Part Twenty: We can’t serve you here

Most think of the 1960s as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, and few realize the role the Hyde Park community played in its development decades earlier.  I came across this image of a Kenwood coffee shop and it was the uncanny resemblance to “Nighthawks,” Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting, that first struck me. His brightly lit all-night diner, like the Kenwood version, evoked both the warmth and the loneliness of urban life. Yet the Jack Spratt Coffee House, which sat quietly on the corner of Kimbark Avenue and 47th Street, had a far deeper meaning – it was home to one of our country’s early sit-ins regarding racial equality.  Hedrich-Blessing image, March 28, 1941.

Most think of the 1960s as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, and few realize the role the Hyde Park community played in its development decades earlier. I came across this image of a Kenwood coffee shop and it was the uncanny resemblance to “Nighthawks,” Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting, that first struck me. His brightly lit all-night diner, like the Kenwood version, evoked both the warmth and the loneliness of urban life. Yet the Jack Spratt Coffee House, which sat quietly on the corner of Kimbark Avenue and 47th Street, had a far deeper meaning – it was home to one of our country’s early sit-ins regarding racial equality. Hedrich-Blessing image, March 28, 1941.

By SUSAN O’CONNOR DAVIS

The series has completed a look at the development of the major intersections along Lake Park Avenue, and turned to stories of interest within the Hyde Park and Kenwood communities. The articles are all of varying topics, but relate to the residences that currently or in the past have defined the urban fabric. Additional images for this and previous articles are available on the Hyde Park Herald website; click on the Lost Hyde Park icon.

“No Finer Place to Eat” was the Jack Spratt’s motto. But you couldn’t eat the fine fare on Tuesdays as the restaurant on the corner of 47th Street and Kimbark Avenue was closed. You would also have difficulty dining there any other day of the week for that matter, if you were black.

Although Chicago was known as a city of neighborhoods, at the time the Jack Spratt occupied this corner storefront, ours was among the most segregated cities in the nation. The half-million African Americans who came north desperate for better wages and decent housing were unwelcome in most communities. The borders of the black neighborhoods that had been sustained through racially restrictive housing covenants would over time prove fluid as the black population slid into historically white areas. However, in the early 1940s the boundary lines for the Kenwood neighborhood were unambiguous—no significant black population lived east of Cottage Grove Avenue and south of 47th Street.

hansberrycasesmallThere were attempts to break down restrictive barriers, including the well-known 1937 lawsuit regarding the subdivision directly south of Washington Park. When Carl Hansberry, a successful black businessman, attempted to purchase property in that neighborhood what followed was a legal battle that challenged the covenants that prohibited him from doing so. Hansberry’s daughter Lorraine wrote of the family’s experiences in her play, A Raisin in the Sun.

In 1940, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hansberry on a technicality related to the number of signatures on the covenant. “The iron band of restrictive covenants . . . was pierced by a decision handed down by the Supreme Court . . . ” read an article in the Chicago Defender. The decision opened nearly three hundred properties to African Americans.

However, what the Supreme Court did not do was to rule that these racially restrictive covenants were illegal. The implications of the Hansberry case were explained to the readers of the Hyde Park Herald. Under the terms of a restrictive agreement, property owners could still “agree among themselves, for a term of years, not to permit their property to be sold to, occupied by or used by negroes.”

These were the years prior to what most Americans think of as the civil rights era, and long before the enactment of antidiscrimination laws. Rosa Parks took her seat on a Montgomery bus nearly a decade and a half later, while sit-ins at lunch counters gained traction in the early 1960s. When the movement spread out across the country, young people were hopeful and disciplined and began to shape their own destinies. For the most part they were met with hostility, violence and indifference, but African-Americans sought a path forward.

Four black college students sat down at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960, and politely asked for service. Their request was refused. When then asked to leave, the freshmen remained in their seats. This peaceful sit down helped ignite a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality, which turned to an organization founded here in Hyde Park for support.

Eighteen years earlier a young black man named James Farmer, the son of a minister and the grandson of a slave, walked into the Jack Spratt Coffee House to buy a donut. Farmer had come to Chicago in 1941 to work as the race-relations secretary with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist organization. His companion at the coffee house that afternoon was Jimmy Robinson, a sandy-haired graduate student at the University of Chicago. Jimmy and several friends had just leased a large house in South Kenwood and invited James to come by and see the house, hoping he would move in despite the restrictive covenants. The well-maintained house was well east of the dividing line between black and white and was owned by a Mrs. Edgar Lee Masters. The group hoped the former wife of the author of Spoon River Anthology would be sympathetic to the idea of an interracial cooperative on her property.

Farmer came to see 4853 Kenwood in the late winter of 1942. Masters had purchased the red brick house for his wife Helen in 1909. At the time he asked for a divorce after falling in love with an artist, Tennessee Mitchell. Hoping to placate Helen’s anger he purchased the property, which was in the end not such a great move. She accepted the house and declined his offer of a divorce. Just for the record, Mitchell left Masters and went on to marry another writer with Hyde Park roots, Sherwood Anderson. As to Helen, she finally granted Masters a divorce in 1923.

After viewing Helen Masters’ house on that sleeting and wind blown day, Farmer and Robinson turned up their collars against the cold and walked to get coffee at the nearby Jack Spratt. The counterman stood in front of a cheerfully painted mural of the main verse of the traditional English nursery rhyme: “Jack Sprat could eat no fat. His wife could eat no lean. And so between them both, you see, they licked the platter clean.”

Although the English nursery rhyme suggested a welcoming and lighthearted atmosphere, the Jack Spratt employees often treated African-Americans in an uncivil manner. They were frequently overcharged for their food, including Spratt’s well-known and sometimes pricey donuts. Near the front door was a fully automated machine that shaped the batter and then submerged it into a tank of boiling fat. One diner wondered about the machine, commenting that people would never eat donuts if they saw how they were being made.

But the nameless manager behind the counter was in no cheerful mood towards African-Americans who came to the establishment, and would not provide the same service that he gave to his white customers. Typically blacks had to wait and wait; and when finally served, their nickel donut cost a dollar. On this cold day, the counterman was more than succinct, “You have to get out of here. We can’t serve you here.” One can imagine how that affected these two young men, but eventually they were served. Robinson paid – the white donut fare, by the way.

James Farmer was a recent graduate of the Howard University School of Religion where he studied the ideas of Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, and in particular his concept of creating change through nonviolent resistance. Two days after the donut incident Farmer and Robinson returned to the coffee shop with an integrated group. Although the counter manager “glowered” at Jimmy Robinson the group was served, without having to wait the anticipated 3-? hours until closing time. “Scarcely had the door closed behind us,” Farmer recalled, “than the manager ran out to the sidewalk, screaming, “Take your money and get out! We don’t want it.’”

Farmer was now truly ready to put his ideas into action. After considering a boycott or picket line, there was a lighthearted suggestion tossed in the ring. “All we do is pass out leaflets in the black belt Southside saying ‘Eat at Jack Spratt! Jack Spratt serves Negroes free of charge.’” However the plan they did arrive at was simple – to contact the manager to try to reach a solution. Phone calls were met with a slammed receiver and letters went unanswered.

Although the English nursery rhyme suggested a welcoming and lighthearted atmosphere, the Jack Spratt employees often treated African-Americans in an uncivil manner. They were frequently overcharged for their food, including Spratt’s well-known and sometimes pricey donuts. Near the front door was a fully automated machine that shaped the batter and then submerged it into a tank of boiling fat. One diner wondered about the machine, commenting that people would never eat donuts if they saw how they were being made.

From this experience an organization was born – CORE – the Committee of Racial Equality. Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolent direct action became CORE’s weapon against discrimination. The group’s first task was a sit-in organized by Farmer, his friend George Houser and a multi-racial group of colleagues.

On May 8th Farmer returned to the Jack Spratt with his CORE supporters and filled up the restaurant, asking to be served. In his memoir Lay Bare the Heart, Farmer recalled that late afternoon. “A group of twenty-eight persons entered Jack Spratt in parties of two, three, and four. In each party there was one black man or woman. With the discipline of peacefulness strictly observed, we occupied all the available seating spaces at the counter and in booths.”

While the large group sat smoking and chatting, visible to all behind the wide swath of glass windows, the restaurant was thrown into confusion. The usual counterman was not there and the waitresses simply looked at each other and shrugged; no orders were taken. One well dressed middle aged white woman, who was not part of Farmer’s group, received her food yet sat with her hands on her lap. Her gentleman companion passed his dinner to the black diner beside him. When questioned by the Spratt staff as to why they did not want their dinners, the woman replied in true Hyde Park fashion. “Oh I am sure it’s just fine… But it wouldn’t be very polite of me to begin eating before my friends also had been served.”

The blacks of the Farmer group were offered seating in the basement, and demurred. Soon the police were called, but given the peaceful nature of the protesters, they declined to throw the group out of the restaurant. In the end dinner was served to all, a silent applause came from the neighborhing booths and a healthy tip was left. This time the money was not thrown out on the street.

Almost twenty years before the famed lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights era focused the nation’s attention on racial discrimination, CORE was able to change the way the Jack Spratt did business.

But not all was going smoothly. Mrs. Masters proved less than sympathetic given the restrictive covenants in place, and her lawyer wrote the premises was to be vacated within 30 days. After debating whether to reject the order or ignore it, the group turned to the NAACP for assistance, in another attempt to test the constitutionality of the restrictive covenants.

There was no further word from Mrs. Masters or her attorney. The integrated group did stay for the balance of the six-month lease, at which time Farmer and friends decided it was best to move closer to Cottage Grove Avenue. Restrictive covenants would continue for another six years. While the Hansberry case had focused on restrictive covenants locally, the US Supreme Court heard the case of Shelley v. Kraemer. The result of this St. Louis–based case was the landmark 1948 civil rights ruling that struck down the racial restrictions nationally.

A fierce integrationist, James Farmer went on to great things. His organization’s techniques played a significant role in attacking racial segregation in the Deep South. The civil rights movement adopted Farmer’s brainchild of nonviolent resistance. CORE’s tactic gained a national audience during the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott thanks to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “No longer did we have to explain nonviolence to people,” Farmer said. “Thanks to Martin Luther King, it was a household word.”

The crowning achievements of this era were two laws signed by President Lyndon Johnson. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned whites-only lunch counters and similar discrimination in hotels, restaurants and other public places. The law opened public facilities to minorities and other disfavored groups, and it banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. This, and the Voting Rights Act of the following year, brought the promise of equality to millions.

Farmer died in 1999 at the age of 79, remembered as the last survivor of the “Big Four” of the civil rights movement. In addition to Dr. King, his main colleagues in the movement were Whitney Young of the Urban League and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP. The Jack Spratt closed in February 1952; the site is now a parking lot.