“That Wasn’t Working Either, So We Got the Idea of a Payment Strike”

 /  May 3, 2015, 1:15 p.m.

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On February 19, Chicago editor Patrick Reilly spoke with Jack Macnamara, Visiting Scholar at Loyola University. As a Jesuit seminarian in Chicago during the late 1960s, Mr. Macnamara was one of the main organizers of the Contract Buyers’ League. This group of African American homeowners, which employed civil disobedience tactics to fight discriminatory lending on the city’s South and West sides, was profiled in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s June 2014 Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations.” Here’s what he had to say:

The Gate: How did you get involved in the Contract Buyers’ League?

Jack Macnamara: Well, it kind of goes back.  At the time I had a year of law school at the University of Chicago, and I had just completed my college education. I [had been] a full-time student as well, at Loyola University. My dad was dying, and so I was working the midnight-to-eight shift at Delta Airlines, and then I’d go to class in the morning.  And my attitude at the time was, “Well, if I can do it, why can’t everybody do it?”

I was preaching that garbage one day to a classmate at the University of Chicago, and he said to me, “Did it ever occur to you that not everybody has your brains? Did it ever occur to you that not everybody has your stamina? Did it ever occur to you that not everybody has your white skin and can get a job?” And that kind of changed my life. He was dead right, and he completely changed the way I was thinking about things. I decided to leave law school and join the Jesuits.

And so I started looking at opportunities. I went to teach at St. Xavier High School [in Cincinnati] as part of my Jesuit training...I was the moderator of a student organization, and before [the school year] started, I called the student leader of that organization...I asked him what he wanted to accomplish, and he said—this is a senior in high school—he said, “I’d like to see everybody in the school become socially involved.” So we met with some of the kids and talked about how to go about it, and they decided that they wanted to have certain teachers sell the program. We had a sign-up date for service work, and four hundred of the thirteen hundred students at the school volunteered. I was really impressed by that kind of response from a bunch of high school students.

At the end of that year, I went to study theology [in Chicago]. Monsignor [John Joseph] Egan, who was at the time the pastor of Presentation Church on the West Side [and] head of the Office of Urban Affairs for the Archdiocese of Chicago, said he was looking for forty seminarians. He was calling it “Operation Saturation.”...There were forty blocks in his Parish, and he’d assign a seminarian to each block, and your assignment was to make a community out of that block.

We’d go in on Saturdays to knock on doors on our blocks.  At 3:00 in the afternoon we would return to the rectory for debriefing.  Frequently, Monsignor Egan would have a talk by somebody. On a couple of occasions, the speaker was a guy named Tom Gaudette, who was an Alinsky-trained organizer working in the Austin area of Chicago. I was really impressed that Gaudette was hammering down two principles. One was that you couldn’t do a thing until you listened to the people and heard what their problems are, and the second is that they have to be involved in the planning and the implementation of anything you come up with. In February of that year [1967], I went to Monsignor Egan and asked if I could organize for the summer, because it’s really hard to do anything on one day a week. He thought it was a good idea, and he helped me clear the path with my Jesuit superiors.

At Easter time of that year, the same kid who said he wanted the whole school become socially involved came to visit me. He was a freshman at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and he asked me what I was doing for the summer, I told him, and he said, “Would you ever be interested in having some college students work with you?” And I said, “Yeah, I would.”

I really didn’t think that many parents would let their kids come to the Chicago ghetto for the summer. But we started with twelve or thirteen college students on June 1, 1967, and we got involved with a bunch of small issues, like garbage collection. But there was one thing that came up from a number of sources that none of us knew anything about:extremely high house payments.

One night, I was sitting in a living room with a widow who had four kids. She was working at the at the post office making $5,000 a year, which was a decent salary in 1967. Her mother was scrubbing floors at a hospital at night, making $4,000, so between them, they had an income of about $9,000. Now just a couple of years before, when my dad was dying, my mother and I were supporting a family of five kids and we had an income of about $12,000 a year and we were having trouble making ends meet. And so, getting to the crux of the conversation, [the widow] said, “I think I can make it if I get this huge house payment.”

I asked, “What is your house payment?”

“$248 per month.”

And how likely is it that I knew my family’s payment for my house on Skokie? But I did know, because my dad had been sick, and it was $108 a month. So when I compared that to [the widow’s $248], I knew something was wrong and that, somehow, black folks were getting screwed.

I talked to John McKnight, who was the Midwest Director for the US Civil Rights Commission. He knew all about how [African American housing] contracts worked, and said a lawyer could teach us how to do searches [for abusive practices]. We could find out what the speculators who came into the neighborhood paid for the house to collect from the white family and what they sold it to the black family for. We did a study of about eight blocks on the West Side, and all of the transactions were the same. Generally speaking, the average [black] family was charged $10,000 more [for a home] than they would have been if they were white.

But because they were also paying interest on the initial $10,000 over the twenty-year life of the contract, they ended up paying $20,000 more to own a home than they would pay if they were white. And we just thought that something had to be done about it... We had a meeting in January of 1968, and one of the people there was a lady named Ruth Wells...Mrs. Wells was halfway through her contract, and she was supposed to get the deed when she was halfway through. She never missed a payment, [and] she made improvements on the house. But when she went to the seller to get her deed, he said “you still owe me $1,000.” Well, that was the straw that broke her back, and she went to Monsignor Egan complaining about it.

At the meeting in the basement of Presentation Church in January 1968, I got up and gave what I thought was a really clear explanation of what a contract was and how they worked and how they were designed to screw black people. There were eight families that night, and when I said it, and asked if anybody had any questions, there was dead silence.  The first thing that occurred to me was that, even though I was wearing a [Catholic priest’s] collar, because I was a Jesuit, was that they were suspicious of  this white guy.  They had no reason to trust me, so that was one reason for the dead silence.

The other reason [for the silence]—and we found this out later—was that they hadn’t told each other that they bought on contracts. They all said that they had a mortgage because it was really embarrassing to buy on contract. I looked over at Ms. Wells, who was not accustomed to public speaking, and urged her to get up and tell her story. She told [everyone] that the seller [had] bought her house for $14,500 and sold it to them for $23,000, and what the terms of the contract were. And after she finished speaking, you couldn’t shut anybody up. They were all telling their stories and admitting to each other that they had bought on contracts, so that’s how things got started.

Then, what we did was we would go with individual people, or with a group, to meet a seller. They’d say no, and then we’d picket. The picketing wasn’t doing any good, so we went to [the seller’s] neighborhood and knocked on doors and passed out fliers letting the neighbors know what a crook they had in their midst. That wasn’t working [either], so we got the idea of a payment strike.

To make sure that we got everybody’s opinion heard, we had meetings every night. By that time, we had about five hundred families. We had meetings with fifteen families a night...and the general consensus was that they should have the payment strike. It wasn’t going to be just a question of withholding the money and spending it: instead of making a payment every month to the seller, they would go and get a money order made out to themselves, and we would put it into a safety deposit box.

That gave [us] some leverage. In the meantime, Jenner & Block agreed to file a lawsuit on behalf of the people who bought old homes on the West Side. There was [also] a builder on the South Side who was building homes and selling on contracts and over-charging in pretty much the same way. As a result, there were two lawsuits: one for the old homes and one for the new. That put pressure on the sellers. We had 450 contracts renegotiated and the average savings per family was $13,500, in 1968 dollars.

Just recently, I was doing a talk, and I wanted to have a handout, so I used a chart that I had prepared forty-five years ago with [the] transactions on it. As I mentioned earlier, the average person was overcharged $10,000 and then they end up paying $20,000, but I never totaled those columns. [But] since I could put the chart on an Excel spreadsheet, it could total the columns easily. When I looked at the column of additional principal plus the original interest, I saw $418,000 for twenty families. I [then] decided to try to figure out how much had been stolen legally from the black community in Chicago alone during the Second Great Migration (1940-70). I won’t explain now how I got there, but I came to the conclusion that it was at least $500 million, and that’s not adjusted for inflation.

Gate: $500 million or $500,000?

Macnamara: $500 million. Immediately, I wanted to say, “Look, now you know why they need food stamps.” What I’d like to do is get an economist, a sociologist, and a psychologist to do a study on the impact of stealing $500 million from a community. You can’t tell me the education gap isn’t linked to that. You can’t tell me that the violence and crime in Chicago isn’t linked to that. I want to have something better than just instinctively knowing it.

Gate: That’s an incredible story, and I’m sure people at UChicago would be interested in that kind of study. While this was going on, what was the attitude of the larger Catholic community in Chicago?

Macnamara: It was interesting. [Archbishop John] Cody hated us. He called my boss the “Jesuit boss” and said we’re ruining his reputation with the mayor, but they didn’t stop us. We made an effort to be in communication with all the Jesuits in Chicago, and we’d invite different communities over for dinner. Most importantly, we invited people from the provincial residence who were administrators for the Chicago province.

There was a point at which, because of the payment strike, we were having issues with people being evicted. There was a law in Illinois at the time—there still is—which had two ugly provisions in it. The first was that once sellers had proven that [buyers] were behind in their payments, the buyers could not raise any defenses as to why they were behind. [At the time,] everyone [was] saying, “Why don’t those people go to the courts for justice, instead of rioting?” The fact of the matter was that they couldn’t get justice in the courts. The other provision was that, if [buyers] wanted to appeal, they had to pay well over $3,000, and our people just didn’t have that kind of money.

So we were trying to raise an appeal bond fund, and there was a night where people from the Jesuit provincial residence were over for dinner [with] contract buyers... The guy who was the [Jesuit] provincial, he saw them as religious people, which they sure as hell were. One of his assistants called to tell me that the Jesuits were going to post an appeal bond of $100,000. A couple of months later, all the Jesuit provincials in the United States were in Chicago, and we invited them to our apartment for dinner. We put on a presentation for the provincials, and after that, they came up collectively for another $150,000 for the appeal bond. So collectively, we had a quarter of a million from the Jesuits, in 1968 dollars, for the appeal bond. And we were able to go to court and have it tried, and we won on both counts. They can now raise defenses that they hadn’t been able to. And I don’t remember how it was done, but the appeal bond provisions got changed also

...Frankly, I think that the story that needs to be told, and [one of the] reasons that Ta-Nahisi Coates’s article got such good play...is that it’s not simply Jim Crow and slavery.  Buying a house is so middle class American...The way I view it, the people who I came across in the Contract Buyers’ League all subscribed wholeheartedly to middle class values. They were mostly two-parent families. They believed in home ownership. They believed in having their kids get a good education. They believed in having a job—and a steady job. As a matter of fact, we had a meeting with the chief justice of the Cook County Circuit Court, Judge Boyle. There were maybe seventeen Contract Buyers in the room, and he obnoxiously asked every one of them if they had a job. Well, every one of them did have a job. And then he asked them where they worked, and they’d tell them. “And how long have you been there?” The shortest period of employment was ten years.  So the guy was shut up in his tracks. I wanted to run him out of the room, I was so mad at him. These were people who had all the middle class values that America adores so much, but we stole from them the privileges of living middle class lives after subscribing to middle class values.

The image featured in this article, provided to the Gate by Professor Macnamara, was featured in the December 1968 edition of the Jesuit Bulletin.  

Patrick Reilly


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