Growing Up in Englewood

Elaine Hegwood Bowen reflects on Englewood in the fifties, sixties, and seventies in her new book

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.

6 Comments

  1. I grew up in Englewood, attended and graduted from St Raphael Catholic School,and graduated from Gage Park , also my sister and my two brothers,

    It was the best time in my life.

  2. I too grew up in Englewood and graduated from St. Raphael school in 1971. I think I lived across the street from the previous poster (59th & Justine) I went high school at Quigley South which the parish priest at St. Raphael suggested I go. The disturbances at Gage Park were mind boggling. Ashland Ave much of my life was the “borderline” between sanity and unbridled hate to the west. We were on of the first black families on the block (1959) and I was 3 years old. Indeed it was almost a “Leave it To Beaver” lifestyle in a way. just black style! We had block parties and Block
    Teas for the ladies. The local corner store (Rose & Gladys 60th Justine) There were 5 catholic parishes within a 10 block area. I remeber the “El Train stopped at Loomis, and 63rd & Halsted was the place to be. Watching first run movies at the Englewood or the Empress. Dondi’s, Sears Goldblatt’s Weibolts, Kresgee’s . Summer nights and the whole block was outside sitting on front porches. The special late evening ice cream truck runs. So much and not a care in the world! Excepts stepping in doo-doo with new shoes and dragging it into the house!!

    • Darryl this is Pam Hunter /jones. Class of 1969, We are having a Gage Park High School African American class reunion. Classes 69-72.
      It will be held on June 28,29 2019. If you are interested in attending e mail me. pamjones7316@comcast.net

      Hope things are going well.

      Pam Jones

  3. I remember those days well. We would have to fight going to school, fight coming back from school and then fight in our neighborhood. Those were some turbulent times. My mother was arrested and was on the front page of the Chicago Defender in a full color photo being loaded into a police wagon protesting the racism surrounding the integration of Gage Park High School. That was in 1971.

  4. My name is Pam Hunter/Jones. I graduated from Gage Park H.S. in 1969.
    I was a cheerleader cast. and Vice President of the senior class. And yes I am African American. Our class of 100 black students entered the hallowed halls of Gage in 1965. Only 43 of the original 100 graduated.Those 4 years were filled with fear, fights and challenges. I have never been invited to any reunions but we are planning our own 50th year reunion next year in June.
    We are looking for archive info to share at the reunion. If you have any suggestions I would greatly appreciate it.

  5. Hi everyone, my name is Tom Ames. My family moved to Englewood in 1959, and moved out of there in the summer of 1969. When we moved we were only one of two white families left on the block of 61st and Hermatige. My best friend and I ( who was black) would sit on my front porch and watch all the race riots rite across the street at Earle Park in the summer of 68 and 69. In the summer of june 69, we sat there in the porch until 3 knuckle heads had to fire 8 gun shoots through our house and it’s a miracle nobody was hit, considering we had a house full of company. Well my dad put the house for sale the next day and gave it away a couple of weeks later. Seems like even over 50 years later nothing has changed as far as race relations have got any better between whites and blacks. People still can’t understand that we all bleed red and we all live in the greatest county in the world!!!! I sure miss those Englewood days and the friends I grew up with Specially my best friend at the time Howard Johnson. I think of him often and hope he and his family is doing good! I attended Earle school until 6th grade then attended St.Theodore until we moved in the summer of 69. I actually got my 1st kiss and 1st love letter from a girl named Donna Carlson. I always wonder what my old neighbor is all about 50 years later.

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