“I came to Riverwest in 1986,” says Margaret. “I was living on the east side, and the duplex was sold. I had thirty days to get out. I had two children living with me. And two dogs. And a cockatiel. I was working for Curative and was contracted to Froedtert.”
A child that Margaret was seeing (in her capacity as a speech therapist) lived in Riverwest. The nurse working with the client told Margaret of a duplex next to her home on Booth Street that was only rented word-of-mouth. “That story of my introduction to Riverwest … I wish I had a video of that interview with the owner because it was the strangest I’d ever had in my life.” Margaret met with the owner and was thrilled to find the huge duplex was affordable for her. “Then I very tentatively said, ‘What about pets? Dogs? Cats?’ And he said, ‘Oh, good grief, everybody has them, so there’s nothing I can do about it. No problem.’ And I kept thinking something is going to go wrong here. So I asked, ‘How much security deposit do you want?’”
Margaret pauses, “Now I’m not making this up … He answered, ‘Oh, you were recommended. Why don’t you just give me $15.’ I thought this was too good to be true.” To top it off, her new landlord let her move in at her own pace over the next couple weeks, since the flat was sitting vacant.
“I just fell in love with Riverwest then and began to get involved in the neighborhood,” says Margaret. Her earliest activism in the community was against absentee landlords. Notable activists, including Carl Hedman and Vince Bushell, were part of the team she worked with that was successful in addressing the problem in Riverwest.
Margaret’s activism did not end there. But it also did not begin there.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, Margaret attended a southern college, the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, for her graduate studies. This was during the early years of the Civil Rights movement, and “several of us started riding Freedom Buses,” explains Margaret. “It wasn’t really a lark. Many of us had serious discussions about race and would tease or give some of the people who were more redneck (stereotypically) a hard time. So, a whole group of us started riding Freedom Buses in Mississippi and then in Alabama.
“I never saw Dr. (Martin Luther) King. We did meet Jesse Jackson and work with his Rainbow Coalition, but that was when I was moved to Chicago. While still in grad school we went from Freedom Buses to doing more marching or writing. I was arrested. One time in Alabama we were told we could ride the buses and then there would be a march, but as we got off the buses we were all arrested.
“Also in Alabama during a march—and as a Southern girl this just took me by surprise—this sheriff … they just started beating us up … I mean all of us. This sheriff hit me with his night stick and (it’s so long ago it’s hard to remember) this tooth was so broken it had to be pulled and this was broken so it’s capped.” Margaret points to the side of her face and continues, “and other teeth were broken. But the worst thing was that the roots of the teeth over here were broken.” She indicates her entire lower right jaw line.*
Margaret had married, moved to Chicago and begun her PhD studies at Northwestern. The dental work had all been completed months earlier, and she thought everything was fine. But she woke up one morning in excruciating pain and headed to the dentist who asked her if she had been in a car accident. All the teeth looked fine but all the roots had died and then become infected. “So those teeth all had to be extracted. It was so painful,” remembers Margaret.
It also changed her career pathway entirely. The sickness, repair, and healing took so long that she had to drop out of school. Essentially she left her intended front-edge auditory research career and went into clinical practice as a speech therapist.
In Chicago, she continued to work for equal rights and against poverty and joblessness with Jesse Jackson and a “bootstrap” program that supported peoples’ efforts to acquire better training and education. “This was not a racial thing,” explains Margaret. “And the same thing with his Rainbow Coalition … But if, really, if we would stop letting, in my opinion, the government pit us against one another, we’d realize that most of us are just a little bit better off than the other one. That we really all have the same kind of goals of putting one foot in front of the other and trying to support our families. … And I think that Jackson has been attempting, always, to put that back together. But it’s an uphill battle on a sandy hill.”
Margaret eventually left that house on Booth to buy a home on Pierce, where she happily lived for nearly twenty years. She sent her M.D. daughter off to marry from there, and tended her remarkable son in his final years. He passed away in 2012 at the age of forty from a brain tumor.
In 2014, she bought a condo in the Hi Fi Lofts on Burleigh and Weil, because they are wheelchair friendly, close to Snail’s Crossing and she “fell in love with the industrial look of it.” She has her own fight for survival now, against cancer. Her diagnosis came in 2015, and she was told she had six months to live. Margaret’s will and chemo have her back on her feet long beyond the expected.
She’s had to curtail her busy life, backing off from volunteer work but is still singing, when she can, with the choir at St. Casimir. Also, a member of the Riverwest Elders since 2011, she says, “Most of what I’m doing is Riverwest Elders.”
There has been no metastasis, but the chemo took its toll, so in May, Margaret begins radiation. “So that’s where I am, and they’re pretty optimistic. I asked the doctor for her prognosis, and she said, ‘Maybe another year.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll be 77 in June. I’d like to get to 80.’ That’s my goal, to get to 80.”
Let’s all cross our fingers and toes and pray that this Riverwest Mensch makes her goal. We sure don’t want to lose you, Margaret!
* Note from Ellen Warren
When in our conversation I commented, aghast, about the strength of force it would take to break all the roots of the teeth in a line, Margaret responded, “Yes, I remember thinking at the time, ‘What is this person doing to me?’”
And in researching the Alabama Freedom Riders (Wikipedia: Freedom Riders) in those exact days, I learned that the police told the white mob, many of whom were KKK members, that they had fifteen minutes to beat the protesters before any law enforcement would step in. Obviously, as in Margaret’s case, the officers also took part in the beatings.