Twenty years ago this spring, I had a long, candid conversation with Timuel Black, one of the lions of the civil rights movement in Chicago, a man whose activist career dates all the way back to his youth in the 1940s.
We were discussing the challenges and opportunities that black people had dealt with in the years since segregation, when all of a sudden Black sighed and said something that startled me. “You know,” he said, “sometimes I think we made a mistake leaving the ghetto.”
He didn’t mean that literally. But he was lamenting the disappearance of all the black-run institutions that gave the city’s segregated black neighborhoods an atmosphere of security and autonomy in the face of widespread poverty and discrimination from the commercial and political elite that governed the city at large. He was talking about black-owned bars and cafes, close-knit community churches, social clubs, gambling joints, insurance and mortuary businesses, and a host of other entities that brought energy to neighborhood life but disappeared or declined almost overnight once the invisible walls of the ghetto came down in the 1960s.