By Erick Johnson (Chicago Crusader/NNPA Member)
Gwendolyn Brooks’ apartment was dark on May 1, 1950. The brilliant, award-winning Black poet, who wrote about life on Chicago’s South Side, had not paid her electric bill.
With no electrical power, little money and a nine-year old son to feed Brooks made headlines around the world while living in a housing project.
A reporter called Brooks and told her that she had won a Pulitzer award, one of the most prestigious prizes in literature. At 32 years-old, Brooks crashed the White-dominated literary world as the first Black woman to win the award.
When Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize with her publisher Harper Row in 1950, she received $500, which is equivalent to about $5,000 today, when adjusted for inflation. Today, the Pulitzer comes with a $15,000 cash award.
The achievement was important for Brooks’ career, but how she lived was not completely different than other working-class Black women in the 1950s.
Up until the day she won the Pulitzer, Brooks and her husband, Henry Blakely, experienced rampant racism in Chicago’s schools, but especially in the city’s housing industry. Blacks lived piled up in slums, because of segregation and restrictive covenants that kept Blacks out of White neighborhoods.
As was true for many Blacks, financial woes, racism and a critical housing shortage for people of color led one of America’s greatest literary figures to live in a housing project, one that was once opposed by thousands of White residents at the height of Jim Crow period.
As the 100th anniversary celebrations of Brooks’ birthday continue, Brooks’ literary achievements have made her an enduring figure in American culture—Black and White. While much has been said about her work, her hard life growing up in segregated Chicago has made her success all the more extraordinary.
Some 36 years after capturing the Pulitzer, Brooks gave a sit-down interview in 1986 with the Library of Congress. The interview came as Brooks served as the 29th Consultant in Poetry for the world’s largest library. Alan Jabbour, the director of the Library of Congress’ American Folklore division, and E. Ethelbert Miller, poet and director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, interviewed her. The interview is posted on YouTube.
During the interview, Brooks was asked how she learned that she had won the Pulitzer Prize. She said: “I was in a house at 9134 S. Wentworth and the lights were out. We hadn’t paid the electric bill so there was no electricity and it was dusk. It was dark in the house. My son [Henry Blakely Jr.] was nine at the time. Jack Starr, a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times called. He said ‘do you know that you have won the Pulitzer Prize?’ I said ‘no’ and screamed over the telephone. I couldn’t believe it. So, he said well, it was true and it would be announced the next day. The next day, reporters came, photographers came with cameras and I was absolutely petrified. I wasn’t going to say anything about the electricity. Well, when they tried to plug their cameras in—nothing was going to happen.”
Brooks continued: “Well, miraculously, somebody had turned the electricity back on that fast. I never knew exactly what happened. So my son and I danced around in the dusk and decided we would go out to the movies to celebrate. I don’t know what movie it was, before you ask.”
Before moving to Princeton Park Homes, hard times and financial challenges forced Brooks and her husband to move about six times on the South Side. Brooks used the profits of a sale of a house in Kalamazoo, Michigan to buy the house at 7428 S. Evans in the Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. According to author George Kent’s 1990 book, “A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks,” she lived in that house from 1953 to 1994. Today, the home is a Chicago landmark.