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A photo of black Chicago, a mother’s story of a bygone era

Billy Abernathy. Mother’s Day from Born Hip, 1962. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of the Illinois Arts Council.

We stopped at the black-and-white photograph on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

My mother pointed to the portrait of two young black men, sporting sharp wool suit coats, elegant flowers pinned to their lapels. One flower is white, one dark.

Wearing jaunty felt hats, they lean against the ornate wall of an apartment building. Bright eyes turn away from the camera, I imagine, toward the street bustle, or to look out for a pretty girl.


“They’re standing in front of the building I was raised in,” my mother declared.

Every picture tells a story. The 1962 photo, “Mother’s Day,” is by Billy “Fundi” Abernathy, a leader in the Black Arts Movement. He “created images that defined black confidence, elegance and style,” according to the exhibit description.

We were touring “Never a Lovely so Real: Photography and Film in Chicago, 1950 to 1980.”

It’s a compilation of “the work of the many photographers and filmmakers who documented Chicago in the second half of the 20th century as cultural, social, and political events transformed the city.”

Gwen Washington, 84, is so proud of that building. In the 1940s, her family moved to the four-story Francis Apartments, at 4304 S. Forrestville Ave. Designed by the famed Frank Lloyd Wright in 1895, it was originally intended for middle-class whites.

When whites moved away from Bronzeville, African-American migrants from the South moved in. It was named an architectural landmark; its elaborate, wrought- and cast-iron entrance gate resides in the Art Institute’s collection.

“And this is Mother’s Day,” she said of Abernathy’s photograph. “I can tell because of the flowers. On Mother’s Day we all wore flowers. You wore a white flower if your mother was dead. You wore a red flower if your mother was living.”

Her own mother made the flowers. My grandmother was a creative soul and self-taught artist. She crafted artificial flowers from wood fibre and sold them to the neighborhood.

“And my mother would make flowers by the hundreds, for Mother’s Day,” Gwen Washington recalled. “The whole week, she would make flowers.”

“And sometimes the fellas would come and knock on the door. And they didn’t have any money to buy a flower. Or they just felt badly. And she would say, ‘Give them a flower, whatever color they need.’ ”

Back then, black families thrived in a building designed by a world-renowned architect. Dapper young men hung out to watch the vibrant street life. They wore flowers to honor their mothers.

Uncelebrated African-American entrepreneurs crafted adornments of honor. Money was short, but neighborly generosity long.

My mother gazed at the photo. A wistful shadow crossed her brow. “They don’t wear hats like that anymore.”

The hats are gone. The flowers are gone. The Francis Apartments are gone, demolished in 1971 after years of decline. Today too many of our young men stand around raggedy liquor stores, pants down, underwear out.

Too many dark eyes turn away, on the lookout for gang violence. Too many linger and get shot.

On Mother’s Day, too many mothers are dead, vanished, or in prison. Neighborly black entrepreneurs are in short supply.

“Never a Lovely so Real” is at the Art Institute through Oct. 28.

Follow Laura Washington on Twitter @mediadervish

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