In the summer of 2010, eighteen-year-old activist Damian Turner was shot less than three blocks from the University of Chicago hospital. Turner died in an ambulance en route to Northwestern University’s level-one adult trauma center in downtown Chicago, more than eight miles away from where he was shot. After the hospital’s leadership refused to meet with them that fall, protesters staged a “die-in” on the UofC campus, chanting, “How can you ignore, we’re dying at your door? How can you ignore, we’re bleeding on the floor? How can you ignore, we’re shot next door?”
The subsequent five years witnessed an escalation in protests over the absence of trauma care on Chicago’s South Side, which has some of the city’s highest rates of violence. Students joined local youth organizers and clergy to demand that the university assume responsibility and put resources towards funding an adult trauma-care facility at its own hospital, which is located in the approximate center of the South Side of the city. Despite increasing pressure from local politicians and elites, university leadership had for the most part remained intransigent. Yet in September 2015 the university announced that its medical center would sponsor a $40-million trauma center for adults, to be located at Holy Cross, another South Side hospital. Three months later, after continued criticism that a significant portion of the South Side would remain far from trauma care under this proposed plan, the university withdrew from the collaboration and announced that it would instead plan to provide adult trauma care on its own campus.
The intensity of demonstrations had increased in the months leading up to the first trauma center proposal this fall. Nine demonstrators—including one of the co-authors of this piece—were arrested at a sit-in at the university’s main administration building in June, and a prominent alumnus of its medical school was arrested for physically assaulting a demonstrator on campus shortly afterward. In the context of the university’s recent efforts to host Barack Obama’s presidential library, protesters succeeded in generating national media attention. Both announcements—and especially the second—underscore both the victory and efforts of years of protest.
Celebrations, however, can only be properly viewed from the historical shadow of the University of Chicago’s relationship with its African-American neighbors on the South Side. Indeed, there is little doubt that this announcement is likely to be incorporated into the university’s own narrative of innovation and its promotion of egalitarian ideals and policies. Left unexamined is how these aspirations often deny resources to the populations at the university’s borders, including many of the policies designed to desegregate the institution from within.
To be sure, the University of Chicago hardly stands out in this regard: while the Jim Crow South is often used as a foil in narratives of the broader United States as a land of opportunity, from the first Great Migration onward countless public and private institutions in northern cities have denied African-American residents social, economic and civil opportunities and rights. Even as we chart the efforts of the university to move toward racial and social inclusion internally, the parallel history of its policies toward its neighbors on the South Side requires consideration for those applauding this latest progressive victory.
From its inception in 1890, the University of Chicago has striven to differentiate itself from its peers on the East Coast in both social and intellectual practice. Intentionally divorcing itself from the elite American university tradition of primarily training the sons of the nation’s upper class, from day one the Chicago welcomed both women and African Americans. (Neither population would be admitted across the Ivy League in significant numbers until the late 1960s and early 1970s.) The university’s founding articles embraced notions of equality remarkable for the late nineteenth century, including the promise to “provide, impart, and furnish opportunities for all departments of higher education to persons of both sexes on equal terms.”
Over the course of the twentieth century the University of Chicago trained and supported a number of renowned African-American students. Horace Cayton and St. Claire Drake, the co-authors of Black Metropolis (1945), were both doctoral students in sociology at the university in the 1930s. The anthropologist Allison Davis, the first African-American faculty member granted tenure at any major white institution, gained this position at Chicago.
But the university’s internal commitments to racial inclusion would not extend to its relationship with the African-American population redlined at Hyde Park’s borders, just a couple miles away from Chicago’s “Black Belt,” until the Supreme Court banned racially restrictive covenants in 1948. As Richard Wright writes in his novel Native Son, for the South Side’s black population the university was just “the school out there on the Midway.”
The stark distance between Black Chicago and the University suggested by Wright’s “out there” is not unidirectional: “out there”—with all the connotations of fear, phobia, and wilderness that it may bear—also captures the university’s stance toward its black neighbors, irrespective of its racially progressive agenda on campus.
And “out there” also captures how difficult, if not impossible, Chicago’s African-American population have found it to access the school’s resources, whether that was for education, a medical emergency, or both. In his introduction to Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis, Wright noted that living in the vicinity of the University of Chicago had given him his “first concrete vision of the forces that molded the urban Negro’s body and soul.” This vision was not gained through acceptance. “I was never a student at the university,” Wright continued. “It is doubtful if I could have passed the entrance examination.”