May 02, 2023
Laura Washington: My mother lived the transformation of Chicago
My mother was a woman who, as they say, “don’t take no stuff.” On May 17,
My mother was a woman who, as they say, "don't take no stuff."
On May 17, Gwendolyn "Gwen" Washington passed away at the age of 89 after a brief illness.
She was my voice and inspiration to cover racial justice and politics. A fiercely independent force. A crackling bundle of energy to the end. Unapologetically authentic, she always spoke up, and out, for justice. At 5-foot-2, a formidable presence. Forefinger in the air, demanding answers. She taught me that "no" was never acceptable.
Mama lived the cultural, social and political transformation of 20th century Chicago. She was born in 1934 in a family of eight children in Black Bronzeville, where families survived and thrived through love and grit. Her generation of Black women, and every generation since, had to work harder to stay afloat in a society where they can be invisible. Gwen Washington refused to accept that.
My mother grew up at the Francis Apartments, an architectural landmark and touchpoint in Chicago history. She was so proud of the four-story building at 4304 S. Forestville Ave. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1895, it was originally intended for middle-class white people.
When white residents moved away, African American migrants from the South moved in. The building was later demolished, but Mama made sure everyone knew about her childhood home and that its elaborate, wrought- and cast-iron entrance gate is on view at the Art Institute.
Her favorite teacher at DuSable High School was the great Margaret Burroughs, who later founded the DuSable Museum of African American History. Black history was taboo, not taught in the schools in those times, Mama said. In Burroughs’ classroom, "Margaret would close the door," my mother would recall, and surreptitiously teach the great figures who would become Mama's heroes: W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells and Paul Robeson.
My mother was an avid champion of books and reading, inspiring countless students at Kennedy-King College, where she worked for 25 years. She traveled throughout Africa, visiting and learning in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mali, South Africa and Egypt.
Later in life, she took up beading. Her "Jewelry by Gwen" creations, brimming with color and verve, were adorned with rare African beads she found on her travels.
She schooled me in race and politics at her kitchen table. She would tote me to the regular Saturday meetings at Operation PUSH. When it was time to march, she was there to help lead the charge. She demanded what was right for us and rightfully ours. You won't get what you don't demand, she would say. I’m going to write a letter. Where is the store manager? I’m calling the alderman.
Vote, at all costs. Then hold them accountable. Her former alderman, Sophia King, once knocked at Mama's door, asking for her vote. My mother's reply: "Where have you been?"
In the 1990s, she answered phones and stuffed envelopes to help elect a little-known state senator in Hyde Park. "We helped get (Barack) Obama elected before he got to be so important!" she would incessantly note.
Her demanding ways and stern hand toughened me up. I would come home crying from school because a classmate was cruel. She would say, "Buck up. That's the real world, and the one you are going to live in."
My parents split up early, and money was always short. I remember freezing winters with no heat, staying home from school when the tuition could not be paid. Mama dug deep to make sure me and my brother, Andrew, were doubly loved, while insisting that we reach higher, do better.
[ Laura Washington: My daddy, the dependable mailman ]
We had the classic mother-daughter disagreements. We were two strong personalities but inseparable in spirit. Mama could be stubborn, obstinate and illogical. She was usually right.
Gwen Washington was my go-to source, my barometer for what was right and wrong in the world. When I would say, "I want to write about you," she would raise an annoyed eyebrow. Afterward, "I read your column. It was OK."
She never told me, but I knew my columns were posted on the bulletin board in the laundry room of her condo building, sent to friends and family, and stuffed into her battered file cabinet. There, after she passed, I found a cache of yellowed correspondence.
The first letter, impeccably typed by her, was dated Dec. 31, 1965, and addressed to Paul Douglas, then the U.S. senator from Illinois. Mama had recently met Douglas at a community meeting, she wrote. "I was very proud to have the privilege of shaking your hand."
Then she got down to business. "I was formerly employed by The U.S. Post Office here in Chicago. I left the job to return to college. I am a Negro mother of two young children, and I am determined to finish my education so that I can help my children and set a good example for them. I am striving for a degree in Social Work as I feel that my race of people could greatly benefit by trained Social Workers, someone who really cares. I am now employed on a full-time basis and attending school part time. Because of the heavy schedule and my children I must now seek part time work in order to finish school."
She went on: "The common misconception among the dominate group in Chicago is that the Negro is lazy, not willing to work, and does not want an education. I am here to say this is not true, for I am just the opposite of this misconception and I am a Negro."
She had requested reinstatement, she explained but was told there were no positions available. "This was about 15 months ago. I have tried to get help from my Alderman, but with no results."
She asked Douglas to "intercede on my behalf" with the U.S. postmaster, "for a position as a Short Hour Clerk in the Post Office as I cannot work the long hours and finish school also which I must do."
The letter concluded: "I feel that given the opportunity, I can fulfill my dream of a college degree and be of a benefit to my race and family."
Four days later, in a letter dated Jan. 4, 1966, Douglas replied. "We are contacting the postmaster on your behalf."
Gwendolyn Washington was reinstated three weeks later.
Laura Washington is a political commentator and longtime Chicago journalist. Her columns appear in the Tribune each Monday. Write to her at [email protected].
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