Elaine Hegwood Bowen will never forget the race riots that she witnessed almost every day as she made her way to Gage Park High School near 59th and Maplewood. It was 1969. Bowen remembers white protestors shouting at her from their doorsteps, a friend who broke an arm after someone threw a tin trash can lid at her, and the gym teacher at Gage Park who never really cared if the black girls learned how to swim. The atmosphere was so toxic that Bowen gladly took the opportunity to transfer to Jones Commercial High School (now Jones College Prep) for her last two years of high school.
In a recent interview to promote her new book on WBEZ’s The Barber Shop Show, Bowen described the stress of attending Gage Park so vividly that a white listener named Cindy later called into the show and sounded close to tears as she apologized and apologized again for participating in the riots. When she was nine, Cindy’s family made her carry signs with messages like “No Blacks Wanted.” Bowen was so moved by this “powerful testimony against a racist environment” that it was the first thing she wanted to tell me when we sat down to talk at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore.
“A young person’s high school experience in Chicago in the late sixties, early seventies, should not be the same as down in Alabama, down in Arkansas,” Bowen said emphatically. “It just shouldn’t have been the same. And yet, quiet as it’s kept, it was the same.”
Yet, as much as Bowen, a journalist and PR professional, wants people to know what really happened in Chicago, the Gage Park race riots are far from the spotlight in Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago, the collection of essays that she self-published in August. Bowen doesn’t shy away from writing about the racism she faced growing up in Chicago, but she also doesn’t let it take over her story. She narrates important moments in the civil rights movement and calls out discrimination when she sees it, but the history lessons are sandwiched between fond personal memories. She describes quitting a job in the city when she wouldn’t get promotions because she wasn’t white, but it’s just two paragraphs in an essay about buying her own red Pontiac Firebird that impressed the “bruthas in their cars” on the North Side. In Chapter Eight, she discusses the racial bias in the media when she was growing up, but Chapter Nine is about the smell of her mother’s peach and pear preserves and the taste of her father’s homemade vanilla ice cream.
“I just wanted to account my contribution to history of Englewood, because we’re getting such a bad rap,” says Bowen, who no longer lives in the neighborhood. Today, when Englewood appears in the media, the story usually has something to do with violence, crime, gangs, or drugs. But Bowen was determined to show another side of the neighborhood: her essays vividly illustrate moments with family and friends when 63rd between Ashland and Halsted was like another Michigan Avenue.
“There was nothing that you could want and couldn’t get on 63rd Street,” she said.
Bowen wrote the essay about her father’s 1964 Red Buick, excerpted here, while getting her master’s in journalism at Roosevelt University in the 1990s. Her father died in 1986 of lung cancer, and the bill of sale for the Red Buick inspired her to write the vignette. It wasn’t until two or three years ago, however, that she got to work on the rest of the book.
“I just felt, ‘Okay, it’s time to buckle down and finish this one’ so kids could read an account of Englewood that is vastly different from what they know,” she said. Bowen believes that Englewood has lost some of the community values that it once had. Somewhere along the line, she said, one generation “dropped the ball” on the community traditions that blacks brought with them to Chicago from the south.
“If Obama opened up a youth center in every neighborhood and cloned himself, he still wouldn’t have all the kids going to it,” she said. “There’s got to be something inside of you that makes you want to change and get better for yourself.”
Bowen grew up with two working parents, and made sacrifices to be an involved parent for her daughter, rapper Psalm One. She believes her book can teach parents and kids not only about the history of Englewood, but also about the importance of community, hard work, education, and spirituality. “If a parent is on the bus reading the book and saying ‘Oh, well I’ll do that with my kid, see how that works,’ then it’s a job well done,” she said.
To this end, Bowen hands out fliers about the book on the bus on the way to work, emails school principals urging them to have students read the book, and carries copies with her wherever she goes—she once sold one on the way out of a movie theater. The book is now on the library shelves at the Latin School of Chicago and a high school in New Jersey. Bowen is hopeful that her words will provoke reflection and even change in communities like Englewood throughout the country, like it did for Cindy.
“If that lady after forty years is able to release and to even say she wanted to meet me because of what she heard on the radio,” she said, “then that’s like a little United Nations session right there.”
See an excerpt of the book here.