Chicago Portraits: New Edition

Chicago Portraits: New Edition

by June Skinner Sawyers

The famous, the infamous, and the unjustly forgotten—all receive their due in this biographical dictionary of the people who have made Chicago one of the world’s great cities. Here are the life stories—provided in short, entertaining capsules—of Chicago’s cultural giants as well as the industrialists, architects, and politicians who… See more details below


The famous, the infamous, and the unjustly forgotten—all receive their due in this biographical dictionary of the people who have made Chicago one of the world’s great cities. Here are the life stories—provided in short, entertaining capsules—of Chicago’s cultural giants as well as the industrialists, architects, and politicians who literally gave shape to the city. Jane Addams, Al Capone, Willie Dixon, Harriet Monroe, Louis Sullivan, Bill Veeck, Harold Washington, and new additions Saul Bellow, Harry Caray, Del Close, Ann Landers, Walter Payton, Koko Taylor, and Studs Terkel—Chicago Portraits tells you why their names are inseparable from the city they called home.

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Northwestern University Press
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New edition
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9.90(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Meet the Author

June Skinner Sawyers, a writer and editor, is the author of Bob Dylan: New York (2011), Tougher Than The Rest: The 100 Best Bruce Springsteen Songs (2006) and Celtic Music: A Complete Guide (2001). Sawyers is the editor of several literary anthologies, including The Greenwich Village Reader (2001) and Dreams of Elsewhere: The Selected Travel Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson (2003) and several music anthologies: The Best in Rock Fiction (2005), Racing in the Street: The Bruce Springsteen Reader (2004) and Read the Beatles: Classic and New Writings on the Beatles, Their Legacy, and Why They Still Matter (2006).

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Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2012 June Skinner Sawyers
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2649-7

Chapter One

Chicago Portraits

Grace Abbott Social Reformer

BORN: November 17, 1878 Grand Island, Nebraska

DIED: June 19, 1939 Chicago, Illinois

One of the illustrious women of Hull House, Grace Abbott exposed the exploitation of immigrants and children to city officials and went on to have a distinguished career in both public service work and as a professor of public welfare at the University of Chicago.

Abbott came from an enlightened Quaker family that stressed social justice and social equality. Her mother, Elizabeth Griffin Abbott, told her daughter that "the rights of women belong with the rights of the Indian and the Negro. Everyone must be free and equal, and everyone should be dealt with on the basis of equality and justice."

In 1898 Abbott graduated from Island College, Nebraska, and later completed graduate work at the University of Nebraska. In 1908 she moved to Chicago to work at Jane Addams's Hull House on the West Side. Her sister, Edith, was already affiliated with the University of Chicago's School of Social Work. Abbott continued graduate studies at the University of Chicago and received her Ph.D. in political science in 1909.

Abbott became the director of the Chicago Immigrants' Protective League while she was at Hull House. The league helped thousands of young immigrant families adjust to life in the New World. The league also established waiting rooms at railroad stations where new arrivals were greeted by men and women who helped them get acclimated to their new surroundings.

Soon after arriving at Hull House, Abbott investigated private employment agencies in Chicago, many of which were located along Canal Street in an area referred to as the "slave market." Unsuspecting immigrants used these agencies only to be charged high fees for jobs that often didn't even exist. Abbott published her findings in the report "The Chicago Employment Agency and the Immigrant Worker." Her hard work led to the passage of a law in 1909 that controlled such unscrupulous practices.

Abbott feverishly rallied for the passage of a fair and just immigration policy for the nation's "new" immigrants, a euphemism at the time that referred to immigrants from primarily eastern and southern Europe who were considered "foreign" as much for their religion as for their physical appearance: many, if not most, were Catholic. In January 1912, she testified before a congressional committee in Washington, D.C., on their behalf. She joined the faculty of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy in 1911 but left in 1917 to work for various governmental agencies. From 1917 to 1919 she was the director of the Child Labor Division of the Children's Bureau in Washington, D.C. In 1918 she served as an adviser to the War Labor Policies Board. From 1920 to 1921 she was the executive secretary of the Illinois Immigrants' Commission and was chief of the United States Children's Bureau from 1921 to 1934. In this position she was able to ensure the passage of important child labor laws.

Following her departure from government work, Abbott returned to Chicago, where from 1934 until her death in 1939 she was professor of public welfare at the University of Chicago. She also edited, from 1934 to 1939, the university's Social Service Review. In 1917 Abbott wrote The Immigrant and the Community, a sympathetic account of the often-shameful treatment of immigrants in Chicago, and in 1938 she completed the massive, two-volume The Child and the State, which discussed child labor and the role of the state.

Abbott died of cancer in Chicago in June 1939.

See also: Jane Addams, Alice Hamilton, Florence Kelley, Mary McDowell, Agnes Nestor

Further reading: Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910); Lela B. Costin, Two Sisters for Social Justice: A Biography of Grace and Edith Abbott (1983); June Sochen, Movers and Shakers: American Women Thinkers and Activists, 1900–1970 (1973).

Robert S. Abbott Newspaper Owner and Publisher

BORN: November 28, 1868 St. Simon's Island, Georgia

DIED: February 29, 1940 Chicago, Illinois

By crusading against racism and urging the black community to fight injustice, Robert Sengstacke Abbott revolutionized black journalism and, in the process, became the city's first African American millionaire.

The son of slaves, Abbott was reared on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia. His father, Thomas, died when Robert was an infant, and his mother, Flora, later married Joseph Sengstacke, the son of a German-born white merchant and a black slave. Sengstacke, an ordained minister, instilled in his stepson a love of books and learning. Young Abbott attended the Beach Institute, a small Congregational institution in Savannah, before transferring to Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in 1887 and then enrolling at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia— the famous African American center of learning founded by Booker T. Washington—to learn the printing trade.

After graduation, Abbott returned to Georgia to help his stepfather publish the Woodville (Georgia) Times before deciding to study law at Chicago's Kent College of Law, where he graduated, the only African American in his class, in 1899. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities for blacks—especially for a man as dark-skinned as he who had experienced rejection both by whites and by light-skinned African Americans—Abbott toyed with the bold idea of starting his own newspaper.

"I wanted to create an organ that would mirror the needs, opinions, and the aspirations of my race," said Abbott. At that time there were three African American newspapers in the city: Julius C. Taylor's Broad Ax, S. B. Turner's Illinois Idea, and Ferdinand I. Barnett's Conservator, but they functioned more as mouthpieces for their editors than as bona fi de news-gathering organizations.

The Chicago Defender, the newspaper that Abbott eventually created, was different. It had a specifi c mission—the eradication of racial prejudice—and, in Robert Sengstacke Abbott, it had an indefatigable fighter. Abbott started from scratch. With 25 cents worth of capital (it cost $13.75 to print 300 copies, according to Abbott's biographer Roi Ottley, which he paid in installments), a folding card table, and a kitchen chair as the sole equipment, he launched the first issue on May 5, 1905. Middle-class whites in positions of power and members of the black elite with strong economic ties to the white establishment dismissed it as inflammatory journalism, but to the vast majority of the African American populace it was a source of pride. Although the Defender employed journalistic practices to attract attention that would be considered rather dubious by today's standards—such as the use of screaming yellow headlines—it was always taken seriously among its constituency. The Defender was there to goad, preach, and inspire.

Acutely aware of the widespread discrimination and severe unemployment in the South, Abbott encouraged rural blacks to migrate to the great industrial cities of the North. Indeed, his paper helped spur the Great Migration, when hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved from the South to Chicago and other northern cities. They came in droves, riding the Illinois Central passenger trains north from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. Between 1916 and 1970, seven million blacks left the rural South.

Abbott arranged for the Illinois Central to drop off copies of the paper along its route. Indeed Abbott would often hire railroad employees to distribute the paper in the South, notes historian James R. Grossman. In Chicago, the Defender was read in churches and in barber shops, anywhere African Americans congregated. Through aggressive reporting and a vigorous advertising campaign, the Defender became known as the bible of the African American community. By 1918 the Defender was able to boast a national circulation of 125,000, making it the best-selling black newspaper in the country. What's more, its passionate editorials and fearless reporting earned it the reputation as the most militant black newspaper in Chicago. In addition to its seminal role in encouraging the Great Migration, it also supported the desegregation of the armed forces, and sponsored virulent anti-lynching campaigns.

Abbott didn't forget his younger readers either. In 1929 he suggested the first Saturday in August be set aside as Bud Billiken Day. "Bud" was reportedly the nickname of Lucius Harper, executive editor of the newspaper, while "Billiken" was named after a mythical Chinese figurine—said to be the guardian of children—that sat on Harper's desk. Whatever its origins, today Bud Billiken Day remains a durable and popular Chicago tradition and, indeed, has since grown to be the largest African American parade in the country.

Abbott died in his sleep on February 29, 1940, in his house at 4742 South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive). Abbott Avenue is named in his honor.

The Defender has had several locations over the years. It was in a former synagogue in the Bronzeville neighborhood at 3435 South Indiana Avenue and, for more than forty years, at 2410 South Michigan Avenue. In 2005 the paper moved to a downtown office at 200 South Michigan Avenue. Four years later, in May 2009, the Defender returned to its South Side roots when it relocated to 4445 South King Drive, housed in a building—a former funeral home—that, according to African American historian Timuel Black, "was built by and for black businesses." Although competition from other black publications has led to reduced circulation—in 2008 it went from daily to weekly circulation—the Chicago Defender continues to cover news and events of importance to Chicago's African American community.

In late May 2009 the Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers at the Woodson Regional Library, 9525 South Halsted Street, were opened to the public. Housed as part of the permanent collection of the library's Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, it consists of more than 4,000 photographs and other memorabilia as well as 100 Sengstacke family home movies.

See also: Claude A. Barnett

Further reading: St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945); James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (1989); Roi Ottley, The Lonely Warrior: The Life and Times of Robert S. Abbott (1955); Allan H. Spear, Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto 1890–1920 (1967); Dempsey J. Travis, An Autobiography of Black Chicago (1981).

Wallace C. Abbott Physician and Scientist

BORN: October 12, 1857 Bridgewater, Vermont

DIED: July 4, 1921 Chicago, Illinois

In 1888 Wallace Calvin Abbott founded what was to become Abbott Labs during a time when the pharmaceutical industry was in its infancy. From first-year sales of $2,000, the firm has grown into a $29.5 billion global health care company employing nearly 72,000 people in more than 130 countries.

Educated at Dartmouth College and the University of Michigan's Medical School, Abbott came to Chicago in 1886 and settled in the Ravenswood neighborhood. In 1888 he started the People's Drug Store in the kitchen of his small apartment and began manufacturing "granules" or pills. Early medications were imprecise and unreliable and their side effects so severe—such as their nauseating taste—that Abbott borrowed the idea of using the "alkaloid," or active part of a plant, from a Belgian-born surgeon named Adolphe Burggraeve and compressed this into pill form (previously medicinal fluids were extracted from herbs or plants and given to the patient in liquid form). Initially, he bought the granules but then, frustrated by their inferior quality, he began to make his own.

He formed the Abbott Alkaloidal Company and hired family members and friends to assist him. His sister filled the orders and answered inquiries, his parents placed shipping labels on the bottles, and a boyhood chum, Henry Shattuck, kept the books. Abbott edited a professional medical journal, Medical World, and in 1892 produced his first catalog, which consisted of 14 pages of text and 150 advertisements. Two years later, he assumed the editorship of the Alkaloidal Clinic—later changed to the American Journal of Clinical Medicine—which became one of the leading medical and surgical journals in the country. In 1897 he collaborated with Dr. William Waugh on the Text Book of Alkaloidal Therapeutics, a standard reference work on the subject at the time.

By 1914 the demand for alkaloids had peaked as the industry turned away from merely supplying remedies to actually manufacturing chemicals. Encouraged by members of his staff, Abbott entered the new field of synthetic medicines. Up until then, the manufacture of synthetic chemicals was confined to saccharin and aspirin, mostly manufactured by German companies. The outbreak of World War I forced the United States to manufacture its own products. Abbott began producing a new wonder drug called Chlorazene, an antiseptic developed by an English doctor that helped save the lives of countless soldiers. In later years, the company produced the anesthetic Pentothal and the antibiotic erythromycin.

In 1921 all chemical manufacturing was transferred to a twenty-six-acre industrial site in the northern suburb of North Chicago. But the man behind the Abbott Labs was not to fully experience the fruit of his labor. In poor health and suffering from rheumatism and chronic kidney disease, Abbott walked home from his Ravenswood office one final time on July 1, 1921. Three days later, at the age of sixty-three, he died in his bed.

Some famous Abbott products include Murine eye drops, Selsun dandruff remedy, Similac infant formula, and Sucaryl sweetener.

Further reading: Herman Kogan, The Long White Line: The Story of Abbott Laboratories (1963); William D. Pratt, The Abbott Almanac: 100 Years of Commitment to Quality Health Care (1987).

Gertrude Abercrombie Artist

BORN: February 17, 1909 Austin, Texas

DIED: JULY 3, 1977 Chicago, Illinois

I like to paint simple things that are a little strange. —Gertrude Abercrombie

Artist Gertrude Abercrombie was known for her eccentric dress—her dark clothes and pointed velvet hats—as much as for her surrealist artwork. She remains one of the most important, and underappreciated, artists of the twentieth century. She had a distinctive personal style too, at turns humorous, eerie, and evocative as well as self-reverential and full of haunting portraits and landscapes.

Gertrude Abercrombie was born in Austin, Texas, the only child of Tom and Lula Jane Abercrombie, an opera singer. The family moved briefly to Berlin before returning to the United States on the eve of World War I, when they moved to the small town of Aledo, in western Illinois, and then to Chicago where her father found work as a salesman, settling in Hyde Park.

Abercrombie earned a bachelor's degree in Romance Languages from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After graduating, she took classes in figure drawing and commercial techniques at the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Academy of Art. In 1931 she worked as an illustrator drawing glove advertisements for $15 a week at the Mesirow department store in Chicago and later served as an illustrator for the Sears, Roebuck catalog.

She did not turn to painting until the early 1930s when she began exhibiting at progressive Chicago art galleries. In 1935 she worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which she attributed to validating her career as an artist. Around this time, she befriended a circle of bohemian friends, including the writer and playwright James Purdy (1914–2009). In 1940 she married a lawyer named Robert Livingston and they moved two years later to 5728 South Dorchester Avenue, in the Hyde Park neighborhood, where she would reside until her death.

Abercrombie, in fact, had a special affinity for Hyde Park. She helped establish the popular 57th Street Art Fair and ran a bohemian salon for artists, musicians, and writers in her Hyde Park home where she played the festive hostess of racially diverse parties. She became famous for Saturday night parties and Sunday afternoon jam sessions. Jazz musicians would often stop by the house, including Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and Sarah Vaughan. Abercrombie not only loved jazz—she was considered a fine piano player in her own right.


Excerpted from CHICAGO PORTRAITS by JUNE SKINNER SAWYERS Copyright © 2012 by June Skinner Sawyers. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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