By Bernard LaFayette, Jr. (Click here to view the entire P&R issue)
Although the most well-publicized focus of the Chicago Freedom Movement was the Open Housing Campaign, a parallel “End-the-Slums” campaign raised the issue of housing and health in a combined research and advocacy campaign.
This campaign focused on the condition of slum housing in the area, where people of color lived. In addition to the lack of trash pick-up and unswept streets, the physical housing was in disrepair: broken windows, busted door locks, unpainted surfaces, crumbling steps, and of most concern was the lead-based paint peeling from the walls.
Tony Henry, who directed the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) Pre-Adolescent Enrichment Program, initiated the idea of organizing a union of the tenants that would include dues check-off and formal representatives for the tenants. In the process of organizing the tenants, we discovered that young children were experiencing severe health problems. Young children suffered from swollen stomachs, blindness, damaged internal organs, vomiting and paralysis due to ingestion of peeling lead-based paint chips from the interior walls of the slum housing. The peeling paint chips fell from the interior walls of the ceiling onto the floors and sometimes even in the babies’ cribs. The walking toddlers sometimes gnawed on the window sills as they peered out the windows. The lead from the paint caused irreversible damage to the children’s brain cells, which led to a permanent physiological impairment.
Rather than organize a protest march to address the problem, which is always an appropriate method after gathering the information, educating the constituents, and preparing oneself for the campaign, we decided to address the problem directly.
While we were organizing the tenants, we were organizing the youth in the community under the leadership of Clarence James, a local high school student. The organization was named SOUL (Students Organization for Urban Leadership).
Dr. David Elwyn, a university chemistry professor, developed a litmus test to detect high contents of elements in the urine, which is an indicator of disproportional presence of lead in the body. The high school students were trained to properly collect urine samples from the small children who lived in housing where peeling paint was discovered. These samples were taken to a make-shift laboratory in the basement of the AFSC Project House on the west side of Chicago.
Once the test results showed that a high content of elements existed in a urine sample— which indicated a high presence of lead in the child’s body— the parents were notified and the child was taken to Presbyterian St. Luke Hospital for a more precise blood level test. The child was consequently hospitalized for treatment.
This model served as an example of how the human resources of a community can be used to address the problem directly, which strengthened our demand that the city and state take responsibility to properly address the problem in a systematic way. The high school students who participated consequently saw improvement in their grades, specifically in the areas of science. Some of these students even went on to become medical professionals.
The City of Chicago consequently employed service workers to implement our Lead Poisoning Project. We were able to show the relationship between slum housing and environmental health problems in children.
Bernard Lafayette, Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org), a leader of the Nashville Movement and Freedom Rider, co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He is the Director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island.