In 1917, Fanny Butcher, the Chicago Tribune’s longtime literary critic, wrote of the famous poet Carl Sandburg that he considered Chicago “an incomparable town with a soul unlike the souls of any other towns in the world, a being that he loathes and adores and fears and trusts …”
Ironically, by the time of Butcher’s writing, Sandburg had moved from Chicago into a small frame house on the 600 block of South 8th Avenue in Maywood, a suburb, my hometown, that like Sandburg’s Chicago, I at once loathe, adore, fear and trust.
That ambivalence was heavy last week while I watched the Maywood Board of Trustees vote in favor of granting local historic landmark status to the boyhood home of slain Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton.
I know the two-story brick apartment building at 804 S. 17th Ave. rather intimately. I attended kindergarten at Irving Elementary (now Irving Middle School), located across the street from the building and where Hampton attended as a child before enrolling at Proviso East High School in Maywood.
I also visited the house numerous times as a cub reporter, when Fred’s older brother Bill was still alive. After Bill died in 2018, the historic property nearly went into foreclosure before Fred’s son and only child, Fred Hampton Jr., launched a movement to save the home.
Earlier this month, Maywood joined Visit Oak Park, the state-certified convention and visitors bureau that helps dozens of west suburbs attract their own tourists. Maywood’s current mayor and board are hoping the bureau can help enhance plans to turn Hampton’s home, and the neighborhood surrounding it, into a destination.
But the neighborhood, like the Maywood swimming pool named after Fred and the home where Carl Sandburg once lived, has seen better days. The pool has been closed for a few years as village officials mull whether to renovate the facility or tear it down in order to build a brand new pool.
That’s a proposal, like the tourist destination idea, that seems distant, considering the many challenges staring Maywood in the face right now — challenges that, over the years, have calcified into an object lesson in how not to flourish.
By the time I was a teenager, I had developed a deep embarrassment toward my hometown. The suburb was, for my peers and me, somewhere we were supposed to escape. It was then and only then, once we safely disembarked, that we could cultivate a healthy pride of place, a mossy pride grown in the shade of nostalgia.
Living here — having to deal with the high property taxes, the crime, the political dysfunction and social decay — was another thing.
My adoration for, and trust in, Maywood happened only after I started my newspaper here and began visiting the local library to read the old Maywood Herald newspaper archives, only after I started listening and sharing the stories of the many people who have, at one point or another, called Maywood home.
Percy Julian, before his family moved to Oak Park, comes to mind. Through conversations last year with his daughter, Faith, I got to know a different side of Maywood — at one point solidly middle-class and multiracial.
When the famous songwriter and musician John Prine died in 2020, I interviewed his niece, Anne Prine Sorkin, a former educator and longtime resident of River Forest. I realized after talking with her that the house in Maywood where Prine grew up is right across the street from where I live now — just a stone’s throw from Proviso East High School, where I believe John was a year or two ahead of Fred.
“They tell me you are wicked and I believe them,” a line in Sandburg’s famous poem, “Chicago,” starts.
That’s why it helps to know a place or a person firsthand. The late, great former Herald reporter Paul Sassone had heard about the radical teenager from other people and from other media outlets before meeting Fred “for the first and last time” at a gathering inside of the First Baptist Church in Melrose Park in October 1969, just over a month before the Black Panther leader was assassinated.
“Look, I’m 21,” Sassone recalled Hampton saying at the meeting, which was held to discuss racism in the suburbs. “If you think it has all happened in 21 years and that I did it, then you should take me out and shoot me. But you and I know that these situations have been around for a long time.”
Based on the meeting, Sassone concluded that the power structure “was afraid of him for the wrong reasons. Hampton was no hoodlum or gangster. He was an intelligent and highly articulate revolutionary. That is, he didn’t like the way America was being run and wanted a change, using any means necessary.”
Sassone was partly wrong. The power structure was afraid of Fred for the right reasons, which is why it took him so seriously as to assassinate him. Fred’s insistence on collective self-determination posed an existential threat to the dominant political order.
Maywood was founded by Col. William Thomas Nichols as the Maywood Company, which led to the municipality’s incorporation in the early 1880s. Nichols helped lead a regiment during the famous Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg before going on to become Vermont’s youngest state senator, a real estate investor and an inventor whose patents would help form the basis of the Chicago Scraper and Ditcher Company.
Nichols formed Maywood at a moment described by the historian Robert J. Gordon as “modern America at dawn,” because it was the culmination of some six decades of technological and social revolution that would form the basis of western modernity.
Before 1870, there was no “universal indoor plumbing, running water, waste disposal, electricity, telephone, and central heating,” Gordon notes. “In addition, every family in the country was more or less dependent on the horse.”
Nichols, a white Civil War hero for the Union Army, leveraged this great wave of innovation to start a town built on this world-historical progress, a town that, despite segregating itself by race in the decades since its founding, would nonetheless find its moral fiber by the time Fred was killed a century later during a historical moment we might call “modern American at dusk.”
After the police raid of Fred’s West Side apartment on Dec. 4, 1969, which resulted in a 14-man unit pumping nearly 100 shots into the apartment, with barely a bullet coming from Fred and his fellow Panthers, the white Maywood officials visited the crime scene themselves.
They heard the media’s account of a “gun fight between police” and the Panthers, according to an Associated Press article at the time. But they also saw the rather obvious physical evidence, which led then-Maywood Mayor Leonard Chabala, three trustees and members of the Maywood Commission on Human Relations to issue “a statement for murder charges to be filed against the 14 State’s Attorney’s police involved in the fatal ‘shootout’ at 2337 W. Monroe, Chicago,” according to a Dec. 11, 1969 article that Sassone wrote.
“They tell me you are wicked” …
Last year, I met Larry Hays, a white classmate of Fred’s and a retired teacher, who wanted me to pass along a poem he’d written about Fred to Fred Jr. I plan to do so. Here’s part of it:
“He had seen the world / Where I was blind / And tried to see / But could not comprehend / Just what we feared of young black men / In our dark night.”