As a young Jesuit seminarian working in North Lawndale, John R. “Jack” Macnamara led a legendary organizing campaign by Black home buyers seeking economic justice.
A half century later, Macnamara helped revive that groundbreaking work as it became part of the national conversation over reparations for African Americans.
Macnamara, 83, of Wilmette, died at home Sept. 5 from complications of COPD and congestive heart failure. He had previously suffered from lung cancer.
Macnamara’s passionate, almost obsessive attention to the problems of racial inequality often made others uncomfortable, said his longtime friend, Father John Foley, a founder of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Pilsen.
“He was a prophet, and people don’t like prophets,” said Foley, counting himself among those who at times counseled against Macnamara’s dogged approach.
But Foley said recent developments including the Black Lives Matter Movement have vindicated Macnamara’s persistence.
Macnamara was a lead organizer for the Contract Buyers League, a group of Black home buyers who joined together in 1968 to fight exploitive real estate contract sales.
Barred at the time from receiving conventional bank mortgages, African Americans who bought homes in what previously had been all-white neighborhoods had no choice but to purchase the properties on contract from real estate speculators who routinely charged them double what they had paid for the same homes — often only days earlier. The sellers also charged them interest rates several points higher than white home buyers were paying for bank mortgages at the time.
Maybe the worst part of the deal was the installment contracts gave the buyers no equity in their homes, which they didn’t own unless and until they paid off the total amount owed. They could be evicted and lose everything if they missed even one payment, which was in the seller’s interest because the seller could then put the property on the market again — and collect another down payment.
Macnamara became aware of the problem by talking with residents after taking on a community organizing project for Father Jack Egan at Presentation Church in North Lawndale in 1967. Macnamara moved into the neighborhood himself and recruited a team of college students to help with the research.
The first hurdle was getting residents to talk about it publicly.
“People were reluctant to talk about being on contract because it was such an embarrassment, and they didn’t even admit to each other that they were on contract,” Macnamara said in an interview for Bruce Orenstein’s documentary “The Color Tax: Origins of the Modern Day Wealth Gap.”
One of those who came forward early was Clyde Ross, who became president of the Contract Buyers League and a lifelong friend of Macnamara.
“He was a different person from any white person I ever seen. He did everything he could for Blacks. He never acted like he was white,” said Ross, now 97, whose comments might be best understood in the context of someone who watched all the white people move off his block just because he moved in.
Ethel Weatherspoon, 80, another of the original Contract Buyers League participants still living in her Lawndale home, recalled Macnamara as “one in million.”
“He was true to his word,” she said. “Whatever he could help you with, he did that. Wherever there was inequality, Jack was there.”
Eventually, hundreds of neighborhood residents attended weekly meetings in the church basement and mobilized behind Macnamara’s action plan.
The Contract Buyers League put public pressure on contract sellers to renegotiate the terms of the sales agreements, picketing their places of business and leafleting their home neighborhoods. When that met with only limited success, buyers arranged to jointly withhold their monthly payments, paying the money instead into an account that helped them save it.
It was a risky move. Some ended up being evicted. But more than 450 were able to renegotiate their contracts and reduce their payments.
Eventually, passage of federal legislation to end redlining made it easier for Black home buyers to receive mortgages and curtailed the market for contract sales.
Macnamara, meanwhile, never became a priest.
One of the main financial supporters of the Contract Buyers League invited Macnamara to his daughter’s wedding, where another daughter, Margaret “Peggy” O’Connor, asked Macnamara to dance. Two months later, he asked her to marry him.
With his father-in-law’s help, Macnamara purchased Fred Busch Foods Corp., a sausage making plant in Portage Park and operated it for most of the next three decades.
“He was a different kind of businessman,” said his son, John, explaining his father saw the company as an extension of his social justice work. “It was not a tool for him to get wealthy.”
John Macnamara, who worked with his father for a time, said they clashed when he wanted to fire a worker.
“He always wanted to give them another chance,” his son said.
When they finally sold the sausage plant in 2002, Macnamara returned to his early passions.
He helped start Christ the King Jesuit College Prep in Austin, served on the board of Austin Coming Together and became a visiting scholar at Loyola University’s Center for Urban Research and Learning.
Interest in Macnamara’s work with the Contract Buyers League was revived by Beryl Satter’s 2009 book, “Family Properties,” which in turn found its way into Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic in 2014.
To the end, Macnamara advocated for reparations, which he conceived as large-scale financial support for a housing program to help African American families buy homes at below-market cost and at below-market interest rates — not as direct payments to individuals.
“He fought this battle his whole life, and he never gave up,” said Orenstein, a documentary filmmaker at Duke University, who co-authored a study with Macnamara and others that calculated how much total wealth had been lost by Black families in Chicago victimized by contract sales from 1950 to 1970.
The study, presented last year at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago after a painstaking record search under Macnamara’s guidance, pegged the loss conservatively at $3.2 billion.
Macnamara is survived by his wife and seven children — Meghan Halleron, Coleen, John, Katie Peterson, Bill, Dan and Patrick — and 21 grandchildren.
A private funeral mass was held Friday at Saints Joseph and Francis Xavier Church in Wilmette, and can be viewed on the church’s YouTube page.