black ones. Clearly, though, there was nothing to be afraid of. These folks were cosmopolitan types – handsome, stylishly dressed men and women who exuded confidence. “Black is beautiful” became a sort of call and response. What a show. What a night. What a turning point in my understanding and appreciation of this new Chicago.

And now there was election night in Grant Park, and Obama thrilling all of us with his eloquent words, his cool style and his message of hope. How proud and happy I was to connect with the city of my childhood and how far it had come.
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