Eden Elieff, author and ’63 Boycott participant, used her memories of the protest as the backdrop to her short story, “Police Work”
Several months ago, we were contacted by author Eden Elieff, who shared with us her experience as a student participant in the 1963 Boycott:
When the boycott took place, I was all of seven years old. Yet it made quite an impression on me. I grew up in Hyde Park and was going to Shoesmith School at the time (the elementary school on 50th Street and Kenwood Avenue, the place where Obama cast his ballot in 2008). Because of the politics of the community, most people I knew participated in the boycott, that is, the parents of my classmates pulled their kids from school so that they would participate in it. I clearly remember going to the church of St. Paul Church of the Redeemer across the street from Shoesmith for activities, which included singing (“We Shall Overcome”) and listening to information sessions about what was at stake. We sat in the church activity hall with kids of all races and incomes.
The whole thing made quite an impression on me because here we were being pulled out of school for a political protest, and when you’re that young, such an event will imprint you. And then of course a month later, JFK was shot. We were primed quite young about the world we were living in.
In any event, the whole thing was such a defining moment for me that I included the event as a backdrop plot point in a short story I wrote about my childhood.
Here’s an excerpt from Eden’s short story “Police Work” and followed by a link to the story in its entirety. Note that the event she refers to seems to be an amalgam of several different protests of that era – Boycotts in 1963 and 1964, as well as the SNCC-organized Christmas Loop Boycott.
In the fall of fifth grade, I got to stay home from school for a day to boycott the mobile classrooms Mayor Daley was planning for the schools in the black neighborhoods of the city, to the west and north of us. The year was 1964, and in my school, which was more than half black, this plan of the Mayor’s did not go over well, even though we were not directly affected. Everyone said the black neighborhoods should be getting money for new schools, not those trailer park arrangements. See? people in Hyde Park would say. Daley was a bad man and not fit to be Mayor. He cared only about the Irish neighborhoods. They’d say, name one Paddy who’s ever seen the inside of a mobile classroom – or of a jail cell, for that matter, since all the Irish crooks were out on the streets running City Hall. So the adults and community leaders said: Mobilize! Which meant boycott work and school and join the big march downtown, the first civil rights protest in Daley’s reign.
My father wasn’t particularly political, and he became even less so after my mother had left in an effort to diminish her influence on us, so I had no idea how he’d react to all this. I told him I would become an outcast if I didn’t participate in the boycott – even though deep down, I shared his indifference. As far as I was concerned, if being political meant no school, then political I was.
“We might as well move to Marquette Park if we don’t support the boycott. You know, where neo-Nazis march down Cicero Avenue,” I said to my father on the Saturday morning before the boycott day. I was repeating word-for-word what I’d heard some mother say at school, knowing the Nazis were the one topic that could get him going. Marquette Park could have been in St. Louis as far as I knew.
“What do you mean, neo?” He looked up from the bowl of pancake batter he was whipping up. It was always pancakes on Saturday morning. “If your father was a Nazi, and you’re still a Nazi, then that’s what you are. A Nazi. I’m not a neo-Democrat.”
I thought about this for some seconds. I’d always thought his father was a Republican. “What if your father wasn’t one but now you are?”
“You’re still a Nazi.”
“So you’re saying I can go downtown to the march?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, coughing into the pancake batter. “Have yourself a ball.”
After a long career as a teacher at Lake Forest Academy and other independent schools in the Chicago Area, Eden moved to Houston, where she is working on a novel set during Urban Renewal movement of the late 50s and early 60s in Hyde Park.