Montgomery Place residents study ravages of slavery, candidly discuss race relations

Gary Middendorf
Montgomery Place resident Don Williams, a retired psychiatrist, started a race relations discussion group for fellow residents.

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Montgomery Place

Montgomery Place residents are encouraging Hyde Park Herald readers to observe the United Nations International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition on Thursday, Aug. 23. The date commemorates a 1791 slave revolt in Santo Domingo—now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The uprising sparked a revolution that won independence for the island’s slaves and led to the abolishment of slavery in the Caribbean colonial system and eventually worldwide.

The life plan community located at 5550 South Shore Drive is marking this day with a week-long remembrance that will include round-table and panel discussions on race relations, slavery and its abolition, an evening of listening to the album, Paul Robeson Sings, and a viewing of the Academy Award-winning film, “12 Years a Slave.”

“We intend to make this an annual event for Montgomery Place residents, and we encourage others to celebrate the day in their own way,” said Don Williams, a retired psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry.

About a year ago, Williams, who is African-American, formed a race relations discussion group for residents, which meets on Wednesdays. Discussions explore topics sparked by current events, articles in The New York Times, The Atlantic and other publications as well as books addressing matters of race.

This past Wednesday, a diverse group of 20 residents shared their reactions after reading, 12 Years a Slave, the mid-1800s memoir written by Solomon Northup, a free African-American who was kidnapped from the free state of New York and sold into slavery in the Deep South.

Williams, a retired psychiatrist who grew up on the South Side, identified with Northup who had “breathed the fresh air of the north.”

“I had many gifts other African-Americans did and do not have,” said Williams, who held faculty positions at University of Chicago, Yale and Michigan State University. “I lived here in the North because my mother moved from Mobile, Alabama. She vowed she would never go back. I recall when I did travel in the South, my stomach turned. I wondered, how people survived there. How did they make it? And I wanted to come back to Chicago right away.”

Astrid Mack remembered having to contend with white children throwing rocks at him while growing up in Florida. “This book reminds me of some of the experiences we’ve been through,” said Mack, who retired as Associate Dean for Minority Affairs at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami.

Mack, who earned a doctorate in genetics and specialized in research of sickle cell anemia, also recalled feeling furious when a white colleague asked if he could explain the difference between sickle cell anemia and sickle cell trait. “I learned that back in high school biology,” said Mack.

Shantha Monipallil, who grew up in India and retired as a physician for the Veterans Administration, said, “The book reminded me of the caste system in India, where the lower cast is punished and killed and mistreated.”

Susan Hamburger, who was separated from her older sister during the Holocaust, wondered about the fate of a young girl in the book whose mother was sold off by a slave dealer. Several in the group speculated the girl was eventually sold into prostitution.

“It’s always been upsetting to me that in the South people made such a big deal about racial mixing,” said Ida Watanabe, who grew up in Talladega, Ala. “Children with fair skin could pass for white, but it was held against black people. ‘You can’t mix with us. You’re less than.’ It’s that exploitation of black women. White women were exploited too, but they weren’t in the same class. Because white females were pure, blacks dare not look at them. Otherwise they could die. That’s the part that absolutely drives me up the wall!”

For a few moments the group sat in silence. “It’s not easy to talk about,” added Watanabe, a long-time Hyde Parker and retired social worker.

One white resident admitted to living most of his life unaware of race-related struggles. Another confessed to assuming the book’s author was exaggerating.

Despite awkward moments, members of the discussion group agreed with Mack who said, “I enjoy interacting in this environment because here at Montgomery Place we can work together to hear each other and begin to understand.”