From farmland to fairgrounds to civic protest, the Chicago neighborhood of Woodlawn has seen it all. With a lovely park on the lake and the University of Chicago’s campus to the north, Woodlawn is positioned to enjoy much of Chicago’s advantages. But, it hasn’t all been rosy.
Dutch farmers first settled Woodlawn in the 1850s. The population swelled from 1,000 inhabitants in 1890 to over 20,000 in 1893, the year of the World Columbian Exposition, which was held in Jackson Park, a lakefront location on the eastern part of this Chicago neighborhood. The World’s Fair celebrated 400 years since Columbus landed in America and it was a great boost to Woodlawn’s economy, bringing with it entrepreneurs, artists and a buzz of activity to many neighborhoods in the south side of Chicago.
In the early part of the 20th century, Woodlawn underwent a demographic shift as an influx of African American families to the neighborhood occurred. These families were part of the Great Migration; people leaving the South looking for work in Chicago’s factories and other northern industries. Absentee white landlords with strong racial prejudices didn’t make Woodlawn an easy place to live for African Americans. In fact, the difficult living conditions were dramatized in a play by Lorraine Hansberry, called A Raisin in the Sun. Drawing on her own childhood in Woodlawn, the author described the crowded tenements and her father’s legal battle against unfair standards. A little side note: Starring Sidney Poitier, this was the first play by an African American woman to reach Broadway.
In the late 1950s, Dr. Brazier (now the pastor of Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn) asked Saul Alinsky (a champion of organized protest) to help Woodlawn residents organize themselves and fight for better living conditions. Collectively they formed the Temporary Woodlawn Organization (or TWO), which protested crowded public schools, slum landlords and fought the University of Chicago’s plan to expand into Woodlawn. They helped bring together many block clubs, churches and other existing groups in hopes to build the neighborhood up as a more powerful force that could effect change in Woodlawn. TWO’s efforts forced landlords to improve and repair their buildings and gave Woodlawn residents the tools to wield more political power through organized demonstrations and civic action. To this day, TWO continues its proud presence in this Chicago neighborhood assisting with senior citizen and public housing, truancy intervention, and substance abuse.