“They had to sneak to the park to play with us.”
Warning: story contains racial slurs.
Hold a Conversation
Can you imagine leading a conversation about this story? Where? With whom? What kinds of questions would you pose? (See How to use the questions for reflection for one approach.) Please email your questions to us or post them in the comment box for our consideration. If you use them in an actual discussion, let us know how the conversation went.
Transcript for Trying to Find Friends in Our Neighborhood
I was seven years old when I moved to Valparaiso. Our family moved here in 1969. I was going into the third grade, and I remember we came here I think in August, maybe July, right before school had started. I remember we looked at this house and we thought, “Wow, a house, you know, opposed to the projects.”
The neighborhood in Cabrini Green I remember as a child. I only lived there the first seven years of my life. So there was three project buildings. One behind ours had nineteen floors. It was called the 19th Story Project Building. Ours had I think ten, and then the one across had ten. They were red brick buildings, and I remember the balcony was fenced in with a green fence so that people, you know, would be safe on the balcony. There was at least nine apartments on each floor. It had a green elevator which housed the whole building, so if the elevator got stuck, you had to walk up all those flights with all your groceries.
I remember you couldn’t go downstairs and play in the playground after dark. It wasn’t safe. I remember going to Jenner School, and there’s a Jenner School and a Byrd School Elementary School, and if you didn’t go to Byrd School, the kids from Byrd School would beat you up if you went to the playground downstairs if you were a Jenner School student. I remember having your swings snatched from you because there was only four working swings. So if you went to Jenner School, the kids from Byrd School would make you get off the swings so they could swing.
There was a lot of positive things growing up in Cabrini Green, and there was a lot of negative things as well. You made a lot of friends. You didn’t have to worry about color, opposed to growing up in Valparaiso. You just, you fit in, in Cabrini Green, and that was home. That was home until we came here in 1969.
I remember we walked in and the house needed a lot of work and so Project Neighbors–I think it was called VBA back then–but they constantly worked on my mom’s house. They were always at her house hammering or doing something. My mom wanted to get rid of us out of the house so she said, “Why don’t you kids go play?”
So we thought, “Okay, let’s go play.” And of course any kid is looking for a kid to go play with. And so not really knowing Valparaiso, you know, not knowing the prejudice that exists before us, um, we found some kids across the street, and we walked across the street to introduce ourselves. Before we could even get, like, three feet in front of the little girl, she runs away. And, um, so it’s kind of funny to think back… So she runs away and we run after her, and so she starts crying, you know, we didn’t do anything to her, and she just said, “Get away from me.”
So my sister and I just went to the playground by ourselves to play, and then later she comes to the playground with her older sister, and we just kind of looked at her like, okay, you didn’t want to play with us, but here you are now. And so she said, “I had to run away from you guys because my parents don’t allow us to play with jiggaboos.”
And so I said, “A jiggaboo? What’s a jiggaboo?”
And she said, “Well, my parents told me it’s you colored people.”
And being from Chicago, I never heard those terms. I never heard jiggaboo, or colored person, not even the word, n—–, okay? Just didn’t hear it.
She goes, “Um, well, my parents said a jiggaboo’s a colored person, a colored person is, is, a n—–.”
So I went home of course and asked my mom, “What’s a jiggaboo?”
And she said, “Well, that’s just a old time slavery demeaning word for black people.” You know, so I understood that concept.
Then I asked, “Well, what’s colored people mom?”
And so she said, “That’s just the term used for negroes.” You know, back then we didn’t say African Americans. We said negroes.
For this little girl to play with us, and her sisters, they had to sneak to the park and play with us. And I remember once her parents, or her mom, brought binoculars over to the front part of the park and looked through binoculars at her children. And so the minute she saw them playing with us, she would call them by name and tell them to come home.
Her kids would say, “Oh, we’re in trouble now cause we were caught…”–they kept saying we were jiggaboos–“…cause we were caught playing with you jiggaboos.”
That was trying to find friends in our neighborhood. The other families with their children were fine with their children interacting with African Americans. It was just that particular family that wanted to poison the whole neighborhood and tell the whole neighborhood you shouldn’t allow your kids to play with those jiggaboos.
I asked a question to one of her daughters. I said, “Why is your family like that? You know our family is not like that. Why’s your family like that?” Again, this is seven or eight years old.
And so she said, “Well, my mom told us that her uncle was killed by a black man, and that’s why she doesn’t like black people.”
I said, “Oh, okay, I get it. I get it.”
But I mean we tried to wave at her, the mother. We tried to speak. She would not speak; she would not wave. As the years went by, like I say, twenty five years later, I mean, that’s when we began to just say hello, not really a long conversation, but just the ability to say hello.