"Landmarkers" placed in front of homes in Englewood document how Black families were sold homes through land sale contracts, a racist housing policy that harmed Black communities in Chicago. Credit: Tonika Johnson

ENGLEWOOD — The years-long work of a South Side artist to document racist housing policies in Englewood has culminated in an interactive exhibit that allows neighbors to visit the sites of “legally stolen” homes. 

Artist Tonika Johnson has placed “landmarkers” in front of two homes in the Englewood community, each marking a home sold through land sale contracts in the ’50s and ’60s to Black homeowners.

The “landmarkers” are a continuation of Johnson’s project, “Inequity for Sale,” an interactive, visual exhibit that examines how racism denied Black Chicagoans fair homeownership for decades. “Inequity for Sale,” created during Johnson’s residency with the National Public Housing Museum, also features a podcast, “Legally Stolen.”

The yellow and black “landmarkers” include the names of the former homeowners and the dates the sale took place. Neighbors can visit the installations at 6823 S. Aberdeen St. and 7250 S. Green St. 

“I knew that the landmark being installed would be a critical turning point for people to truly understand how this is not a distant history,” Johnson said. “The evidence of this period is still with us, and concretely so. But, sometimes, it doesn’t click until you can touch it and experience it.”

“Landmarkers” placed in front of homes in Englewood document how Black families were sold homes through land sale contracts, a racist housing policy that harmed Black communities in Chicago. Credit: Tonika Johnson

The Plunder of Black Wealth In Chicago,” a 2018 study published by Duke University, found 75-95 percent of homes sold to Black families in Chicago during the 1950s and ’60s were sold through land sale contracts.

Speculators would buy a home and sell it on contract at an 84 percent markup on average, the study found. In turn, Black families would pay significantly more while never owning the home. More than 100 homes were sold in Englewood through land sale contracts, the study found. 

Johnson’s “Inequity for Sale” gives Chicagoans the chance to see the vacant homes and deserted lots left in the wake of the land sale contracts. Johnson hopes to place 15 “landmarkers” throughout the community. Placing the first two markers in Englewood during Black History Month was an “emotional experience,” she said. 

“It was so meaningful and powerful for all of us who have really been working together to see the vision come to light this month,” Johnson said. “Everything up until this point has been in anticipation of this moment.”

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Paola Aguirre, co-founder of Borderless Studio, an urban design studio, designed the landmarkers. Andrés Lemus-Spont, a designer and fabricator, built the landmarkers and made them able to withstand harsh Chicago weather, Johnson said. Janell Nelson, an artist and co-founder of the Englewood Arts Collective, designed the logo for “Inequity for Sale:” a stick figure running away with a money bag. 

Choosing to work with Chicago creatives was a deliberate decision, Johnson said.

“We could have gotten all the landmarkers made by some large company, but I really wanted the personal, intimate attention from fellow Chicago creatives,” Johnson said. 

Credit: Tonika Johnson

In the days since her project debuted, Johnson said she faced backlash from people who claimed her work “educates white audiences at the detriment of the Black community by centering our trauma,” Johnson said. But she’s also seen photos of Englewood families at the landmarkers, learning the neighborhood’s history. That is who this work is for, Johnson said.

“I had so many Black people from Black neighborhoods in Chicago that knew what happened in our communities and are relieved and proud to have an immersive experience that shows people the unfair things we’ve been through,” Johnson said. “Seeing that mother and son who are from Englewood be proud to learn about it and demonstrate their happiness affirms that this is why I do what I do.”

Although Johnson’s time with the National Public Housing Museum is coming to a close, she plans to continue “Inequity for Sale.”

The photographer plans to create landmarkers for “the perpetrators that have existing businesses today,” Johnson said. She also wants to buy one of the vacant homes sold through the land sale contracts and create a renovated art space for the public and Greater Englewood residents. 

“I want to renovate one of the homes so we can finally have a beautiful space to host baby showers, community meetings and graduation parties,” Johnson said. ” It will also serve as a permanent exhibition space for my projects. I want this eventual artist community space to be an invitation for people to come and visit the community so that they can disrupt the psychological aspects of segregation.”

And in April, neighbors can hear the voice recordings of residents from the ’50s and ’60s who were sold homes through land sale contracts and decided to fight for their rights at the Weinberg/Newton Gallery, 688 N. Milwaukee Ave.

“I’ve been thinking about this project and working on it since late 2018, early 2019, so for it to get to this point, I’m so excited,” Johnson said. “I’m so happy because this project involves so many people that really believe in my work.”  

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Atavia Reed is a reporter for Block Club Chicago, covering the Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Chatham neighborhoods. Twitter @ataviawrotethis