Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

The Community

BOND: Let me go from 1954 back to your birth, your beginnings. You said last night -- [you] described the move of the family to Illinois initially. But take us back to your early days. What do you recall of the very, very early days of life, the circumstances in which you lived, your mother, father and so on?

THEUS: Well, I lived in a broken family, but interestingly enough we had my father who spent most of his time in the adjoining big city of Chicago. When he was in Robbins where we grew up, a little town outside of Chicago, he lived with his father, my grandfather, in the house next door. We youngsters lived with our mother in the house on the next lot. So --

BOND: And there were nine of you?

THEUS: That's right, nine total of us.

BOND: Four brothers, four sisters and you?

THEUS: And myself, that is correct. We lost one of the sisters very early, in fact so early I can barely remember her. But in any case this was an impoverished, small, bedroom community. I think I mentioned last evening that the houses were built by residents themselves.

BOND: Yes, so in spite of being impoverished, at least they had not only the wherewithal, but the drive to build these houses.

THEUS: Exactly. Exactly, and the people in the community cooperated with one another. The men from other families came to help families as they started to build their homes. There was never a case where we went hungry, for example. If you, as a youngster, happened to be in the yard playing with the kids next door or even down the street, when their mother decided it was time to eat, she didn't just call her children in. If there were other kids in the yard, she would herd them all in the house. I recall specifically a lady by the name of Mrs. Adams, lived a few doors from us. Whenever I was in the yard playing with her kids -- and I was always happy when dinner time because she would insist that I come in and eat with them. I would, of course, out of politeness, I would tell her, "Oh, Mrs. Adams, I can't possibly do that." And she would say, "You get yourself in her and sit down at this table, young fellow! We have enough food for everyone." And conversely, the same thing would happen if the kids were in our yard and Mom would say that it was time for us to eat. So it was a cohesive – even though impoverished – it was a cohesive group of people out there. People were proud. They worked together and tried their best to look after each other.

BOND: On the other hand, this kind of community coming together isn't unusual, but raised to a higher level, this kind of cooperative house building does strike me as an unusual phenomenon. You don't hear of this often.

THEUS: That's right.

BOND: At least in the more modern era of the twentieth century we're talking about here. What was it animated this community?

THEUS: When the African Americans went to Chicago and other Northern cities as a result of this sort of classic migration that I mentioned --

BOND: Right.

THEUS: -- they found that it wasn't easy to make a living. They found that jobs that they thought existed didn't really exist or they weren't competitive, perhaps they didn't have the skills and so forth. So, in order to exist in this new territory, they went out and purchased these lots at relatively low cost and of course there were entrepreneurs there who had bought up a lot of land, subdivided it into lots, and sold it off at what appeared to be low prices to us, but enough to make a good profit for the developers, if you will. And so, in order to lower their cost of living, they moved out there and such started to build houses. Well, it was pretty obvious that they couldn't do it all by themselves, neighbors just started spontaneously to come together to help each other. And so in turn, those who had already built, when they saw someone else needing that kind of assistance, they were able to go over and help them.

BOND: So can you describe the community of Robbins? I mean, was it large? How big it was it?

THEUS: It was a very small community.

BOND: How many families?

THEUS: I would say that, oh, at the time we lived there, I would say that there were probably anywhere between maybe 750 to 1,000 families at the most. There were only two white families in the whole community, one owned a grocery store and the other owned a farm equipment and farm supply store. The others were all blacks, African Americans, most of whom had moved out from Chicago trying to avoid the high rents.

BOND: And you described last night being bused to the neighboring community of Blue Island to go to school?

THEUS: Blue Island, that's right.

BOND: The bus waiting at the end of the school day until every single black student was on the bus --

THEUS: That is right, yes.

BOND: -- so that none of you would be left behind. So I'm getting a picture of a black community surrounded by whites, is that fair?

THEUS: That's exactly -- that's exactly what it was.

BOND: So, on the one hand you're living in this community where everybody looks like you --

THEUS: That's right.

BOND: And then as you approach school age you leave it at least for a few hours every day?

THEUS: For the high school. We did have an elementary school from first grade through twelve there in Robbins -- and a very nice school it was too, really -- but we did not have a high school. So when we reached high school age, we had to be bused to this town of Blue Island. We were accepted in the classes. But there was no effort to make sure that we progressed well. If there were activities that would extend into the evening hours or into hours on other than at the normal time for schools, we were usually discouraged from joining in those. I remember specifically that I was always interested in rifles for example. That practice normally took place after hours. So I was politely told, "Well, you know, maybe you might want to look at something else. This is not anything that you'd want to do." When I talked about getting into business, I wasn't encouraged, shall we say. Not flatly told no, but not encouraged to take business courses even though I wanted to do that and took as many of those as I could.