The stories of Chicago synagogues that became black churches

An article in the Chicago Tribune takes a look at black churches in Chicago that once were synagogues. Here is how this happened:

[Historian Irving] Cutler observed that ethnic groups often follow each other through Chicago’s neighborhoods. The patterns are regular: Mexicans trailed Czechs and Slovaks from Pilsen to Little Village and Cicero, for example, Cutler said. Blacks have followed Jews — westward from Maxwell Street to Lawndale and Austin; southward from the Near South Side to Bronzeville and South Shore.

Like other immigrants, Jews came to this country hoping their children would have opportunities denied them in the Old Country. For a while, they couldn’t realize part of the American dream: a nice home on a tree-lined street in a bucolic community. Some suburbs were restricted, others unfriendly to Jews.

“Then came World War II and the GI Bill which enabled veterans to become homeowners,” Cutler said. “There weren’t many single-family homes with nice yards in Lawndale. It was a neighborhood of two-flats and apartment buildings. So they went to the suburbs.”

Synagogues were sold to black congregations, whose members still couldn’t follow their previous owners to many suburbs in a region still often defined by racial and ethnic lines.

Interesting sociological history here. I was recently telling a class about the rapid shifts in Chicago neighborhoods in the mid twentieth century, how a neighborhood might go from being 90% white to 90% black in a ten year stretch. I don’t think they were able to comprehend this very well; we generally aren’t used to seeing such rapid social change and we tend to think that places will keep following the same course unless some large social force intervenes such as the closing of a major job provider. (Perhaps this helps explain NIMBY behavior – if they can, people will fight against any social force altering their neighborhood.) But in Chicago and many other American cities, this kind of rapid racial and demographic change once occurred regularly and altered many neighborhoods and communities.

It would be interesting to hear more about the sale of these synagogues. As Jews moved to the suburbs, did they sell their houses of worship at a fair market value or did they sell them for cheaper? Were there any hard or bitter feelings about having one’s house of worship turned over to another faith?

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