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. (more…)