CHICAGO — Dawn Turner describes the Bronzeville of the 1970s as neither here nor there, as an electric, crumbling nexus, that rare Chicago neighborhood where circumstance and destiny could go either way. She grew up here, in this “cradle” of the Great Migration, once the home of both Ida B. Wells and Richard Wright, arguably still the “epicenter of Black business and culture” in Chicago, a crossroads where the future is not always predetermined and the past not always obvious. As she writes in her evocative new memoir, “Three Girls From Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Story of Race, Fate and Sisterhood,” here was a Chicago “where all that is good and bad is simultaneously at your fingertips,” drug dealers beside surgeons, prostitutes beside university scholars.
Standing on the sidewalk in her old neighborhood on a muggy summer day, Turner, decades later, now in her 50s, looks across the open field between apartment towers.
“The three buildings there, across 35th, that’s Lawless Gardens,” she said. “My family lived in the farthest one. The shopping center between is modernized, but otherwise this all looks very much like it looked then. Bronzeville, though, it’s a different place today.”
Later, if you moved into the neighborhood and brought some wealth or professional standing, you were considered an urban pioneer here. These days, condos in the neighborhood are going for $600,000-plus. Once, when Turner was a child and her mother was learning to drive, they would poke around the neighborhood and her mother would point out history: “She would say, ‘Gwendolyn Brooks lived there ... Here, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (a Black surgeon who did the first successful open heart surgery), he lived there. The first Black insurance company, here. Provident Hospital (the first Black hospital), right there.’ Of course part of that dynamic was restrictive housing covenants. Everybody Black had to live in the same place, regardless of social class. You were confined to the area because of race. The upside was so much history in one small area — but naturally, when you’re a young kid, you don’t always appreciate this.”
We stood at a long, large blue tiled wall.
In the history of Dawn Turner, there’s far more poignance here than at the home where Louis Armstrong lived. (On East 44th Street, for the record.) She calls it “The Ledge,” though it sounds larger in her telling than it seems when you’re standing in front of it.
The Ledge runs away from an apartment complex and winds briefly into a small park. It looks out on the apartments along South Rhodes Avenue and East 32nd Place. It stands roughly 12 feet tall, though at 10 or 11 years old, it would appear taller. She wrote and rewrote “Three Girls From Bronzeville” many times but always found herself starting here. The book tells the story of herself, her younger sister Kim and best friend Debra Trice. The trio would come here, lean back, look at the sky and overhang of leaves. “It was a perch,” she said. “We watched everything going by. We felt invisible.”
For Turner, metaphorically, the Ledge also came to define who they became. It became the fulcrum from which three girls from Bronzeville spun away into very different futures.
“I open (the book) with Debra asking me to jump and I’m like ‘No way!’ but that’s who she was. It’s not terribly high and I wouldn’t do it now but Debra was the more daring. When security would come and tell us to leave I would get ready to go but Debra and Kim, they would be more like ‘You can’t tell us what to do!’ Then they would leave. But for me, rules were scaffoldings. I liked the structure and they did not. It was never that important to them.”
“Three Girls From Bronzeville,” which published Sept 7 (Simon & Schuster) and spans five decades, follows their wildly diverging paths. Turner became an author and a Harvard fellow and, for more than two decades, a popular journalist at the Chicago Tribune. But Kim would become an alcoholic and die young. Meanwhile Trice, whose story looms largest, would serve 21 years for murder. The book doesn’t lecture, moralize or lavishly mourn but rather considers three lives and the meaningful points in those lives where promise stalls, improves or goes south.
Indeed, full disclosure: Though Turner and I are not close and never worked together at the Tribune, she once put in a good word for me that led to a prestigious journalism fellowship — to some extent, Turner was pivotal in my own life. “We all have these moments,” she said. “I flunked out of college freshman year. How did that happen to someone desperate to go to college? What would life have become if I never returned?”
She’s had no shortage of turning points. In 2015 alone, Turner got divorced, her daughter left for college, she sold her house and left the Tribune to write books full-time.
Kim, three years younger, was not as worried as her sister about having the approval of their family. When teenage Kim became pregnant then lost the baby, “that seemed like a turning point,” Turner said, “and what my mother still regrets is nobody knew how to deal with it. We thought she would mourn and eventually get over it. And we had longtime alcoholics in the family. It was a different time.” Kim, whose drinking grew worse, died of chronic alcoholism at 24. For years, the family said Kim died from a heart attack.
As for Trice — though they lived one floor apart in Lawless Gardens, she and Turner started their friendship in school. “At first I would watch her there because she just stood out,” Turner said. “She was beautiful and so smart and mouthy and she would misbehave, and when you’re not that kind of person, who isn’t attracted to that person?”
As an adult, Trice drifted into crack addiction. In 1998, she shot to death a man that she was doing drugs with and was later sentenced to 50 years in jail in Indiana. In 2019, after reconciling with the victim’s family, receiving a bachelor’s degree from a prison-based school (led by Oakland City University) and taking part in numerous programs, her sentence was shaved and Trice was released. She recently completed her parole.
In a phone interview, she told me she doesn’t recall any single turning point in her life but rather, “I was in a spiral because I had tried several times to get clean and I was giving up a little, I was suicidal.” She remembers when she took the man she later killed to her neighborhood. “A car rolled up and said to get in, they were going to so-and-so’s house. I wanted to go. I remember putting my hand on the door handle. I was ready to ditch him. I looked back and he was looking like, Really, you’re going to leave me? I took my hand off the handle and told them to go on. I should have gotten into that car.”
From where we stand, surrounded by manicured greens of the Lake Meadows development, cicadas buzz, cyclists peddle past, high school football players shoulder their equipment across a field. Turner recalls a tennis court here, ice skating, short walks to the lake in summer, all within minutes of the Lawless doors. It’s nearly idyllic.
“I look at this community and I think of my great-grandparents who came during the Great Migration, looking for a second chance, hoping for a promised land,” Turner said. “Which it wasn’t quite, then definitely wasn’t. But what does it mean to get opportunity, screw up that opportunity then hope to receive another bite from the apple?” As she worked on the book for a decade, it occurred she was writing about second chances, who receives them, who does not. She had already written a number of pieces on Debra and prison for the Tribune. “When it comes to Black folks, we often don’t get second chances,” she said. “I walk into a room and I am clearly a Black human being but what does that mean to the person looking? I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve heard that I sound like Michelle Obama — are there not that many tall Black women?”
In particular, for Black women, she said, the stakes and pressures to succeed are often outweighed only by the even narrower room available to make mistakes. Trice had told Turner that she didn’t think she would get addicted to crack. Kim believed the child she was carrying would help “get her life on track at a time when she was floundering. She thought it would make her responsible. But she also didn’t want to be a single mom and when she lost the baby, I saw it as her second chance and told her that — and I regret it. She thought that baby would change her, which it did, but not in the way she expected.”
Turner received her own second chance after being kicked out of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for low grades. “I wasn’t partying, I was protesting apartheid (in South Africa), I was doing a lot, but I also thought I could study the way I had in high school, in a cursory way.” She was asked to sit out a year, attend community college, show commitment. Which she did, and was allowed to return after just one semester.
Of course, circumstances matter.
A teacher once told Turner that she was smart. Which stuck with her. Her parents “let me know where my boundaries were and that became important.” Her grandmother reminded her “low-income people don’t have to be low-ceiling people.” Her mother gave her the Gwendolyn Brooks novel “Maud Martha,” which told the story of a child in her very neighborhood who “also lived like me,” Turner said. She had encouragement and temperament. On the other hand — who knows? People are easily defined. Just to the south of Lawless sat the deteriorating Ida B. Wells housing project, surrounded by an iron fence, a kind of reminder that the future is also how you see yourself. Her family were “working class with middle-class aspirations. That’s the dream our parents had.”
But then, nothing is quite so easy.
Debra Trice, who works now in a medical warehouse in Indianapolis, remembers a childhood full of books, decent grades for a while, being the teacher’s pet for a time. She recalls being expected to have good grades. “But I didn’t know why. There was no couching. There was no ‘You have to do this to reach this point.’ Having African-American parents from the South, they weren’t geared to education. They brought me books. But no, I was never told I was smart. I didn’t hear it, and definitely didn’t know it.”