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A still shot from the docuseries “Shame of Chicago, Shame of the Nation.” In the 1950s, Black homeowners were often confronted by racism and violent resistance from white neighbors in Chicago.

A still shot from the docuseries “Shame of Chicago, Shame of the Nation.” In the 1950s, Black homeowners were often confronted by racism and violent resistance from white neighbors in Chicago.

Column: 'Shame of Chicago, Shame of the Nation' looks back at the city's racist housing history

In 1987, WTTW aired the spectacular documentary “Eyes on the Prize” about the Civil Rights Movement. I got to stay up past my bedtime, which was the highlight at first, but quickly the national series enthralled me. Black-and-white footage of dogs attacking Black people, massive marches and impassioned speeches left an impression on me as I watched with my father. I didn’t learn these lessons in elementary school.

On Thursday, WTTW began airing another series that’s smaller in scope but just as impactful. “Shame of Chicago, Shame of the Nation” documents the racist legacy of housing policies in Chicago. Viewing is essential for all Chicago-area residents.

Too often we think segregation is self-selection. It’s not. A host of 20th century laws, policies, ideas and practices deliberately shaped our region. The remnants are not relics. Chicago’s segregation is as entrenched as lake-effect wind. Today’s racial wealth gap, South and West Side disinvestment, shoddy appraisals and the devaluing of Black neighborhoods all have roots in the past. And understanding the past is the only way to move forward.

Over four episodes, “Shame of Chicago” tells the stories of racially segregated housing through the lens of impacted families, historians and journalists. The late Clyde Ross is featured in Episode 1. He left Mississippi, where his family toiled as sharecroppers, never owning the land. Ross built a life in Chicago only to find the ghosts of Southern horrors haunting him in the Jim Crow North.

In 1958, Ross made a $2,500 down payment on a $27,000 property. It wasn’t a mortgage, though, but a ruthless practice known as contract buying in which buyers made monthly installments without gaining ownership. Ross later learned the speculator who sold him the house bought it weeks earlier from the previous owner for $12,000.

Black families lost billions to predatory contracts

Those predatory housing contracts during the 1950s and 1960s resulted in Chicago’s Black families losing $3 billion to $4 billion in wealth. The experience led Ross and others to form the grassroots Contract Buyers League to fight for their housing rights.

“Shame of Chicago” director Bruce Orenstein has worked on the series for years, and I’ve been lucky enough to sign on as an adviser. When the contract-buying numbers came out in 2019 in conjunction with his work, he told me if these stories don’t make it into classrooms, we haven’t done enough. Broadcasting on WTTW is crucial in educating the public.

Chicago also played a role nationally by workshopping racist housing ideas, such as creating the restrictive covenant template, for the rest of the country to use.

Chronicling housing segregation has been a theme in my journalistic work and rears itself in my personal life as a native South Sider. Another “Shame of Chicago” episode tells the story of the Hyde Park neighborhood keeping Black folk out. Racially restrictive covenants forbade the leasing and selling of property to Black residents. At one point, Hyde Park launched a campaign in 1909 to purge even the Black help. At one point, my former apartment building in Hyde Park was covered under a covenant.

Shame is a painful feeling of humiliation. In personal relationships, shame can be seen as a toxic emotion. As the documentary’s title, shame is precise and appropriate. The former head of the Chicago Housing Authority, Elizabeth Wood, used the term to describe the 1953 racial violence at Trumbull Park Homes inflicted on a Black family who deigned to move there.

Thursday was my daughter Skye’s birthday. She’s 8 years old. We still live on the South Side. I wanted her to stay up past her bedtime too.

Natalie Y. Moore is editor of the Race, Class & Communities desk at WBEZ.

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