by Susan O’Halloran

Story Summary

During a high school Christmas food drive in 1965, Sue brings canned goods to a family living in Cabrini Green housing projects. Isn’t that a good thing? Why would the family resent her?

Discussion Questions

  1. What caused Sue to change her idea of charity? Is she saying people should never donate food and other items?
  2. What do you think she thought she and others should do instead of or in addition to donations?
  3. What does the phrase “charity Is no substitute for justice” mean? What injustice did Sue see in these African American families’ lives?

Resources

  • American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass by Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton
  • Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing by Ben Austen
  • There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America by Alex Kotlowitz
  • Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing by D. Bradford Hunt

Themes

  • African American/Africans
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Hi, my name is Sue O’Halloran.

It was 1965. I was 15 years old, a sophomore in high school when our school announced we were going to have a food drive, a Christmas food drive. The teacher said, “Come on, girls, this is our chance to bring food to poor families in Chicago.”

And our team did a great job. We collected lots of canned goods. However, we had no way to get the canned goods to the people for our team had been assigned the Cabrini Green mid-rise projects, a family in the mid-rise projects. And the girls on the team, their parents, their white parents didn’t want their daughters traveling into a Black neighborhood even if it was for charity at Christmas time.

Now, my Dad said I could go, but I couldn’t go alone. And then Katie Hogan said her parents would let her go with me. In fact, her mother would drive us. So, the Thursday before Christmas, Mrs. Hogan picked Katie and me up from my high school, Queen of Peace High School, in the southwest suburbs. It was about an hour drive through a very robust snowfall to get to the near North Side.

And when we arrived at Clybourne Avenue, it was already dark, and it was hard to see where we were, but not because of the dark. In the 1960s, the Chicago politicians, mostly white politicians, wanted to keep their voters happy so they funneled the city’s limited funds into their neighborhoods, keeping the money out of the Black neighborhoods. So, as we’re looking for the designated building, lots of times there were no street signs. There were no streetlights. I mean they were defunct or totally non-existent.

Well, finally, Mrs. Hogan found the right building. And when we looked at it, some of the front was burnt, kind of scarred from fires or some boarded up windows. There were broken doors hanging off of their hinges. And we unpacked our groceries and we brought them up the stairs where our mitten gloves sent a little muffled knock against the metal front door.

And this woman, mother of two, opened the door and said, “Come on in.” And she pointed to a little Christmas tree and the floor underneath it for us to put all of our loot.

And, as we kept bringing groceries in, her two daughters – looked about six and eight years old – sat on a big overstuffed chair right next to that Christmas tree. And their feet were tucked under and they just looked straight ahead. They never got down to look at the food like you think kids would. Even when I put down boxes of chocolate chip cookies and long strands of red licorice, those girls just looked straight ahead.

But we saved the best to last. Katie and I brought in the two canned hams and the frozen turkey like a royal processional and laid them at their feet. No reaction.

When we went to leave, I was the last to leave. And as I pulled the door behind me, I turned around and I saw that those little girls’ stares had turned to glares and their mother, too. They were glaring at our backs! I had no defense against their distain. It hit my heart so hard that I was trembling all the way home. Several times on that ride Mrs. Hogan said, ” Susan are you all right?”

But I didn’t know how to ask, “Weren’t we doing good? Why does that family hate us?”

And, all at once, it hit me: something that had happened the winter before suddenly made sense.

The winter before, one Saturday every month, I would go and work with this order of nuns who were social workers. It’s what I thought I wanted to be when I grew up. So, on this one Saturday, I got assigned to Sister Madeline and Sister Madeline I were to go to the Cabrini Green high rise projects and visit people.

Well, we got to that high rise. We went in the elevator and it was like being in a squashed tuna can. The walls were buckled and dented. The control panel was hanging by its wires but, somehow, Sister Madeline just went right ahead and pressed that button and up we went accompanied by the smell of urine, rotting garbage and gang symbol scrawled by her head.

And Mrs. Powers, mother of four, opened that door and said, “Come on in, Sister.”

And Sister Madeline said, “How are you doing?”

And Mrs. Powers said, “Fine, fine.”

“Are you getting any food stamps?”

“Oh yes. Yes, we do,”

And Mrs. Power rocked from side to side, one foot to the other foot, one foot to the other foot.

Sister Madeline said, “The welfare people they want you to try for some of these jobs,” and she handed Mrs. Powers a piece of paper.

“Oh yes. Yes, they do. They do,” said Mrs. Powers. “They, they say my spelling is pretty good, not real good you know, but pretty good.” She never even looked at that paper.

“You know they’ll probably ask you some questions when they interview you.”

“Oh yes. Yes, they will,” Mrs. Powers said.

And Sister Madeline tried again, “Do you, um, do you hear anything from the father?”

And she looked at Miss Powers and the four kids. All five of them shook their heads real quick, “No, no we don’t.”

“Do you think he might send some money?” Sister Madeline asked.

“Oh yes, yes. He might if he gets work. He might send some money.”

On the way back walking to the convent, Sister Madeline said, “I bet you that husband is still in the picture!”

And I didn’t know she kind of whispered it as if it was a bad thing, but then she filled in her comment. She said, “Sometimes, the husbands have to live away from home, so the family gets help. If the Welfare found out Mrs. Powers was getting aid from the father, well then she wouldn’t get any aid or less aid.”

Sitting in the back seat of that car with Mrs. Hogan driving – Katie up front, coming back from delivering our canned goods, I remember the snow falling against the window. I remember that Silent Night was playing on the radio. I remember seeing the back of Katie’s head, her long brown hair brushing against the fur collar of her coat.

I remember all of that, because, finally, I understood Mrs. Powers evasive answers; because all at once I understood the girl’s glares. Those glares matched the energy of what was underneath Mrs. Powers complying tone of voice… a shared resentment.

If all you wanted was the opportunity to feed your own family, but then some white kids representing the very people who set up the situation you were living in – the people who controlled the jobs and the assistance programs and let your neighborhood go into disrepair – if some white people showed up at your house at Christmas with a couple bags of grocery, why would you be grateful?

I remember that precise moment riding in the back seat of that car, that moment when my idea of charity changed forever.