The Woodlawn Organization

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]

The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) was officially formed in Chicago in January of 1961, but its origins date to the late 1950s when residents of the Woodlawn neighborhood, just south and west of Hyde Park, felt under threat from an expansion plan by the University of Chicago called the South Campus Plan. This expansion proposal came on the heels of the Hyde Park-Kenwood urban renewal plan, which involved the demolition of 20% of Hyde Park’s buildings and the forced relocation of 20,000 residents, mostly low-income blacks and whites. The urban renewal project, although it included both federal and local government as well as private funds, was an effort to response to fears that the University of Chicago would relocate due to an increase in crime, deterioration in housing quality and higher population density that had beset the Hyde Park neighborhood since a post World War II population boom. Woodlawn had seen a similar population boom, mostly a result of African Americans moving to the city in search of employment. The neighborhood had gone from 60% white to 95% black between the early 1950s and the early 1960s, a shift that was accompanied by a sharp upturn in illegal conversions and steep rents despite the deteriorating conditions. Now, facing the University’s expansion plan, Woodlawn residents feared that the same displacement of low-income and black residents and small businesses that went along with the urban renewal of Hyde Park would also occur in Woodlawn.

To fight the power of the University of Chicago, a group of Woodlawn clergy, including three Protestant ministers and a Catholic priest, knew that they would need to organize their community. They looked for help to Saul Alinsky, the community organizer who had organized the Back of the Yards neighborhood. Eventually, Alinsky and other Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) organizers succeeded in procuring funding from the Catholic church, a Presbyterian church, and the Schwarzhaupt Foundation to begin an organizing campaign in Woodlawn. TWO’s founding president was the Reverend Arthur Brazier of the Pentecostal Apostolic Church of God, an advocate of black self-determination whom Alinsky helped to train to head the organization after seeing Brazier’s leadership abilities.

Throughout the early 1960s, TWO was involved in mobilizing Woodlawn residents against the injustices they faced daily, including dishonest local store owners, slumlords, and an overcrowded and segregated public school system. Brazier and other TWO leaders, at first in conjunction with the IAF, organized rent strikes, led a public campaign against short-weighing and overcharging at grocery stores, and demonstrated against the inequities Woodlawn’s black children faced in their public schools. TWO’s tactics, drawing on Alinsky’s model, involved mobilizing residents to hold absentee landlords, shop owners, and school officials publicly accountable for their actions.

In 1967, TWO secured a grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity to begin a controversial program training unemployed youth in job skills. The program was controversial because it drew on the existing organizational structures of some of the city’s most notorious gangs, the Blackstone Rangers and the Devil’s Disciples. TWO also insisted that the job training facilities be located in Woodlawn itself and that gang members be involved as staff, including in instructional positions. The training program eventually collapsed after it came under investigation by the federal Gang Intelligence Unit and Senator John McClellan’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations.

Despite this setback, TWO secured a strong reputation in Woodlawn and in greater Chicago. The organization was fundamental in ensuring that rioting did not break out in Woodlawn during the summer of 1967 (though there was looting in the neighborhood following King’s assassination the next year), and became known as a powerful voice in Chicago’s south side. Throughout the 1970s, TWO became involved in development work, rehabilitating and constructing low and middle income housing in the Woodlawn area, as well as supporting small businesses. TWO became a very successful procurer of foundation and federal grant money and has used these funds to offer social services such as prenatal and mental health care in the community. Throughout this time, TWO continued to advocate for equity in public school conditions. Though the focus of efforts has changed, The Woodlawn Organization continues to be involved in a range of programs including social services, economic development and political work. In recent years TWO has been criticized for its close collaboration with the University and for its real estate development activities, seen as promoting middle-class homeownership over tenants’ rights.



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