Cussing Practice

Harvey, Illinois is a once-prosperous south suburb that has suffered from a series of economic, environmental, and political blows over the past 40 years. Eraina Dunn and Bonnie Rateree, cousins who have lived in Harvey all their lives, have for years been active in a variety of community organizations, government, and schools there. Dunn is now Executive Director of HACO (Human Action Community Organization), while Rateree is the Director of the Cultural Center at the Harvey Community Center. In this conversation they speak about growing up in Harvey during the period of white flight, the changes they have witnessed since that time, and the current challenges Harvey faces—as well as new opportunities they hope to find and create there.—Rebecca Zorach

Eraina

We’ve lived in Harvey all of our lives. My Dad was in the service, in World War II, so when he got out, that’s where he and my Mother moved, to Harvey from Robbins.

 

Bonnie

Dixmoor, and West Harvey, is almost like a community itself, and that’s where we grew up, on the west side of Harvey, which was then predominantly the Black community, from Robey Street east there were no Black people, very few.

 

Eraina

When I started kindergarten at Mc-Kinley School on 147th and Robie, it was predominantly white. All the teachers were white, and we were a low minority of students. I’d say by maybe fourth grade, the racial make-up of the classes started changing, so that it was almost 50-50. And then by sixth grade, it was more African-American students than white. So you can see it constantly changing, all the way up till I guess when I graduated from eighth grade, I only had maybe five white students in my class.

Bonnie

That’s exactly how I remember, looking at my kindergarten graduating class and there was this little handful of Black kids. I knew everyone, and then my eighth grade graduating class was just the opposite: there was a little handful of White kids.

Realtors were coming and scaring white families away. Whites would sell the houses cheap, and they would be in bad condition, and the realtors would jack up the price, and Black families would be so glad to be buying a house they’d end up paying more than they should have for a house that was in bad repair. And then those same officials would come right back and then start zeroing in on the code violations, and then they would charge. So you get the discrimination that comes with it.

Eraina

When the white people had the houses—

Bonnie

Everything was fine. They could have chicken coops in the yards, the backyards. But then we moved in, and tried to raise chickens, well, that was a violation.

Eraina

They did a lot of panic selling, you know, you’d look up and maybe you’d have one or two houses on the block for sale. Within three months, all of the houses were gone, were sold.

Bonnie

I remember one woman, and to me she epitomized the sadness of integration. This woman was so proud that she had moved on the east side of Harvey, and she said?: “All my neighbors are white. And they’re so nice, and oh, this is such a nice neighborhood, and we love each other.” And within a year she did not have one white neighbor. They were smiling and putting up signs and moving the heck out!

It’s real clear, looking back. But as we were growing up, on the west side of Harvey, it’s an old community that was self-sustained by the churches and the neighbors. I remember when the food pantry was Grandma’s kitchen. And that grandmothers canned the vegetables from the gardens and you never went hungry, I mean, church people and neighbors and friends just shared, and really, it did take a village to raise a child, because it wasn’t easy for us to sneak to the woods to ride our bikes.

Eraina

Everybody knew who our grandparents were.

Bonnie

And one thing I remember most, and when I hear these kids cussing, oh! Because we had one person that we played with every day who was an excellent cusser—to this day—and I used to practice with her. The problem was, we used to practice on a little log between our Grandma’s house and our Aunt Evelyn’s house. There was a little field, and we would sit on that log and we would practice cuss words until we got it right! But there was nowhere to use them, because every block somebody knew you, knew your Grandma, knew your Ma, and if you cussed, somehow without telephones, they knew.

Eraina

And we didn’t have phones! We didn’t have telephones.

Bonnie

That’s right! But they knew before you got home. And in those days Harvey’s downtown was the most viable area in the south suburbs. We’ve got the Illinois Central train, and we’ve got all of these communities that fed into Harvey. We’re sitting in a building that was the Morrison Ford store, beautiful furniture. There’s not an old family in Harvey that doesn’t still have a piece of furniture left from that company. There was a Penney’s store.

Eraina

And dress shops, Mark’s Toggery—

Bonnie

And Lily-Ann’s—

Eraina

Dime stores—

Bonnie

Roger’s Jewelry, grocery stores—

Eraina

I mean, you could walk down the street and there was a little shop everywhere. I think what started the decline was actually the shopping center. And at first, it just seemed like such a great idea, to build a shopping center, Dixie Square Mall. We had the first. We didn’t have the forethought that the bigger the shopping center became, it would suck out the revenue from these little shops. But slowly and surely, that’s what started happening?: we lost our dime store, we lost this, this closed down. A few of them stayed, for a long time, like Jane’s Bakery, but a lot of them are gone. And then, what happened at Dixie Square, I guess the crime element started happening, and you know, what we anticipated as being booming ended up being a problem.

Bonnie

A political issue that I recall around Dixie Square Mall?: I was sitting on the school board then, and the last white mayor, Jim Haynes, before we elected our first Black mayor, was so down on his own town. But of course his town had changed. His commitment was not to this community as long as this community was no longer white. And I remember being in a meeting at Dixie Square, with all the executives and community leaders, and him saying?: “You’d be a fool to invest in Harvey.” And that was the mayor. And I remember committing, and going and talking to the guy who ran for mayor, and saying?: “You gotta run. And I’ll help you.” I ran his campaign.

What I want to say about the blight of the downtown and all of that—when we had white flight, they moved out, but they kept all the jobs. They would come back to be the firemen or the policemen, or the teacher, or whatever, but their commitment was not there. And there was a spirit of that. And so you’d have a disproportionate amount of arrests, you’d have police brutality, you’d have old houses burning down and nobody cared. And you’ll see that it’s the same vendors, the same lawyers, the same contractors still getting rich, they don’t even live in this community, and economic development is like, whoosh, your money’s gone. So if we rebuilt the downtown, and helped some of these local people to invest and open up businesses—goods and services, things we really need—and then you know, really shop locally.

There’s a natural opportunity for us here, to have people who were raised here, people who have a commitment in their heart to Harvey, those of us who just won’t leave. We can work together. We can fight this obesity thing. We can really change what kids are eating in the schools and what they’re having at home. Our movie night that we want to start having is really geared around getting families together, using movies and opportunities to pull them together, and giving them some healthy snacks, and sending them home with some stuff, to learn how to eat right and cook right. The garden projects, the farmers’ market, these are things that the city and the parks and the schools are working together on. We’re beginning to collaborate. We’re a long way away from the decision makers hearing the citizens as clearly as they hear big corporations that come in and say, “I’m going to invest in your town.” If you don’t study and see, well, what are you bringing to my town? So we’re collaborating now, and, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it certainly wasn’t overnight. It’s in our hands. It’s in our hands, and we’re tired.

Eraina

I’m real tired. I’ve had the stress in keeping the doors of HACO open. The constant pressure, people coming in, seemingly many of them on death’s door. You know, their baby died, they don’t have any way to bury it, it’s terrible things, so you’re always racking your brains?: “Now, who should I call, to see who can help them? Who can I get to do this for them?” And the problems are more pronounced now because of the economy. I had a lady sleeping in her car in my parking lot, nowhere to go with three kids, and I’m scared, you know, if the police come, they’re going to take the kids! And the shelters were closed, full. You know, that kind of stress. Spending all day trying to do something.

Bonnie

Those things that we saw in the so-called ghetto, it’s moved right into our communities. And I thank God for you, there are very few people who I can call and say, “Eraina, do you have a health chair for somebody’s tub?” You know, these people need help, people need these things, but HACO was the only organization that you can really go to without, “oh, we lost our funding, and so we can’t help you.” Or, “we’re not funded for that.”

Eraina

In 1988, HACO had a board that was basically, maybe about three Whites on it and maybe about four Blacks on it, and their president was a Black woman. And there were several umbrella organizations under HACO which is what we do, we take people under our umbrella, let them use our 501(c)(3) until they get on their feet and get their own funding, and then they move on. There was a Harvey Development Corporation, which is now the Human Development Corporation, and they were training people to be certified home daycare providers. That was a part of economic development to create these jobs and business owners. And we still had the citizen patrol getting funding through our umbrella. So anyway there was some federal grants like job training money, and somehow the board was okaying money being transferred from different accounts to pay salaries and things like that. I was a volunteer and we had the South Suburban Women’s Development Council. We were planning on providing counseling and setting up job training for women in the community. We had just been through that job training and employment program for dislocated workers. A lot of our husbands had been laid off or companies had started downsizing and left dislocated workers. But then what happened, the treasurer goes to the bank and gets an unsecured loan…I can’t even remember his name, but anyway it just got into a financial mess. So they started him out “well, we ain’t going to no jail for HACO” “we ain’t gonna do that,” “I ain’t gonna lose my house,” all of that. So they voted to close HACO down, just pfft, that’s it. So three of the board members who wouldn’t vote for it, Mr. Jackson, Mr. Davis, and Ms. Kellerton or something, I can’t remember her name, but anyway they said no, HACO’s been around too long, because at that time it would have been 18 years old, I think. When they voted to shut it down, I’d just got my walking papers from school district 147, you know, budget cuts, so I said, “Well, I’ll be on unemployment, at least for 6 months,” and they said, “would you be willing to take over as executive director if we reactivate the board? But you know we can’t pay you, until we get this all straightened out.” Cause they were in trouble with the taxes. Labor department, job training, everybody. And I’m like, “I ain’t no miracle worker, I can’t straighten out all this mess!”

Bonnie

But you did!

Eraina

But I took it, as a challenge. And I went all the way to the governor, to the White House, trying to get it straightened out. They were angry with us because they wanted HACO to stay dead. It stayed dead for two days. And we had to notify all our funders and tell them we were having a re-organization. I got caught up on the reports, got everything straight. So I said well, I think I’ll just stay a volunteer, that way I can leave when I want to and I don’t have to be bothered with all this.

Bonnie

Volunteers are free.

Eraina

Free.

Bonnie

And you are still, how much are you making now?

Eraina

Zero! And I am tired. But I still want to turn the HACO building into a green building. Solar powered, energy efficient.

Bonnie

I’m committed to green industry, I’m committed to the environment, teaching people to live the old way. We were raised, with you teaching the young people the things that you knew. God, I hated gardening, I hated gardening, and my grandma made me do it, and I said “I will never do anything like that when I grow up!”—and now I’m a master gardener, and I am so excited. This year I will put 5000 seeds in 5000 kids’ hands. And they will pass that on.

I remember there was a drought and I was so worried, I was going to get the fire department to water, which I did, but when I got there, I kept finding little cups, little spots of water on the plants. This woman and her grandkids were coming over at night and watering it. It became an organizing tool. There’s never been any bad thing happening in that area. And so, there’s so much to be gained from, just the little environmental things that we learned growing up, that we took for granted, that we didn’t know were really profound.

Eraina

All of our families had gardens in the backyard. They were just growing greens or beans or tomatoes. My grandparents had their garden, my mother, stepfather had their garden, everybody had a garden.

Bonnie

And we’re going back to some of that, and when we have a rooftop garden on the top of HACO’s new building. Imagine HACO, state of the art, green industry, with these multicultural workers being trained and doing all of that, and put a garden on the roof.

Eraina

We’re going to set up a training program, to teach people how to make solar panels, mass-produce them, because they are so expensive.

Bonnie

That’s wonderful.

Eraina

And that’s how you have to look at the people in the community?: we all have gifts and talents, but to be able to find out what their passion is and help them to, you know, help it to grow, and fit it into the bigger picture.◊