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Here We Are

An hour from Chicago sits a town started by a runaway slave that ranks as one of the nation’s poorest places. Where running water and electricity are not givens. There, amid the broken promises of outside help, you will find a remarkable spirit of resiliency. Welcome to Pembroke.

By Scott Blackwood
Photography by Jason Reblando

 

Here We Are

An hour from Chicago sits a town started by a runaway slave that ranks as one of the nation’s poorest places. Where running water and electricity are not givens. There, amid the broken promises of outside help, you will find a remarkable spirit of resiliency. Welcome to Pembroke.

I. Fifty Miles South of Chicago, 1862

What must it have been like for Joseph “Pap” Tetter, a runaway slave before the Emancipation Proclamation, to leave everything he knew in North Carolina for the supposed promised land of the North? And what made Tetter—stolen property in the eyes of the law—possibly think he could take his 18 children with him? Did they travel under cover of night? Hide among the trees during the day? They must have traversed many of the old fur-trading trails, such as Hubbard’s Trace, which snaked from Vincennes, Indiana, up to Fort Dearborn, the site of modern-day Chicago. Once he’d gotten his family to a sparsely populated area south of the city by the end of 1862, no doubt still wary of being captured, did Tetter trade with some of the native Potawatomi who had refused orders to go west of the Mississippi? Did all of them forge a kind of community of the displaced? And once he was settled, what possessed Tetter, given his meager beginnings and the dangers to himself and his family, to sell off parcels of the 42 acres he’d purchased to fund a new hub of the Underground Railroad, to become an unlikely patron to those coming north, as he had, at great risk?

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We’ll never know for sure because the historical record, beyond his land purchase and sales, is so sparse. All we do know is that Pap Tetter—the fugitive former slave and presumed founder of Pembroke Township, Illinois—helped establish a predominantly black community that would stand for more than another 150 years as a place of African American self-reliance and resiliency, but also of deep isolation and poverty, sections of which to this day are without running water, natural gas, electricity, or a police force. That Pap Tetter, from the very beginning, was his brother’s keeper. And that for African Americans in this area, Pembroke was unlike anyplace else. It was theirs.

 
Keith Bobo
Keith Bobo’s family moved to Pembroke when he was a child to escape Chicago’s violence.

II. Fire and Ice, Earth and Water

Three miles from I-57, when you cross the bridge over the Kankakee River on your way into Pembroke Township, farmland stretches out to meet a smear of sky in the distance, the kind of lengthy horizon most Chicagoans see only when they look out at the lake, where boats gather along its disappearing edge. Here, instead, are fields of potatoes, corn, soybeans. Here are dark knots of oaks and clumps of bluestem grass and wildflowers. You might even think this looks like ideal farm country, the river running through it, major markets only an hour’s drive away. But that’s an illusion. Despite its natural beauty, the land in Pembroke was never particularly good for farming. Maybe this is why African Americans had access to it in the first place and why they cling to it more dearly, the way you might love a person more for her faults. The soil here is actually sandy, not as rich as it looks. And though it appears unassuming enough—flat pastures and furrowed slopes as in much of rural Illinois, a landscape city dwellers might take little notice of except to subtly register the disquieting feel of distance and exposure—Pembroke is a paradox.

It’s one of the most unusual and troubled 52 square miles anywhere, a place that defies the definitions people have given it. All of this a glacier once, and when it melted at the end of the last ice age and the lake it left behind finally receded, what remained was grit and gravel. Irritants of a type, you might think. Grains of sand in an oyster shell to nudge along a flawed pearl. Here, over the millennia, the sediment became dunes and grasslands and oak savannas, an oasis for unique wildlife—the plains pocket gopher and the western slender glass lizard—unlike anywhere else in the country, and a natural firebreak wedged between the last of the old forests and the great sea of prairie to the west. Fires couldn’t rage here as they might have elsewhere. They’d burn themselves out.

Pembroke itself is an amalgam of fire and ice, earth and water. Shaped for good and bad by human habit, need, and neglect. A certain aloneness lives here, too, shaped by these elements. A quietude that calls to people and sometimes envelops them.

 
Lillian Spencer checks in a resident at the food pantry
Lillian Spencer checks in a resident at the food pantry she and her husband run.

III. Lord’s Lambs Ministry Food Pantry

Pembroke Township called to Lillian and Bruce Spencer, who moved here from Chicago’s South Side—71st and Hermitage—20 years ago. They wanted a rural lifestyle, enjoyed its quiet and slower pace. The Spencers, who are in their mid-60s, run the Lord’s Lambs Ministry Food Pantry and Youth Program in Pembroke. Today, as they do every Thursday (and every Saturday), they’re unloading the delivery truck. Crates of donated bananas, whole frozen chickens, lunchmeat, milk, cereal, and loaves of bread. Lillian has a restless energy and booming voice. She’s a charmer. She tilts her head a little to get your attention, her pretty oval face softening things, making you feel at home even if you’re not. Bruce is more languid, running a bit in the same comfortable groove. A soft-spoken man. Self-contained. His blue “I Love Jesus” hat perched atop his head.

It’s a muggy afternoon, and Bruce takes off his glasses and hat and wipes his face with his shirt. He motions to his grandson, who has been helping him unload. The boy, wearing shorts, shower sandals, and athletic socks, looks up and nods at Bruce with a 15-year-old’s mix of practiced tolerance, embarrassment, and respect. “I do some carpentry, some repair work here and there,” Bruce says, leaning against the inside wall of the truck. “So one day, I’m here in Pembroke working on a ceiling at this woman’s rental house, and the kids come in the door saying they’re hungry, wanting her to fix them something to eat. She says, ‘No, not right now. You all go out and play.’ And then one of the boys pulls on the fridge door”—Bruce tugs at the air with one hand, the fridge swings open—“and it’s empty—just a light bulb. The look on those boys’ faces. That’s where it all started. That look.” He flashes the look: disbelief, fear. Shakes his head as he saw the boys do. “So me and Lillian took over the pantry and been here ever since.”

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Lillian, who as a teenager lived in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project, talks about their plans for a larger food pantry, one that could serve many more Pembroke residents. “Some Saturday mornings, we have over a hundred waiting here in line. A lot of them have special diets. A lot of them have diabetes. So we have to have all sorts of special foods.” Lillian talks about how the census takers out here get the population of Pembroke Township all wrong because they never go down the dirt roads and knock on doors. Never talk to the people who don’t have running water or electricity or gas for heat, people essentially still living a 19th-century life—living hand to mouth—only 50 miles from a major American city. “People are all out there,” she says, motioning to the woods in her mind. Officially, there are about 2,000 Pembroke residents, but by the mayor’s estimate, there are possibly another 2,000 out in the woods and down dirt roads. Ghost voices, never officially documented.

There have been many promises of help over the years as state officials seemingly rediscover Pembroke each decade. Yet little changes. In the late 1990s, Governor George Ryan, a native of nearby Kankakee, had sold bonds to fund the building of a women’s prison in the township that would, as a byproduct, bring electricity and running water to Pembroke. But with $13 million of the allotted $100 million spent on the partial foundation and some infrastructure alone, the project was halted soon after Ryan left office, supposedly because of budget shortfalls. The wide paved road to the prison site, built for the construction trucks, is still there, leading essentially nowhere. The foundation and plumbing still rest in the ground—except for the copper pipe and wire and some of the PVC, which have been dug up and scavenged—a skeletal reminder of all the unfulfilled promises.

Still, there are grassroots efforts to change things being led by dedicated do-it-yourselfers. A local potato farmer, Bob Hoekstra, donated land he owns behind the village hall for a new food pantry that the Spencers would run. “Well, that land for the new pantry? It’s all caught up in politics now,” Lillian explains. Building there would require rezoning, and that’s not a given, since such a visible position for the pantry could be considered an embarrassment by some. She says one local politician recently asked her, “What if the governor came to Pembroke and saw a food pantry right there in the middle of town?” Lillian narrows her eyes when she tells the story. Then her face brightens. “I’d say, ‘Governor, you need to roll up your sleeves and get yourself a crate of bananas out of the back of that truck.’ ”

 
An abandoned RV
An RV that once served as a roadside food stand now sits abandoned.

IV. The Return of the Repressed

They forgot [the ghost] like a bad dream. After they made up their tales, shaped and decorated them, those that saw her that day on the porch quickly and deliberately forgot her. It took longer for those who had spoken to her, lived with her, fallen in love with her, to forget, until they realized they couldn’t remember or repeat a single thing she said.

Toni Morrison, Beloved

Our ghosts have been here all along, since the founding of the country, but we’re a willful, practical people and tend to ignore them, to move on. They’re in our stories, beginning with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” in which the title character ventures into the woods and finds his town’s deacons and drunks, whores and virgins, its rich and poor, and even his own dead mother and father, participating in a black mass, one whose participants welcome him and his wife as initiates. The writer Flannery O’Connor called the South “Christ-haunted,” saying, “The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows.”

Shadows of who we were and still might be. Our ghosts come to us misunderstood, unwelcomed, willfully unrecognized. Ourselves made strange. They come to us as promises betrayed. As people unaccounted for in any census. People who live down dirt roads and in backwoods so distant that if you drove there, you’d need to honk your horn as you approach so as not to arouse panic with your presence. So poor that the convulsions of the Great Recession, which began in 2007, hardly made a ripple in their lives. These are the ghosts in our own woods—the isolated, the voiceless. The poor are always with us, some people are fond of saying, adding a shrug to Jesus’s admonition that he never intended. Jesus was referring to a lengthier quote from Deuteronomy, ghost words he didn’t have to say to followers who would’ve known them by heart: Because the poor are always with us . . . I therefore command you: Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.

We bump along our workaday weeks. Make our trips to Target, pick up the kids from afterschool programs, and conjure weekends. From time to time—in the Chicago Tribune or New York Times or a magazine such as this one, or even while watching a talk show or news program such as PBS’s Frontline—we’ll hear about them, the ghosts in the woods, and it frightens us into spasms of charity. But charity doesn’t get us off the hook. Jesus is saying something much more radical: Yes, friend, the poor are always with us. And you participate implicitly in their poverty. Therefore, you are your brother’s keeper. Your brother—despite appearances—is you.

 
Kathleen Wiedenfeld
Kathleen Wiedenfeld, who lives more than two hours away in northwest suburban Huntley, started volunteering in Pembroke after hearing about its plight on Oprah.

V. One Neighbor at a Time

Pembroke comes from a Welsh word for the edge of the land. A place to fall off or climb onto. The name might seem portentous, seen in a certain light. But as far as we know, Pembroke Township was simply named for one of the popular taverns along Hubbard’s Trace.

So much about our beginnings and endings is accidental. Happenstance. Chance. What are we to make of it?

The first thing you notice about Kathleen Wiedenfeld—other than that she’s white—is her shaved head. Wiedenfeld talks fast, laughs easily. After talking with her awhile, you might begin to imagine that her shaved head is an extension of her cutting away all that’s unnecessary. She says her hair started thinning—some hereditary thing—and rather than covering up the patches, she took it all off. When she told her husband on the phone, he laughed and said, “Sure, why not,” thinking she was joking. She’s kept her sense of humor about herself, about her do-gooder ways, intact.

Wiedenfeld, 50, was called to Pembroke Township by her TV: “I was watching an Oprah episode on Pembroke in 2005 and, well, it broke my heart. Right outside of Chicago there was this town where 55 percent of the people lived below the poverty line, where 44 percent had no running water or electricity. How does that happen in our country?” Wiedenfeld has an intense stare, bright eyes. Are you as into this as I am? her eyes say across the table. She owns Dale’s Pizza in Kankakee, a source, you’d suspect, of some of the money that goes into One Neighbor at a Time, the nonprofit that she runs with her operations manager at Dale’s, Keith Bobo. Bobo, who is African American, lives in Pembroke. He and his family moved from Chicago’s West Side in 1980. But Wiedenfeld, who started the nonprofit three years ago, lives in northwest suburban Huntley, more than two hours away. At first, she drove down once a week. Now she rents a place in nearby Bradley and stays a couple of weeks at a time. “I started off so naive,” she says. “I thought I could really change things dramatically, that it was all going to be different. But it isn’t like that.”

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The difficulty of addressing Pembroke’s poverty is the story of American poverty writ large—the people down the dirt roads, living in the backwoods, have known poverty for generations. They didn’t just fall into it when they lost a job or overextended on a mortgage. Even poverty can become something familiar, something you cling to and that clings to you. More than four decades of government programs, nonprofits, philanthropic donors, and grant funding hasn’t changed Pembroke’s story. Because the roots of poverty run so deep, often what seems like a good charitable idea simply isn’t. In 2000, a wealthy Chicago businessman bought nearly half a million dollars’ worth of shiny new modular homes and supplies for the people down the dirt roads. A local preacher pleaded with him to make counseling part of the move-in program but was rebuffed. It all came apart. As The New York Times detailed in 2002, an elderly woman abandoned one of the new homes after a year because her husband had refused to leave their crumbling shack in the woods, despite the approach of winter. The preacher stopped by to find the old man stacking wood for the long, cold months ahead.

Wiedenfeld discovered that her nonprofit was not going to change Pembroke’s circumstances on its own. “It’s so much bigger than us,” she says. “People here were being taken advantage of—are being taken advantage of—because there are those who will make money off of the poor. Some contractor takes the government assistance money and, let’s say, doesn’t hook up the plumbing the way they’re supposed to, so that an older person has to put a plastic trash bag in their toilet and haul their own sewage away. Why? Because no one is watching.” Wiedenfeld and Bobo have focused primarily on people’s homes—providing shelter from the elements, an adequate water supply, and sanitation. The basics of human dignity, a baseline to start from. They don’t work piecemeal. As the name of their organization suggests, they assist one family at a time until the job is finished. The unfinished, the incomplete—always the main narrative in Pembroke—is a story they are trying to rewrite.

Wiedenfeld, who, like Bobo, has grown children and grandkids, has to watch that she doesn’t get caught up in the false gospel of radical change. Change comes incrementally. By helping one family get on its feet at a time, they’ve now helped five in three years. They seek to build a larger community that understands that the people in the woods are us.

 
Dominique Bobo
Dominique Bobo in front of the hardware store—and gathering place—her grandparents opened

VI. We Got You

“My dad told us how it was on the West Side,” Dominique Bobo, Keith’s niece, says about the family’s move to Pembroke more than three decades ago. “You got jumped because of who you were.” She has a musical voice that keeps your attention, as if she knows delivery is nearly as important as what’s said. Dominique’s grandparents moved their sons, Keith and Dominique’s father, Marcus, away from the drug and gang problems.

Two years later, the elder Bobos opened G.G. & M. Hardware in Pembroke. The family still owns it, and Dominique’s mother, Lilly, 49, sometimes works the counter. Lilly seems to look out for people at the store. A lady trucker stops in for a soda, and they commiserate about aging parents, the vanity and self-deceptions of the old and the young. The trucker says she needs some junk food for real and grabs a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos from the shelf, pays, and is out the door with a wave. Lilly has seen the town dwindle, lose its good businesses, lose many of its young people. She says some of those who go to the food pantry sell their goods for drugs. She stares off out the store window. Her face animates again, though, when she talks about her own kids. Dominique is her middle child, the conciliator. The optimist.

Dominique herself says, in her musical voice, that there was nothing like growing up in and around the hardware store, which is really a combination of convenience store and clearinghouse for most everything from beer and liquor to Playtex gloves in yellowed ’80s packaging, bicycle pumps, vegetable seed packets, candles, DVDs, and a framed, fading Dennis Rodman poster from the early ’90s. Over her 27 years, Dominique has seen the Pembroke generations gather at her grandparents’ store, share stories, and laugh. She knows all about the history of Pembroke from her parents and grandparents. She mentions Pap Tetter, the runaway slave and presumed town founder, saying she knew a number of his descendants growing up—his 18 children likely left a lot of descendants, you’d think—and how outsiders tend to view Pembroke as a poor, downtrodden place, a symbol of all that has gone wrong. But she sees it and its history differently. “Things weren’t always easy, but the absence of convenient things made you more self-reliant,” she says. And if you had a problem—and some did, she points out, including older people she grew up around who were addicted to drugs or alcohol, people who didn’t have much of anything or had lost it all—the community knew you, knew how it was.

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The kind of self-reliance Dominique is talking about is curiously different from the kinds of American individualism we’re most used to hearing about. It’s a self-reliance that says, Nobody else is watching, so we need to. It’s about noticing others. Paying attention. About how the stories of other people—friends, mentors, coworkers, somebody’s uncle, somebody’s cousin—are far from over. And that they are a part of our own story. “And you know what?” Dominique says. “Most of those older people who were addicted got clean.” They recovered, turned their lives around. They remembered when they were different, Dominique says, and wanted to be “looked up to again.” They wanted the young people to know their stories weren’t over. They wanted to influence the future.

Dominique herself dropped out of cosmetology school eight years ago, then failed the licensing exam. She drifted for a while, but now she’s less than a year from graduating with a degree in business management from Kankakee Community College. She wants to open a salon in Kankakee, a place to make her own name but also a place to gather and give back, like her grandparents’ catchall time warp of a hardware store. A throwback to another day, another way of paying attention, of being present in the world with other people.

“Whenever anybody needs anything around Pembroke, we say, ‘Head on over to my grandmother’s store. She’s got you.’ ”

 
Kathleen and Winnie Washington
Kathleen and Winnie Washington, in front of their mobile home, situated on land that Kathleen Wiedenfeld and Keith Bobo’s nonprofit helped Winnie obtain

VII. Here We Are

When you turn into the gravel driveway in front of Winnie Washington’s mobile home, the first thing you see is a yellow dog tied up to a tree. You have to honk your horn, of course, to announce yourself. On this day, it’s hot enough that the dog, a Lab mix, is lying in the grass, panting and looking off disinterestedly at the edge of the yard, where squirrels are fighting over acorns. Washington—a small woman, 68, who originally called Chicago’s South Side home—is surprised by our visit. Keith Bobo hadn’t called ahead. She pokes her head around the front door and asks if we could come back in just a little while. We suspect that she wants to do her hair first. And maybe explain to her 89-year-old mother—who now lives in the mobile home with Winnie, on land that Bobo and Wiedenfeld helped obtain for her—what we’re doing there.

When we return, Washington and her mother, Kathleen (who is also small and wonderfully well preserved), tell us their story. Washington chooses her words carefully, enunciates in a way that seems to say, I’m not who you think I am. She, with her ex-husband, used to own an apartment complex on the South Side, but life there, with the gang violence, got too tough on them, so they came to Pembroke in 1989. “It’s quiet here, lovely here. Don’t you think so?” she asks, but already knows. Her mother likes to fish, and Winnie likes to tend to her garden and apologizes for its current state, says the storms did that, the rain messed it all up.

Things went south with her husband at some point a few years back. And not long after they divorced, someone came knocking on her door one day and said he owned the land now and she needed to get off. She didn’t believe it at first. A scam, she thought. But then she did. Her husband had sold the land out from under her to pay a tax debt, and now she had no place to live. She was lost. “But Keith here, he helped me get this place. It took a while because we had to raise the money, put the slab in.” Washington gets up and grabs two bottles of distilled water from the fridge, hands them to us, and returns to her seat. “Once we got this, with Keith and Kathleen’s help,” she says, “my mother came up here from Mobile, Alabama, to live with me. And here we are.” Her mother rocks slightly in her chair, nods with approval. “Here we are,” Washington says again.

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Where is here, though? What does a future—so long deferred—hold? At times there has been chatter about the possibility of wind farms coming to Pembroke, generating revenue and electricity. Also, organic farming has sprung up: The Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living, a Chicago-area nonprofit, has built a near-40-acre campus and a visitor center in Pembroke aimed at making such farming viable long-term and helping farmers become self-reliant. The organics focus is an ironic and fortunate consequence of Pembroke’s poor soil. Because the farms here were passed over by the big agricultural companies, the land isn’t soaked with pesticides. The Pembroke school superintendent, Warletta Brookins, has forged a grant-funded partnership with Apple, which has provided iPads for each student and Apple TVs in each classroom. She’s also implemented a leadership training program and provided field trips for the students—treks to the University of Illinois at Chicago and DePaul University—to expose them to a wider range of educational opportunities. And though it doesn’t seem likely with Illinois’s broken finances, maybe someday someone will even resurrect the women’s prison project? Bring power and water to the people in the woods?

When we get up to leave her home, Winnie Washington says to come back to Pembroke in a few weeks and she’ll have the front garden looking so much better. Outside the window, near the tree, the yellow dog is sniffing the mud. “It just needs a little more time to come back,” she says. “But it will. You’ll see.”

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