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Art and Soul

“People Wasn’t Made to Burn”

   Ben Shahn belonged to the Social Realism art movement that became important in the U.S. during the Great Depression. His broad work carried a message of social and political protest. Shahn was born in 1898 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Lithuania, and the family immigrated to the U.S. in 1906. As a teenager in Brooklyn, Shahn went to high school at night, spending his days as a lithographer’s apprentice. During the 1920s, Shahn studied at New York University, the City College of New York, and the National Academy of Design, and in 1925 he travelled to Europe for two years. Upon his return to New York, Shahn’s artistic development was becoming largely influenced by his strong Socialist views. In 1932 Shahn produced a series of 23 gouache paintings depicting the Sacco & Vanzetti murder trial. The work expressed his belief that both men were executed because of their ethnic origin and political affiliations. His powerful paintings protested the tragedy of social injustice.
    During the 1930s, while he worked on numerous public murals, Shahn’s work became recognized and associated with social issues such as labor and conditions of the working class. He also worked as a photographer in a group that included Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, exposing the conditions of the rural poor in America. Shahn’s touching photographs told stories of country people in drought and destitution.
    The year 1930 marked the beginning of two decades of African American migration from the rural and impoverished South to the promising city of Chicago. Rapid growth of Chicago’s African American population created housing problems, as the city’s racist housing policies confined black families to a modest range of blocks on the South and West sides. With the scarcity of homes, white and black landlords increased their revenues by converting apartments into tiny units called “kitchenettes.” The poorly kept dwellings lacked proper insulation and plumbing, resulting in unsafe living conditions.
    During the 1940s, James and Annie Hickman left Mississippi, hoping to provide their children with a better future in Chicago. James Hickman found a job in a steel plant, and rented an attic unit on 1733 West Washburne, as a temporary home for his wife and children. The landlord, David Coleman, also from the South, had promised Hickman the second floor unit once it became available. Hickman had waited in vain and when he realized that Coleman had no intentions of leasing the second floor unit to his family, he decided to move out. The problem was David Coleman’s refusal to return Hickman’s large down payment. When Hickman threatened to go to court, Coleman said he would burn down the building.
    On January 16, 1947, just before midnight, while James was working the night shift at the mill, Annie Hickman heard popping sounds. There was fire, and the Hickman family was trapped in the attic. There were no fire escapes and Annie and two of her boys were able to escape through the window. Four of the Hickman children were killed, their bodies found under the bed with 14-year old Leslie protecting his younger siblings, Elvena, 9, Sylvester, 7, and Velvena, 3. When Hickman returned home the following morning, he found his building gutted and a neighbor broke the tragic news.
    For months after the fire, Hickman was depressed and distraught and wanted justice. He remembered Coleman’s threats to burn the building down, but the police did not fully investigate the case. “Paper was made to burn, coal and rags. Not people. People wasn’t made to burn, ” James said to his son. On July 16, 1947, armed with a pistol, Hickman went to see Coleman and accused him of setting the fire. According to Hickman, Coleman admitted it, and at that point, Hickman shot him four times. Coleman died three days later. While James Hickman was charged with murder, members of the Socialist Worker’s Party formed a defense committee and a citywide campaign for his acquittal. After the trial, Hickman was free to go back to his family.
     In 1948 Shahn made a series of drawings for Harper’s Magazine to illustrate a story about the 1947 Hickman murder trial in Chicago.  Shahn’s drawings became a poignant record of the Hickman story. For years the original drawings hung on the east wall of the law office of Leon Despres, one of Hickman’s defense attorneys, who would later become a legendary Chicago alderman, known as the absolute conscience of the city. Writer Joe Allen recapitulated the Hickman tragedy and its historical background. (Joe Allen, The Fight to Save James Hickman in Post-WWII Chicago, International Socialist Review, Issue 66,  July–August 2009).
    Ben Shahn’s drawings of the trial were given to the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. A current exhibition entitled “People Wasn’t Made to Burn: Ben Shahn and the Hickman Story,” is curated by Rachel Furnari and continues through August 29. o

Published: June 07, 2010
Issue: Summer 2010 Urban Living