A Family, A Tragedy, A Movement

— Karin Baker

People Wasn’t Made to Burn:
A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago
By Joe Allen
Haymarket Books, 2011, $22.95 hardcover.

THIS BOOK IS a gripping account of a fire and a shooting. Yet it is so much more. The lives of James and Annie Hickman, the tragic death of their four children, and James’ trial after shooting their landlord, form the center of Joe Allen’s book. But Allen constructs his narrative with the vivid stories of those who came together around the Hickman tragedy as his building blocks.

The result is a people’s history with layers that include Black Chicago in the first half of the 20th century and the development of the U.S. Trotskyist movement, among others, textured by tales of Black families arriving in Chicago to escape the Jim Crow South, Jewish radicals fleeing war and persecution in eastern Europe, and a number of key labor struggles. Full of drama and relevant to the present day, this book preserves important histories that are in danger of being forgotten.

James and Annie Hickman’s story begins in Mississippi where they sharecropped, a system of farming where the farmer was usually forced to borrow up front from the landowner and then left little more than a subsistence amount after harvest. Eventually concluding, as many Blacks did, that they would be better off in the North, the Hickmans joined the Great Migration, where they immediately faced a new set of challenges in Chicago.

Foremost for the Hickmans was the challenge of housing. Constrained to live in certain areas by restrictive covenants, Blacks were at the mercy of landlords who divided buildings into ever smaller units and charged ever higher rents to the pool of tenants limited to the Black neighborhoods’ boundaries.

After months of searching, James found an apartment through a David Coleman, as long as the family was willing to stay temporarily in a tiny attic apartment. Coleman promised a more reasonably-sized apartment on the second floor in a matter of weeks, but never followed through on the promise, leaving the Hickmans in one room, accessed by a narrow staircase, with one window, and no water, toilet or electricity for month after month.

When James threatened to have Coleman arrested if he didn’t return the hundred dollar security deposit the Hickmans had given him so they could look for another place, “He said he had a man on the East Side ready to burn the place up if I had him arrested.” Hickman didn’t know it at the time, but a number of Coleman’s other tenants had received the same threat during confrontations about the building, whether around demands for repairs or resistance to efforts to further divide units.

Even without the services of an arsonist, the building was subject to regular fires. During the first five months of the Hickmans’ tenancy two small fires broke out, bringing the building to the attention of city inspectors who ordered Coleman to reduce the illegal overcrowding of many apartments, exterminate rats, and repair the plumbing (due to broken pipes no one had running water).

Fire fighters noted the Hickmans’ attic room as particularly concerning, with its single narrow staircase the only escape route aside from the fourth floor window.

In fact, all across the city and especially in Black neighborhoods fires broke out with regularity due to poorly maintained heating systems and landlords who ignored fire safety regulations. In a three month period at the end of 1946 and beginning of 1947, 751 fires occurred in Chicago.

The Tragedy

The Hickmans’ alarm increased when they repeatedly heard footsteps late at night on the attic stairs in the week before the fire, although all the attic units but theirs were now vacated. Then came the night when James was at work and Annie woke to smoke coming around the door, which revealed a wall of fire when opened.

As the room rapidly filled with intolerable heat and smoke, a dire scene unfolded. The four youngest children found their way under the bed, while Annie’s older son urged her to the window where the two eventually jumped. They survived with broken bones, and corpses of the little ones were found soon after, huddled together beneath the remains of the mattress. James Hickman came home the next morning to a burned out apartment and the worst kind of news.

As the children’s deaths hit the papers, Socialist Workers Party organizer Mike Bartell (whom I knew decades later in San Diego, when he had dropped his party name, as Milt Zaslow), decided to see how the party could help the Hickmans.

Bartell’s wife, Edith, was already involved in tenant organizing and had spearheaded the citywide Chicago Area Tenants Union, which had developed relationships with civil rights activists concerned with housing issues in the emerging Black communities.

The SWP, with Mike Bartell as organizer, had also recently supported the Congress of Racial Equality in an ultimately successful effort to integrate the appropriately named White City Roller Rink. This story Mike/Milt recounted to me some time after I’d met him, the first that I learned of his extensive experience as a highly successful organizer in Chicago and elsewhere. Reading of the Hickmans and the fire, Bartell decided to see what could be done.

Beginning that first day, Bartell met with the tenants of Coleman’s building (the fire had not gone below the level of the attic, so most remained) and an impromptu meeting soon developed into the West Side Tenants Union, whose core demands to the city were: (1) add firemen, equipment, and more fire escapes in dangerous areas; (2) construct emergency housing for tenants of unsafe buildings; and (3) abolish restrictive covenants and initiate a construction program to build low-cost housing.

Meanwhile, the county coroner held a series of hearings on the young Hickmans’ deaths. Mike Myers, an SWP lawyer who had spent the previous year working on tenant issues, was retained to represent the Hickman family.

The jury ultimately declared that there was insufficient evidence to prove the fire was intentionally started, but recommended that the building be condemned and a further investigation pursued by the state’s attorney,  “with emphasis placed on housing conditions, particularly in segregated areas, affecting human lives.” But David Coleman received nothing more than a few fines for code and permit violations, totaling $600.

The lack of serious consequences to those responsible for his children’s death proved too much for James Hickman to bear. He was a religious man who had vowed to God with the birth of his first of nine children that he would protect and support them.

James was particularly hopeful for his last four, of whom he said, ‘“These youngest children — I had told them all one night — ‘It seems like I can see a future for you.’ I see in those four children that they possibly would be great men and great women some day . . . I had a vision and the spirit said they would be great.”

One can assume that the move to Chicago came with the hope that there his children could fulfill this promise in a way that would not have been possible working someone else’s land in Mississippi.

The Shooting

James became a changed man. From being outgoing, he spent more and more time alone. He spoke often of his lost children. He bought a gun, and exactly six months after the fire, his intermittent depression and agitation about whether to use it gave way to a shaky resolve.

Finding Coleman in laughing conversation with two other men on the street, Hickman confronted him. When Coleman was dismissive of Hickman’s expressed concerns, James shot him several times. After the first shot, Coleman offered to pay James the $100 security deposit, mentioned by Hickman before he fired. Hickman responded, “It’s too late now. God is my secret judge. You started the fire.”

“Yes, I did,” was Coleman’s reply.

Upon hearing of the shooting, Bartell and Myers (who was still defending the remaining tenants from an eviction attempt) stepped up again. When the Cook County Grand Jury indicted Hickman, claiming that he with “malice aforethought by shooting did kill and murder David Coleman,” a defense committee was formed and Frank Fried of the SWP was hired to staff it.

The campaign had a national scope. Many people of influence, from local labor and civil rights leaders, to Willard Motley, a bestselling author, and the stage and screen star Tallulah Bankhead, all agreed to lend their names, resources and printed and public speech to the cause. Mass rallies were organized and Black Chicagoans, especially, were united in their support for Hickman, identifying with his story of thwarted effort to support his family.

Leon Despres and prominent Black attorney William Temple formed, with Myers, James Hickman’s legal defense team. With a psychiatrist they built a case of “temporary insanity,” brought on by the trauma of the verbal threat of fire and the subsequent death of his children, whom Hickman believed had been picked by God for great things.

Days before the trial the prosecution announced it would not be seeking the death penalty, but going for the minimum sentence of 14 years, a tacit admission that the defense campaign was working.

The first day of the trial, Willoughby Abner of the Hickman Defense Committee spoke to a rally outside the courthouse: “ Although James Hickman stands in the defendant’s dock today, it is society that is really on trial. Society has created the conditions making Hickman cases and Hickman tragedies inevitable. Society is unconcerned about the loss of Hickman’s children; unconcerned about the miserable housing conditions that Hickman and his family of nine had to live under. The same government which failed to heed the need of Hickman and millions of other Hickmans is now trying to convict Hickman for its own crimes, its own failures.”

After two and a half days of deliberation and eight votes, the jury announced that they were unable to come to agreement and a mistrial was declared. While this was good news for Hickman, Bartell soon realized that sustaining the defense campaign through a second trial would be difficult. So the Hickman Defense Committee sent out a call for letters from supporters across the country demanding that the state’s attorney drop the case.

Soon an offer was forthcoming. The lead prosecutor contacted Myers with a deal. If James would plead guilty to manslaughter, the prosecution would drop the murder charge and recommend to the judge a sentence of two years’ probation.

Standing before the judge, the prosecutor stated that a major reason for dropping the charges was the overwhelming public support for Hickman coming from all across the country. Holding up a bundle of letters, petitions, and telegrams, he stated:

“… [T]he general opinion is to the effect that mercy ought to be shown to an individual who, under the stress of the loss of four children, has been punished to such an extent that society can be magnanimous and afford him a chance to return to his remaining children and his wife, and spend the rest of his lifetime in peace. … [T]he state feels that this man has paid enough with the loss of his children.”

Those Who Fought for Justice

People Wasn’t Made to Burn is an inspiring story about how a group of revolutionary activists combined forces with broader community members and achieved a measure of justice for James Hickman and his family — people who had not experienced a high degree of justice before this moment.

But this brief retelling of the heart of the story leaves out much of what makes the book captivating, and also what gives it value. Interspersed within the Hickman chronicle, adding depth and texture to it, are stories of many others.

Mike Bartell’s background is related in some detail. Born Milton Zaslow in 1918 in New York City, Bartell was introduced to political activism at City College of New York, where he began in the Young Communist League, the youth group of the Communist Party.

When he was perceived to display Trotskyist sympathies during the ongoing discussions in the college cafeteria, Bartell was expelled from the YCL. He promptly joined with other Trotskyists, becoming a founding member of the Socialist Workers Party. Including his history in the book, along with that of numerous other key SWP figures in Chicago, adds to the record of Trotskyism in the United States, a history left out of textbooks.

A particular strength of the book is how Allen builds a larger picture from smaller stories. One example begins, of course, with the Hickmans, then shifting to another Black family who also lost four children to fire in the month before the Hickman children died. These four had been members of the Billiken Club, a children’s group started by the storied Black newspaper The Chicago Defender.

We learn that the Billiken Club was a major social institution for decades, with nearly a million members around the country. When four of them died in a fire, the group organized hundreds of local children in a campaign around fire safety and prevention. Fire safety is linked to the issue of housing, and here Allen shifts to the housing reporter for the Defender, Vernon Jarrett.

After telling of his childhood, and how he came to report for the Defender, his first reporting experience with the paper is related. Jarrett accompanied a Black veteran to a new housing complex for veterans that had been unexpectedly, and controversially, opened to Blacks.

A race riot ensued and escalated until the moment when the veteran jumped out of the car. He had seen combat in Italy and ripping open his shirt and exposing a battle scar, he said to the hostile crowd, in English and then Italian, “This  happened in Anzio!” One of the Italian American leaders of the mob was clearly taken aback by this, and at this point the white veterans seemed to be shamed and backed off.

These side stories are often as vivid and captivating as the central thread of the book, and equally worth passing on.

The book’s epilogue describes a Chicago fire on Valentine’s Day, 2010. The parallels are startling: seven died in the overcrowded building, including four children trapped where they had been sleeping in the attic, connected to the lower floors by only one staircase. On examination it was revealed that the fire had been deliberately set to collect insurance money.

As Allen states, “The underlying issues in the Hickman case clearly have not gone away.” People Wasn’t Made to Burn has relevance for this reason, but it’s also valuable for the stories it preserves that might otherwise be lost. It is a significant contribution to our understanding of our past and our present.

November/December 2011, ATC 155

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