Interview: Sherry WIlliams and Mr. Lorenzo Young

A conversation with Sherry Williams of the Bronzeville Historical Society with input from Community Member Lorenzo Young.

Sherry Williams was born and raised on the south side of Chicago in the Englewood Community. She is Founder and President of the Bronzeville / Black Chicagoan Historical Society.

Sherry Williams as Mrs. Jane Hughes Liter

Could you please introduce yourself and the Bronzeville Historical Society? 

Sherry:  I am Sherry Williams, the Founder and Director of the Bronzeville Historical Society. The historical society was established in 1999 and we became a 501c3 in 2002. Part of our mission has been to preserve and protect African American history and culture in Chicago.  That includes those African American migrants, more than 2 million, who came to Chicago from the South between the 1860s all the way to the 1950s during the Great Migration.

We, at the Bronzeville Historical Society, have been committed to the protection and care of African American culture including many of the passed on historic backdrops that come with those who migrated to Chicago.  Say for instance, my family who came here from Mississippi in 1942. They brought with them the skill sets to do handicrafts like quilting, crocheting and knitting, and also taking care of the land. My dad, from Cleveland, Mississippi picked cotton and my mom, in Vernice, Mississippi, also picked cotton; they were sharecroppers. Each of them shared with me, by taking trips back and forth between Mississippi and taught me how they cultivated and cared for the Earth.

So, I’ve always understood that the African has been the caretaker of and the steward of the Earth since the beginning of time.  We were purposely brought here as slaves because we already had the knowledge and skills to take care of soil, to take care of planting, to take care of growing things.

Can you speak a little bit about the Bronzeville Historical Society’s connection to issues of food security in the community?

Sherry: The Bronzeville Historical Society has, since 1999, built its capacity to draw people into preserving African American history in Chicago through partnerships and the support of agencies and institutions that advocated for food security and do urban gardening.

One of the organizations that we were so proud to be invited to support was God’s Gang.  This organization was based in Robert Taylor Public Housing at 5256 S. State.  While they were at that location our board of directors and myself were able to support their food pantry.  They distributed food weekly to more than 800 families in the Bronzeville community as well as in the Robert Taylor Public Housing. That was my first experience as a part of a well managed and productive food distribution system to the neighborhood.

Not only did they provide fresh vegetables and food products to the community, they also had a garden.  They raised tilapia, and they also had worms that were grown and sold to whom ever desired to have earthworms for compost and that kind of thing.

It was in 1999 that the Bronzeville Historical Society started supporting organizations for food advocacy and healthy eating. Last year Bronzeville Historical Society branched out on its own to start the African Heritage Garden at the Stephen Douglas State Tomb Site.  In summer of 2012 we planted a garden where we provided access to the neighborhood, free of charge.  Neighbors and friends and other community members were able to have access to tomatoes, collard greens, jute leaf, and some other vegetables.

African Heritage Garden Opening 2013

What do you think the critical issues are now surrounding food in the community?

Sherry: I would say that access is very important.  Mostly because if we take a deep look at schools in or around Bronzeville we would see that largely the students attending public schools are in households that are at or far below the poverty level. Families do not have the financial means to even buy food, so access is definitely my primary concern.

Secondly, I think that policies that have been in place in the city of Chicago have set limitations to those who would like to grow their own food.  For instance, city policies make it very difficult for a homeowner or a community resident to purchase a vacant lot that they may want to turn into a community garden. And because of the limitations to purchase adjacent lots next to your home, many people that have the skill sets and desire to grow their own vegetables and edibles to not have that option.  Again, we have this dependency on stores to provide access to food, but if there aren’t stores near by, that becomes a challenge when you do not have transportation to get to the stores that may be some distance away from home.

Mr. Young: We had a corner store summit last year through the Centers for New Horizons and John Owens.  He had organized a summit of corner store owners because the issue was to provide healthier food choices in the neighborhood. Because a lot of the children just feel that what is on the shelf is what you get and a lot of that is unhealthy. You know, it’s the Flamin’ Hots and the cheap drinks that are high in sugar and other snack foods that are high in sodium content.

Sherry: So true, Mr. Young. We were raised, and when I say we I’m thinking of those born in the ‘40s, ‘50s. 60s, and ‘70s, candy and cakes were desserts and they came way after dinner. They were not on the front of starting the day. But anyone that has eyes has seen young people visit stores tand come out, again as Mr. Young was saying, with Flamin’ Hots and bubblegum and sweets and candy as opposed to going in and getting a sandwich or some other healthy option.  And I am appalled knowing that we are going into two generations of this depletion if not a third generation. I just think that there needs to be a radical and proactive move on the part of us as elders who know that it’s really simple to take over the choices that we offer to our children.

The third thing that is very important is networking. A number of people who have gardens, such as the one that we have here, we may not have the capacity of outreach to tell people.  We rely primarily on people, such as Mr. Lorenzo Young, an advocate for justice in neighborhoods, to spread the word about where people can get access to free greens, or tomatoes, or peppers, or whatever someone is growing in their garden that they are willing to offer to the public. So networking is a real need.

I think that if we create or strengthen a network that is already in place, whether it’s through word of mouth and add it to social media we could see some improved impacts on people having access to food.  I think that that could be something universities should explore having students do. A lot of projects come out of institutions like the Art Institute or the University of Chicago, and many other schools that have relationships with communities and relationships with organizations.  My sharing this story could very well set the tone or at least get someone thinking very deeply about how they can use social media to highlight where there is food to be accessed. So I appreciate the interview.

Even our location here at the Stephen Douglas tomb site, even though we are advocating for children, we are advocating for healthy neighborhoods, we are advocating for healthy food options, those who are in and around the site have to know that.

Mr. Young: The proactiveness of an organization like the Bronzeville Historical Society is to really effect today.  To put folks on track with their heritage and with the idea of them being able to make better choices and build on those choices.  For our young people, to deny their history is to deny their greatness. To know that they are not just some gang member or person living in substandard housing, but that they are the ancestry of kings and queens.

Sherry: I would say another real concern is vending opportunities. I grew up in Englewood and every Saturday, and our delight as children was anticipating the Watermelon Man coming. And so we had a great introduction into eating knowing that when the Watermelon man showed up we would have, you know, fresh bananas, and oranges, and grapes, and strawberries.

So again, I can’t help but think about policies. I remember during Harold Washington’s administration that you could pay something like $15 and get a vendor’s license.  People could pull themselves up by maybe selling socks or, you know, things that really, really kept people with some money in their pocket. So I imagine we really need to look at why there isn’t strong policy to encourage vending opportunities. People could have pop-up vending stands near and around schools, near and around churches, near and around even this state site [the Stephen Douglas Tomb] where people could just go ahead and sell fresh tomatoes, and fresh greens, and other things that are produced locally.

And I think it has been a very deliberate design to keep communities locked into not being able to feed themselves and not being able to raise their own gardens and not being able to barter or even vend.  And it’s the tragedy of the African American community because these are really simple things that I know have had a huge impact on what we now see as the daily diet of our kids.

Again, I grew up in a household where the cake and the candy was an option only after you ate a solid meal and we were monitored very closely about eating too many sweets. Now I am seeing more and more kids who have to feed themselves and they will chose a fast food as opposed to learning to cook.

So, I guess I would add that as the fifth thing, is a return to Home Economics and cooking classes in the schools.

Mr. Young: You’re so right, because, you know, actually you can get by much less expensively by cooking for yourself. When you start going into that freezer and buying that prepared food you’re paying for it.  You know, a couple of potatoes, some onions, green, you know, kidney beans, rice and other grains…

Sherry: Young people don’t know how to cook at all. It’s one of the very basic things I’ve found young people really thirsty to learn how to do.

I remember very well when my mom, an excellent cook, taught me how to prepare beans. When I reached 11 that was the first thing my mom taught me to prepare was beans. She would call from work and walk me through learning how to soak them, and sort through them to make sure there were no twigs or anything, and then rinsing them and putting them in water and on the stove an adding the onion and garlic, and salt and pepper. By the time my mom would come home at 5:30 the beans were near done so it didn’t take much after that to pan fry some steak or put some fish in the oven, or whatever was going to compliment the beans.

I cook everyday and a lot of young people think it’s hard work, but once you learn how to prepare and line up your kitchen with the ingredients for seasoning and you keep some beans and some rice and you are ready.  That’s all you need is some beans and some rice in the house [laughs].

A lot of young people really don’t know about shopping either and that is the other thing that goes along with home economics returning to schools. Young people need to learn how to budget so they know they can save money by cooking a meal rather than spending money out.

I can’t go without lastly saying the need for sharing and teaching how to grow plants. I was very fortunate that I had elders whom I could go to and get advice on how to plant and how to grow. I remember so well when Caroline Thomas, of God’s Gang, told me to go out and get the Farmer’s Almanac so we could use it as a tool to guide us for planting.  Still today I browse the Almanac to give me some idea of when to plant. Teaching young people how to plant and grow their own food is very, very important for the development of a healthy neighborhood.  That would be a huge remedy for the lack of access.

So many Black communities are called food deserts, so if we can return home economics and add gardening and teaching planting and cultivating food we could turn this around for our young people.

Mr. Young: As far as the city goes, and the state, they need to provide a motivation, a start up capitol, for retail opportunities. We’ve been talking about the grand scheme of community gardening, and harvesting, and selling back to the community. To have a fresh fruit market where people could go and stuff isn’t brought in from South America, but it is grown right here.

And see, that’s another piece, because I remember the seasons and I remember when it was peach season. I remember my grandmother was, you know, getting her peaches and preparing them for the winter. And when strawberries came we had strawberry shortcake and then they passed. That to me was just a part of the whole fabric of the culture. We’ve lost all these things and, you know, if we could do our own gardening we could at least start getting back to that because kids would know this is the season.  So that’s it, we need to attack these issues in the food deserts. Somebody told me they didn’t like that term food deserts.

Sherry: It might have been me. [laughs] Because, you know, to me the word “desert’ denotes an emptiness and I look at it rather as challenges of access.

I know that by design it has been that we haven’t been able to open our own stores, and when I say we I mean African Americans.  And I know that we haven’t been able to vend our own food to each other. And I know that we haven’t had access to the vacant lots to make them productive, and not only for food, but also for beautification and for play lots.

When I hear the word desert I think of abandoned and empty, but it’s not, we just know there is an access issue and there aren’t many options for many people to get fresh food. I used to cry just about everyday when I was working in the Robert Taylor public housing, to see 3-400 families a day, just in one building and there wasn’t a store on the first floor that could offer fresh produce. Many institutions were working with parents and working with families that wee in public housing but a lot of needs were not being met.

We have a lot of work to do.

Additional Links:

The Industria Heritage Archives

Nature on the Freedom Trail (video)

Harvest Garden Program, Chicago Park District

By Sarah K. Benning


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