“People wasn’t made to burn”: Joe Allen resurrects a lost story

By Alan Bean

In a three-month period shortly after World War II, 751 home fires killed fo urteen people in the city of Chicago.  The deadliest of these fires broke out in filthy, overcrowded tenement buildings in the city’s black district.  Joe Allen’s People Wasn’t Made to Burn tells the story of a fire on 1733 West Washburne Street that claimed the lives of four children and eventually placed the victim’s father on trial for murder.

Like scores of other Mississippi sharecroppers, James and Annie Hickman had migrated north in search of a better life.  In segregated Chicago, housing options were strictly limited for Black families like the Hickmans.  They were “forced to live in ‘kitchenettes’: dilapidated one-room apartments that in many cases had no heat, electricity, or running water.”  The kitchenette the Hickman family moved into was owned by Mary Porter Adams, a Black woman desperate to maximize her monthly profit, and managed by David Coleman, a white man determined to spend as little as possible on maintenance and repair work.

James Hickman paid Coleman a $100 deposit and moved into a 25 by 15 foot attic apartment on the understanding that more suitable accommodations on the second floor would soon be available.  “The Hickmans had to go down to the floor below them to get water from a neighbor to cook and clean with” Joe Allen tells us.  “They cooked on a Kenmore two-burner stove a few footsteps from their beds.  At a local store James bought two lamps to light the room, both fueled by kerosene.”

When James Hickman asked Coleman when the second-floor apartment would be ready, the manager initially put him off.  Hickman kept pressing the issue.  Finally, Coleman told Hickman he wasn’t going to rent him the better apartment and wouldn’t return the deposit money.  Moreover, Coleman said “he had a man on the East Side ready to burn the place up” if Hickman took him to court.   

James Hickman was on his way home from work when he learned that fire had destroyed his attic apartment and that four of his children had been found dead under their bed.  His wife, Annie, and a male child had narrowly escaped with their lives.  When a series of inquests produced plenty of damning facts but little concrete justice, Hickman bought a gun, tracked Coleman down, and killed him.

On the surface, People Wasn’t Made to Burn is a compelling true-crime story about an intrepid group of activists, attorneys and writers who launched a successful campaign for James Hickman’s acquittal.  Joe Allen makes the Chicago of the late 1940s live and breathe for us.  But Allen didn’t set out to tell a good story (although he has certainly done that), his book is an act of reclamation.

Although the Hickman story briefly attracted national attention and was featured in a 1948 article in Harper’s, the episode quickly faded from public attention and was all but forgotten until Joe Allen stumbled upon it.  Allen couldn’t understand how a narrative this poignant could disappear so completely.  He leans heavily on a John Bartlow Martin story in Harper’s  that was based on extended interviews with James and Annie Hickman and makes effective use of a series of Ben Shahn’s “social realist” illustrations that originally accompanied Martin’s story.  The background details were fleshed out using transcripts from inquest hearings (a trial transcript was never produced).  The author also uses a wealth of biographical material to reconstruct the social world that shaped the intrepid group of activists that worked on Hickman’s behalf. People Wasn’t Made to Burn brings the dead back to life.

Why did it take an astounding labor of love to resuscitate the Hickman story?  Joe Allen offers a few suggestions.  As a writer pointed out at the time of the Hickman trial, this was a story about how Jim Crow was practiced north of the Mason Dixon line.  Because racism is often regarded as a southern problem, stories that deviate from the standard narrative are commonly ignored.

But it goes deeper than that.  The men and women who sought justice for James Hickman were all products of Chicago’s radical left, socialists with Trotskyist leanings, and that doomed them to obscurity for two equal and opposite reasons.

The Cold War and the red-baiting of Joe McCarthy quickly transformed “socialist” into a pejorative, the rough equivalent of “Satanist” or “Nazi”.  If you want a rival politician to look bad, smear him with the s-word.  (If Barack Obama qualifies as a socialist, the word has lost all meaning.)

Socialism is out of vogue throughout the western world, but only in America have the contributions of the radical Left been so thoroughly obliterated.  When I attended the University of Alberta in the early 1970s, most of my professors were products of Oxford University and wore their socialism as a badge of honor.  In 1982, the University of Alberta Press published The Making of a Socialist: The Recollections of T. C. Douglas. I inherited the book when my father died.  Tommy Douglas, an unapologetic socialist, was my father’s Baptist minister during the depression years before becoming the Premier of Saskatchewan, the “Father of Canadian Medicare,” and the founder of  Canada’s New Democratic Party.  Douglas was voted “the Greatest Canadian” eighteen years after his death in 1986.

T.C. Douglas was drawn to socialism by his distressing encounters with big city poverty while a graduate student at the University of Chicago.  Had the greatest Canadian remained in the United States he would have changed his politics or lapsed into obscurity.  The eclipse of the James Hickman story is closely tied to the brutal political currents of Cold War America.

But Joe Allen’s analysis goes still deeper.  The contributions of the Trotskyist wing of American socialism have been obscured, he says, even by the socialist and the authors who have been entrusted with the story of radical American politics.

By and large, these historians were members of the Communist Party or the New Left of the 1960s, and few of them have shown any interest in or political sympathy for the revolutionary tradition of Marxism and the real history of the Russian Revolution in the current of Trotskyism in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s . . . The most popular histories of the left in the 1930s and 1940s simply dismiss, denigrate, or omit the role of Trotskyists in the radical movement.

Readers inclined to see American socialism as a united front may be surprised by the internecine war that raged within America’s radical left.  This illustrates the problem that so concerns Allen. American socialism has been reduced to a monolithic (and malignant) caricature, puppets of Stalinist Russia marching off a cliff in lock step.  Reality is far more complicated than that and, as Allen’s book illustrates, far more interesting.

Contemporary readers may be shocked to learn that a black man who freely admitted to the premeditated murder of a white man could be acquitted by a white jury.  In many respects, the post-war world was harsher, more bigoted and more corrupt than the America we experience, but in a curious way, it was also a more idealistic and less punitive society.

Still, without the self-sacrificing work of Mike Bartell, Willard Motley, Frank Fried and the other members of the Hickman Defense Committee, James Hickman would have hanged for the murder of David Coleman.  As we have seen in Tulia, Hearne, Jena and countless other communities, organized, strategic activism can transform the normal workings of the criminal justice system.

But the heroes of People Wasn’t Made to Burn weren’t just fighting for an isolated individual; they selected a single story to expose a sordid underworld of suffering affecting millions.  The civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s was a continuation of a struggle as old and diverse as America.