Editor’s note: Erie Neighborhood House recently published this article about late Covenant pastor Doug Cedarleaf, who was its director before he started pastoring ECC churches. Erie Neighborhood House has worked with immigrants in Chicago since it was founded in 1870. Doug Cedarleaf died at age 86 in 2000. His wife, Carolyn, passed away last August. She was 96.
On February 18, 1945, a group of approximately 135 individuals huddled together outside of 1347 W. Erie Street as they awaited instructions from Covenant minister Doug Cedarleaf and Miss Florence Towne.
Cedarleaf was pastor of Erie Chapel Presbyterian Church and director of the adjoining Erie Neighborhood House, a settlement house agency serving working class families in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. His counterpart, Towne, was head resident of the agency and a highly regarded figure in the community. Dressed in heavy overcoats, the two were preparing to lead a procession through the cold winter morning.
Moments earlier the people gathered had sat in the second-floor chapel—known today as Templeton Hall—and listened to Cedarleaf preach a sermon, much as he did most Sunday mornings.
That particular morning, however, Cedarleaf’s message was anything but ordinary.
In his sermon “Vandalism on Throop Street,” Cedarleaf passionately confronted racially motivated violence and oppression directed at John Henry Strong and his family, African Americans who had moved into the neighborhood earlier that month.
The Strongs’ arrival was part of the larger movement of the Great Migration. Between 1916 and 1970, the country witnessed a dramatic increase in African Americans moving from the rural South and relocating in the urban industrial centers of the North. An increase in factory jobs in Chicago during World War II attracted black households to the city’s industrial corridors at an even greater rate.
In 1945 West Town was comprised of primarily Polish and Italian immigrant households, some of whom responded to their new neighbors with hostility. Reports surfaced of violence against newly arrived African American families, including broken windows, arson, and even death threats.
Two days after the Strong family moved into a two-flat apartment building at 721 N. Throop Street, rocks were thrown through their front windows. It happened again a week later. One of the three white families living in the building reportedly moved out, and the Strongs received threats that the entire building would be burned down. Not long after that, a fire bomb was thrown into their home.
When Cedarleaf learned of this violence, he was determined to take action. He and his wife, Carolyn, had arrived at Erie House several years before after hearing Towne speak during a chapel service at North Park College and Theological Seminary. Both were passionate about social justice, and Towne spoke to some of their most deeply held convictions. It was no surprise, then, that he would take to the pulpit to advocate for love in the face of hatred, for hospitality rather than scorn.
At the conclusion of his sermon that morning, Cedarleaf implored his mostly white congregation to participate in a march to escort the Strong family—in attendance at Erie Chapel that morning—safely to their home. The congregation overwhelmingly heeded his call.
They gathered outside of the building, signs reading DEMOCRACY MEANS LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL and CHRISTIANITY MEANS LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR in hand. Cedarleaf and Towne then led a procession through the neighborhood, flanked by participants carrying the American and Christian flags. The group sang what had become an anthem for the African American community, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and held hands as they arrived at the Strong residence.
They gathered outside of the building, signs reading DEMOCRACY MEANS LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL and CHRISTIANITY MEANS LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR in hand.
“The only thing you do with your neighbor is to love him,” Cedarleaf told the crowd gathered on Throop Street in a follow-up to his sermon. He presented the Strong family with a Bible and a clear symbolic message that they were—and always would be—welcome at Erie House.
It was a pivotal moment for Cedarleaf and the entire Erie House community.
Details of the march were documented by Chicago Sun-Times journalist Fletcher Wilson in an article titled “Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself.” Not long after, TIME magazine picked up the story and ran a piece in the religion section of its March 5, 1945, issue. Cedarleaf began receiving an outpouring of letters of support from people across the country. He was honored by the Chicago Chapter of the NAACP, and the Mayor’s Commission on Human Relations lauded his work at Erie House and the “outstanding community activity to lessen race tensions,” according to a Sun-Times report.
Not everyone was pleased with the march, however. Some of the letters Cedarleaf received expressed ill sentiment over Erie House’s efforts to welcome black families into the neighborhood, and archived records show that Towne and Cedarleaf invested significant energy in the following months continuing to advocate for tolerance and hospitality.
When faced with this opposition, Cedarleaf and the staff and congregants at Erie Neighborhood House did not waver in their resolve to show hospitality without regard for race, ethnicity or class. In fact, they began to hold even more firmly to that conviction (today the organization serves primarily Latino families and adheres to a mission “to promote a just and inclusive society”).
As for Cedarleaf, he continued in the role of minister and director until 1948. He and Carolyn lived on the third floor of the building at 1347 W. Erie Street alongside their fellow staff members, as was common practice for settlement houses, before moving to a private residence down the street following the birth of their first daughter. During those years Carolyn managed the Clothes Closet at Erie House, established to distribute clothing and household items to neighborhood families in need.
Cedarleaf went on to pastor at several congregations in the Evangelical Covenant Church, including North Park Covenant Church on Chicago’s Northwest Side, always maintaining a passion for justice in both word and deed. Following his retirement, he and Carolyn received the Irving C. Lambert Award in 1998 in recognition of their commitment to urban ministry.