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People Wasn't Made to Burn: A True Story of Housing, Race, and Murder in Chicago
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Joe Allen has written a masterpiece of historical narrative. The story of James Hickman and his family is an emotionally wrought story on its own. Allen's retelling leaves none of that emotion out. Although it is history he is writing down, the manner of the telling makes that history as current as the latest breaking news. The book is further enhanced by the inclusion of artist Ben Shahn's illustrations reprinted from a 1947 Harper's magazine feature about the Hickman case. Allen ends his story with a description of a 2010 fire in Cicero, Illinois, which is right outside of Chicago. There were no fire escapes in the building and it was overcrowded. The people who lived there were violating occupancy laws because they could not afford separate apartments. That fire killed seven people and was found to be deliberately set by the landlord and his maintenance man. This time around the authorities were able to get an indictment of the men responsible for the deaths. In fact, the prosecution intends to seek the death penalty. However, the system that Willoughby Abner said "failed to heed the need of Hickman and millions of other Hickmans" continues to force people to live in unsafe living conditions while making it likely that unscrupulous landlords will continue to choose profits over the safety of those who rent from them. Indeed, it will continue to make it likely that certain landlords would rather burn their properties than take care of them.
-excerpt from Counterpunch
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 11, 2011
Format: Hardcover
PAPER WAS made to burn, coal and rags, not people...People wasn't made to burn," a despondent James Hickman whispered to his son Willis a few weeks after four of the youngest of James' children were burned alive by a Chicago slumlord in 1947.

It is from James Hickman's solemn declaration that Joe Allen draws the title for his new book People Wasn't Made to Burn.

People not being meant to burn mightseem irrefutable--but for many, including high-ranking political officials, police captains, newspaper publishers and landlords living in Chicago in 1947, the question was an ambiguous one as it pertained to African Americans.

Allen's historical narrative deconstructs the myth that the North was a refuge for Blacks fleeing the oppression of the South. He explains that "485 racial housing-related incidents were reported to the Chicago Commission on Human Relations between 1945 and 1950," and 100 people died in fires in 1946 alone.

Landlords who owned buildings that burned to the ground were rarely held accountable when their tenants were African American.

REVIEW: BOOKS
Joe Allen, People Wasn't Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder and Justice in Chicago. Haymarket Books, 2011, 328 pages, $22.95.
James Hickman had spent months searching for a place for his family to call home during the hot summer months of 1946. As Hickman said:

Sometimes I'd get where they wasn't nothin' but white folks, I'd be the only colored man walkin' down the street. I'd see houses and I didn't know who was living there till I'd knock on the door and they'd say white folks only. They'd tell me which hundred block was for colored. I'd catch the [street]car and go back an' get off there.

All this was in part the result of racial covenants and the practice known as red-lining, the Federal Housing Administrations color-coded property appraisal system, under which predominantly African American neighborhoods were categorized as "declining in value." The federal institutionalization of segregation denied mortgages and housing to families like the Hickmans and encouraged violent attacks on Blacks who stood up against it.

According to Allen, "The housing crunch for Blacks was made worse by the arrival of returning veterans after the war ended. When Blacks tried to move out of the ghetto into predominantly white communities, they faced mob violence."

For instance, "In 1946, a mob of up to 3,000 whites rioted to prevent Blacks from moving into temporary housing for veterans on the Southwest Side." The Chicago Defender newspaper, one of the few voices speaking on behalf of African Americans in Chicago, called it "a scathing criticism of police failure to apprehend vandals guilty of 27 bombings of Negro homes in restrictive covenant areas."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

IT WAS this backdrop that pushed the Hickmans into a stifling one-window, one-room attic at 1733 W. Washburn on Chicago's Near South Side. James, his wife Annie and their six children squeezed two mattresses and a small stove into their new home.

Slumlords fed off discriminatory housing legislations, which forced many African Americans into cramped, unsanitary and dangerous housing in geographically condensed areas, by charging a rent four to five times that of the city average. To make matters worse, these ghettoized units were often divided up into a fraction of the size of the less expensive units working-class whites occupied.

Allen dedicates an entire chapter to the Ohio Street fire of 1947, which would play a critical role in the fate of James Hickman. Sam Homan was a slumlord who divided a 20-unit housing complex on 940 West Ohio Street into 100 units, quadrupled the rent and burned the building down. He killed 10 African Americans, and displaced hundreds more.

The jury foreman in Homan's case later recalled, "Ten Negroes had escaped the South only to be burned on an altar of neglect, indifference, greed and racial bias." No one was ever charged for the arson, despite strong evidence and two eyewitnesses who saw two white men fleeing the scene.

1733 Washburn housed three other families and was in desperate need of repair. The Hickmans and their fellow tenants spoke up about the poor conditions. In response, the building's slumlord, Mary Adams, through her building manager, David Coleman, set a match to the house on a cold February night.

Allen writes that the coroner's report described the grisly outcome:

Each of the bodies had burns and smoke damage from the inferno that had engulfed the tiny attic room. "The skin of the head, neck, trunk and extremities is superficially absent, exposing a pinkish red surface, or, vesiculated," wrote Kearns. "The mucosa of the lips, tongue and buccal cavity is swollen and discolored dark gray to grayish black." He concluded that the cause of death of all the Hickman children "was extensive second degree burns." James Hickman signed the official forms identifying his youngest children and those necessary to release their bodies to a funeral home.

Allen's meticulously researched book reminds us that the Hickman children weren't abstract specters of history, but rather flesh-and-blood human beings who became victims of monstrous acts of hate.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

HICKMAN RESPONDED to the dismissal of his family's murder case--the slumlords were fined a few hundred dollars--by killing the building manager, David Coleman.

Before the fire, Coleman said, "Well, I will get you out if it takes fire." And, he said, "I have a man on the East Side ready to burn the place up," if Hickman complained to the authorities about the conditions. These comments--as well as those made by Adams, who said, "Well, you all not paying enough rent here...I can rent this place for $50 a month if I got you people out of there"--was proof for Hickman that his children had been murdered.

If the courts wouldn't carry out justice, James said, he owed it to the children he vowed to protect to do so.

Hickman was arrested for Coleman's murder. But socialist activists, outraged by Chicago city officials' calculated attempts to sweep the Hickman case under the rug and deny James justice, rallied to his defense.

Another one of the driving elements in Allen's book is the inspiring story of socialist activists like Mike Bartell and Willoughby Abner, who rallied attorneys, actors, churches and sports personalities to Hickman's aid.

On the first day of Hickman's trial, Abner stood on the front steps of the court house and said to a swarm of reporters:

Although James Hickman stands in the defendant's dock today, it is society that is really on trial. Society has created the conditions making Hickman cases and Hickman tragedies inevitable. Society is unconcerned about the loss of Hickman's children; unconcerned about the miserable housing conditions that Hickman and his family of nine had to live under. The same government which failed to heed the need of Hickman and millions of other Hickmans is now trying to convict Hickman for its own crimes, its own failures.

Then Abner, writes Allen, led the assembled crowd into the building.

Allen's ability to connect his readers with his subject is why this book is so important. Not only does it address the rarely documented topic of Northern racism, but it also relates the horrors of such racism in a way that is impossible to shake off after the book is finished. Readers are invited to confront racism with the same determined action as Bartell and Abner.

Allen shows, as Malcolm X said, "the South is any place below the Canadian border." Thus, People Wasn't Made to Burn is a vital read for all activists who seek to understand and wipe out the racist and predatory living conditions that exist to this day in cities like Chicago.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 2011
Format: Hardcover
True Crime for Our Times: 'People Wasn't Made to Burn'

Dave Zirin | The Nation, July 11, 2011
In Ernest Mandel's Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story [1], the esteemed Belgian Marxist argues that the police procedural is, by its very nature, inherently right-wing. The genre, argues Mandel, is an exercise where, "Revolt against private property becomes individualized. With motivation no longer social, the rebel becomes a thief and murderer." Modern culture has taken the "social bandit", best exemplified by Robin Hood, and turned them into paragons of evil whose destruction is a precondition to civilization. It's worth noting that the immensely lucrative "true crime canon" follows these same rules. Best selling books about "true crime" are tributes to single-minded police agents who take down sociopathic villains. Monsters in the countryside are slain and calm is restored.

I wish Mandel were alive so he could read Joe Allen's astonishing "true crime" book People Wasn't Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago [2] (Haymarket Books). I hope it would have compelled Mandel to reconsider what the political trajectory and potential of the true crime story can be. I know, as someone who consumes these books like salted cashews, it has for me.

A former Teamster shop steward and Chicago socialist, Allen is no typical true-crime writer. He's an activist, an advocate and a sort of "people's detective." In these unconventional hands, People Wasn't Made to Burn [2] does nothing less than reinvent the true-crime genre. Instead of being a morality play of good individual vs. evil, Allen, using a raft of primary research, explores a much broader set of crimes. Allen doesn't indict an individual, inasmuch as he indicts the more shadowed Jim Crow laws that ruled the North. He indicts the horrific housing conditions in post-war Chicago and, finally, a criminal justice system that focuses on individual crimes while systemic ones go unpunished.

The true-crime under exploration is the case of James Hickman. Hickman, a father and laborer, murdered his unarmed landlord, David Coleman, in full view on a Chicago street. On trial and facing the gallows, the reasons for Hickman's crime spread quickly across the Windy City. Four of Hickman's children had just burned to death in a fire at Hickman's building while he was working the night shift. Before this unspeakable tragedy, Coleman had threatened, as was common practice, to force every resident out of the building, even "if it takes fire." James and his wife Annie Hickman had been complaining about the terrible conditions and Coleman, who was also African-American, said that if they took their grievances to the authorities, "I have a man on the East Side ready to burn the place up." Allen recounts in painstaking detail, the night of the fire. He takes you inside the subhuman conditions of a rat-infested Chicago "kitchenette apartment." As the great author of Native Son, Richard Wright, once wrote, "The kitchenette is our prison, our death sentence without a trial." For the Hickman family, it really was a death sentence, impossible to escape once Coleman decided to smoke them out.

Allen makes you see the fire through the eyes of James Hickman, returning home on a darkened Chicago street amidst the crowds of onlookers, trying to figure out which of his children had escaped and which had died.

As he said to his son a few weeks later, "Paper was made to burn, coal and rags, not people.... People wasn't made to burn."

After receiving no justice for the murder of his children, Hickman took matters into his own hands, and jolted an entire city. Prosecutors wanted the high-profile defendant to suffer. Hickman faced a decade behind bars or execution in the electric chair. Black men shooting landlords was not to define post-war America. It looked like James Hickman was on an express train to the gallows. But here is where the second part of Allen's story kicks into gear. Hickman became a city-wide cause for an angered populace. Their ranks included pastors, trade unionists. socialists, musicians and even movie stars like Tallulah Bankhead. The great artist Ben Shahn did a series of drawings about the case, which appear throughout the book.

On the trial's first day, local United Auto Workers leader Willoughby Abner told a throng of reporters:

"Although James Hickman stands in the defendant's dock today, it is society that is really on trial. Society has created the conditions making Hickman cases and Hickman tragedies inevitable. Society is unconcerned about the loss of Hickman's children; unconcerned about the miserable housing conditions that Hickman and his family of nine had to live under. The same government which failed to heed the need of Hickman and millions of other Hickmans is now trying to convict Hickman for its own crimes, its own failures."

This was a civil rights movement before civil rights. It's also a story that upturns the common American narrative that these battles took place first south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It's a hidden history that makes the story feel both revelatory and dangerous. This is a "true crime" book where readers are forced to confront the nature of crime. It's a history that could have been forgotten. Allen has rescued a part of our social history, which on its own is an impressive accomplishment. He has turned the true-crime genre upside down, which also is a fantastic feat. But by the book's end, Allen relates the Hickman case to our own troubled times. "The new normal" that comprises our own twenty-first-century housing crisis means that our world is producing more David Colemans and, potentially, more James Hickmans. Like all true-crime books, the story serves as a warning; except this time, the warning isn't directed at the reader.
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on November 13, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Great book! I knew the gist of the hickman story for awhile but was very pleased with the depth and vividness of the characters and the situations that joe allen brings to the story. additionally he draws out the tragic intersection between racism and extreme exploitation which lead not only to the death of the hickman children but, as he points out, countless other men, women and children living in substandard housing throughout chicago. well worth reading even if you know the hickman story already.
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on April 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This book combines both a compelling story and a lesson in how to fight injustice. The two aspects are woven together deftly. Many more people should read this book.It's an almost-lost story brought to life, and the timing of its appearance--the great recession and its aftermath, with its terrible toll especially on Black people in the US--couldn't have been better.
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VINE VOICEon May 28, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
In 1947, Black migration to Chicago was inflated by the desperate need for labor in the industries manufacturing equipment for World War Two. When Blacks arrived inChicago, they were pleased to see that there were no overt signs of Jim Crow. however, strict housing segregation meant that newly arriving Blacks were stuffed into tiny, converted spaces, often without running water, at grossly inflated prices.

Mr. Hickman--who worked at US Steel--moved his family into the attic of one such building. However, a tenant activist began demanding repairs, so the landlord burned down the building, killing four of the Hickman children. A year later, Hickman finds himself on trial for the murder of his landlord, represented by Leon Despres, later an icon of Chicago's civil rights and progressive politics--but then a young labor lawyer. Hickman's case also became the focus of a national defense and support committee, organized by the Trotskyite wing of the US Socialist movement.

The author does a great job weaving together the various elements of this story: Black migration, racial discrimination in housing, the criminal investigation of the landlord, the prosecution of Hickman, and how the technical legal defense work was intimately tied to the political organizing.

Unfortunately, this story still resonates today. As the author notes in an epilogue, children continue to die in fires burning overcrowded, dilapidated buildings; and some people are still organizing in support of the victims of unjust prosecutions. In Uptown, one of the first cases I worked on in the early 80's involved a series of fires, several of which resulted in the deaths of tenants, where the owner of deteriorated buildings, packed full of poor people, escaped all criminal liability.

The author has done a great job digging this story out of the dustbin of history, and setting it out here for everyone to read. Take advantage!
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on September 1, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
While in college almost 40 years ago, I took a class from Professor
Tom Kelly. Then he was teaching at Governors State University. Prior to this, he tad taught at the University of Chicago. We had no textbook. Instead, we read several books associated with the history f
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on April 18, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
What an Intresting story about my family history and how just was served... I hope this becomes useful to everyone
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on June 14, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I highly recommend this book. You get a great sense of a time in history and of the city of Chicago.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This book is surprisingly inspiring and uplifting for telling the story of such tragedies. Most true crime/detective novels cast the police as heroes. The heroes of this true story are civil rights activists.
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