People Wasn’t Made to Burn
Joe Allen discusses the Hickman case.
Joe Allen got the idea for his new book—about the appalling living conditions for African-Americans following the Great Migration, and the death of four children in a horrific fire—from the man who brought the Beatles to Chicago. At a 2008 party Allen met Frank Fried, a former activist and concert producer who had staged the 1965 concert at Sox Park. Fried was facing open-heart surgery, and feared the cases he worked on as an activist would be forgotten. He was most concerned with James Hickman.
Hickman, an African-American father of six from Mississippi, had brought his family to Chicago in 1946. At the time—thanks to the unwritten rules of Chicago’s housing segregation—African-Americans lived in small swatches of the South and West Sides (Allen notes that the population density in some wards was almost 80,000 per square mile). Families lived in “kitchenettes”—carved-up apartments of inhumanely small dimensions, made infamous by Richard Wright in Native Son. Hickman’s family of eight lived at 1733 West Washburne Avenue in an attic with no utilities. On January 16, 1947, while James worked the night shift at a steel mill, the attic caught fire, and his four youngest children died huddled beneath the room’s only bed.
“When you think of the neighborhoods where black Chicagoans live, you think of large areas of the city,” says Allen, author of the new People Wasn’t Made to Burn (Haymarket Books, $22.95). “But at that time, the housing stock was the black ghetto, in the proper sense of the word ghetto, meaning a narrow strip of land where people were forced to live.”
Shortly before the fire, Hickman and other tenants had confronted his landlord, David Coleman, about the conditions in the building, and Hickman had demanded his deposit back when Coleman refused to move him to the larger apartment he’d promised. Coleman told him he wouldn’t give Hickman his money back, and threatened to set the place on fire. Six months after Hickman’s children died, he walked up to Coleman, seated in a car, and shot him three times, killing him. Hickman claimed that just before he was shot, Coleman confessed to setting the fire.
The case—both the fire and the subsequent killing—drew attention from all over the city. The Chicago Defender reported on an epidemic of fires in kitchenettes. According to Allen, in the 1946–47 winter, there were 751 fires between 26th and 59th streets, Halsted Street to Lake Michigan . But it was the work of leftist radicals—mostly members of the Socialist Workers Party—who fought for and eventually won Hickman’s freedom. The book makes the case that socialist activism brought justice more swiftly and convincingly than the Chicago police.
“It tells you something about the influence of radical ideas, and how that impacted the civil-rights movement,” says Pilsen resident Allen, 51, a contributor to the International Socialist Review. “The Hickman case represents the period of militancy and radicalism of the ’30s and ’40s, but really it’s the last ripple of that radicalism.”
People Wasn’t Made to Burn examines not just the acts of two men, but the systemic crimes that created perilous and volatile living situations for thousands. It’s a well-executed telling of both the macro- and micro-story, made all the more impressive by the fact that most of the principals have died, and trial transcripts long ago disappeared. But transcripts from an unusually in-depth Cook County coroner hearing provided Allen with a wealth of primary materials.
“I had submitted a request for the autopsy report, and a woman called me from the coroner’s office, asking if I wanted the hearing transcripts,” Allen says. “I said yes, but what hearings? I had no idea. I was so grateful, and it goes to show that if you don’t preserve your history, you’re bound to lose it.”
People Wasn’t Made to Burn is out now.