A real life St. Nick, hounded by the Klan, distributed not just toys but also solidarity.
For thousands of Chicago children in the 1970s, Santa Claus wasn’t a fairytale character from the frigid North Pole, but a radical hillbilly from the city’s North Side neighborhood of Uptown. Each year, throughout November and December, Reverend Iberus Hacker spent about twenty-five hours a week dressed as Santa Claus. His efforts provided Christmas gifts for around 400,000 of the city’s impoverished children. As the Chicago Tribune noted in 1973, Hacker spoke “with a soft drawl. The beard and belly are his own, tho, and so is his spirit.“1
Before landing in Uptown, Iberus’s church in Tennessee was dynamited by the Ku Klux Klan. In search of work and organizing opportunities, like masses of others from Appalachia, Iberus headed north on the hillbilly highway. In Uptown, he found crushing poverty, hunger, and police violence. But he also found others willing to organize a fightback.
The stock market crash of 1973, combined with an oil embargo against countries like the United States that supported Israel during the 1973 Arab–Israeli War, produced an economic recession that stretched through the next two years. A record-setting loss of more than two million jobs, compounded by high inflation, made the lives of Chicago’s working class painfully difficult. Hunger stalked children in the city’s South Side, West Side, and the Uptown neighborhood.
When the state of Illinois passed a new provision that revoked emergency funding from organizations that provided relief, Hacker responded, “Poor people must now have their requests handled by a handful of welfare officials in Springfield—and that takes time. In the meanwhile, these people go without food they desperately need.” 2 That December, Iberus again donned his Santa Claus outfit and joined two dozen other activists for a two hundred-mile walk from Chicago to the governor’s mansion in Springfield to protest the callousness aimed at Chicago’s hungry and poor.3
One of Iberus’s many operations was the Rainbow Union, located at 2440 N. Lincoln Ave and 1222 W. Wilson Ave, which fed about fifteen hundred people a year. But he recognized the need for a more thoroughgoing effort with other organizations in the city. By the spring of 1975, Iberus sought to unite relief organizations across the city. As the Tribune outlined,
It seemed a grand idea, what with breakdowns in the welfare system and a jagged economy rendering more and more people hungry and virtually helpless. It was time for the pantries to act, Hacker was saying. They could no longer stay isolated. They should split up the city efficiently, share a central emergency phone number and perhaps a central food warehouse, divvy up with the others when they became overstocked, call on others when the cupboard became bare, and join in a city-wide solicitation for money and food.4
Another of Iberus’s many campaigns was to ensure that poor Chicago students were entitled to breakfast programs in their schools, despite the opposition from principals. And he united the hunger campaigns with efforts to stop the evictions of families in Uptown through landlord-enforced lockouts.
Once a posh summer resort and entertainment area for the hoity-toity, Uptown’s splendor crumbled by the 1950s. By the 1970s, Uptown was a poor and violent neighborhood to live in, replete with despicable slumlords and street organization like the Uptown Gaylords. As the journalist Zac Mucha recalled:
Typical of the neighborhood, police records for the first week of June, 1971 list 18 killings, 132 reports of alleged spousal abuse, 25 calls to stop bar brawls and two homicides—both middle-aged Appalachian men beaten to death.5
Ruth Dennis, who worked with the Uptown Community Organization, remembered one apartment building that “caught fire 13 times in a 35-day period. . . . That sort of thing was not particularly out of the ordinary.” The legions of welfare organizations in the neighborhood did little to remedy the situation. Intead, by 1973, Uptown had twenty-six day-labor agencies that hyper-exploited residents in dire need of income. As Iberus told the Tribune in 1976, “Uptown was one of those places where the war on poverty was fought and lost, and the occupation army is still around.”6
The neighborhood had what Chicago journalist Robert Cross described in 1974 as a “gutsy sort of urban blend” of “40,000 mostly Southern whites, 16,000 American Indians, 1,500 Latinos, 9,000 Orientals, and 12,000 blacks.”7 But migrant families from Appalachia had long defined the neighborhood’s reputation. As Iberus noted, “It’s a fairly common situation for an Appalachian family to arrive here in a beat-up Ford with six kids and less than $10 lookin’ for work.” But characteristically, he flipped the stereotype that all of them were drinking wine on Wilson Ave: “Some of them are sitting downtown drinking wine.”
Iberus sought to unite Uptown’s poor in campaigns that intentionally bridged the gaps of race and ethnicity. He maintained, “We are squatters on somebody else’s plantation.”8 Along with Reverend Cleophes McCaskel, Iberus was pastor of the Old Country Church, located at 4700 N. Kenmore Ave. The Chicago Tribune described the church as run by “two preachers; one black and one white, singing Black spirituals and white gospel.” Rev. McCaskel also served as the vice president of the Uptown Community Organization, “an umbrella for a number of smaller community groups representing Appalachian whites, American Indians, blacks, Japanese, and welfare recipients.”9
Hunger and poverty weren’t Iberus’s only concerns. During the summer of 1971, Chicago police beat up a fourteen-year-old Black kid in Uptown. In response, Black residents formed their own street patrols around Leland and Winthrop avenues to thwart more police violence. Iberus was a central part of helping to organize the community response.10
Later, he taught an eight-week course on “The People and Problems of Uptown” for community college students. In the summer of 1975, Iberus started the infamous Great American Coffeehouse at 2918 N. Lincoln Ave. One night a week, the coffeehouse stage became the “Great American Soap Box,” which Iberus described as “a sort of indoor Bughouse Square.”11
By 1978, Iberus moved from Uptown to Cincinnati’s historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, the city’s cultural epicenter of urban Black and white Appalachian peoples. There, he worked with the Urban Appalachian Council and activist Mike Henson to found the Harriet Tubman-Mother Jones Folk School. The Cincinnati Enquirer called it “an education purist’s nightmare. There are no credits, no tests, no grades, no established classrooms, no diplomas.”12
Iberus’s organizing and activism stretched across the rural–urban divide as well as the Black–white divide. Despite the many organizations he founded, his television shows and frequent radio appearances, he remains relatively unknown today. But Uptown’s hillbilly Santa Claus made an important contribution to the struggles of oppressed people.
1 Peter Gorner and Stephanie Fuller, “Santa Comes with a Soft Drawl and Warm Heart,” Chicago Tribune, December 13, 1973.
2 Michael Sneed, “State Food Policy Angers ‘Santa,’” Chicago Tribune, December 18, 1973.
3 Sneed, “State Food Policy.”
4 Robert Cross, “You Can Feed Some of the People Some of the Time. . . ,” Chicago Tribune Magazine, April 13, 1975.
5 Zak Mucha, “Andrew Vachss: Beating the Devil,” Gallery Magazine, April 2000, http://www.vachss.com/av_articles/gall2k.html
6 George Estep,“He Preaches Pride as Saving Grace for Uptown’s Woes,” Chicago Tribune, November 18, 1976.
7 Robert Cross, “Uptown’s Future: Are the Swingers at the Gates?” Chicago Tribune Magazine, September 29, 1974.
8 Cross, “Uptown’s Future.”
9 Carolyn Toll, “Community Group Sings and Prays, Works for Uptown,” Chicago Tribune, August 1, 1971.
10 “Uptown Blacks Unite to Resist ‘Police Beatings,’” Chicago Tribune, August 28, 1971.
11 Estep, “He Preaches Pride.”
12 Jim Sluzewski, “‘Folk School’ Stresses Bible, Cultural Heritage,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 25, 1979.
Eric Kerl is a Kentuckian living, working, organizing, and writing in Chicago. He is the author of White Bred: Hillbillies, White Trash, and Rednecks against White Supremacy, forthcoming from Haymarket Books. He is a a member of the Rampant editorial collective.