Let’s begin with what we know: Gertrude Snodgrass was a Black woman on Chicago’s West Side who fed countless people who could not afford to feed themselves.
In 1979, she was one of the six founders of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the food bank serving Chicago and all of Cook County. Snodgrass was the only person of color among that group.
Snodgrass ran a food pantry out of her Garfield Park home, where legend has it she had six stoves. She and her friends also made meals and processed and canned food, which they would serve to people in need. She fed thousands of Chicagoans in her lifetime, but the true impact of her legacy continues to ripple out.
“I got involved in the fight against hunger years ago before there were any pantries handing out food day to day,” Snodgrass said in late June of 1989, as quoted in a Chicago Sun-Times story about her receiving a national award. “They only used to hand out food to people on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but people are hungry every day.”
She died mere days after the interview ran, in early July of 1989, at age 76. Yet Snodgrass — a woman whose life’s work of helping others was heralded in the local newspapers — lies buried in an unmarked grave in the Queen of Heaven cemetery in suburban Hillside. There’s no grave marker. No place to leave flowers.
There’s little online about Snodgrass’s life and contributions. But memories from those who knew her, along with dozens of public records and archived newspaper stories, give us a glimpse of a life in service of others.
I learned a little of her life when I worked at the Food Depository, an organization that’s grown through the years to feed hundreds of thousands of people in Cook County. And though I departed that job in October, I’ve continued to chip away at my research, equal parts inspired by her work and incredulous that so few know about it.
In Chicago and across the country, we’ve come to reassess who we honor in our public spaces with statues, street signs, school names, and so forth. I’m here to tell you that Gertrude Snodgrass is deserving of our collective memory. The people of Chicago should know her name.
‘A Great Love of the Poor’
“If you were to watch Gertrude Snodgrass at work in the Convent Community Organization food pantry, you would think an angel of mercy had drifted down from heaven,” wrote reporter Geri Jones in a 1980 Chicago Defender story about Snodgrass’s pantry.
That’s both high praise and rapturous prose, but Snodgrass had that kind of effect on people. And if she was an angel, she was not the docile type.
Those who knew her say she was a force to be reckoned with — resolute in her service and angry at the injustice of people going hungry. When she spoke, people listened.
“Gertrude helped found the (Food Depository) out of nothing,” says Chris Kennedy, Chicago businessman and son of Robert F. Kennedy
“Other people have been there to double it in size, certainly I was there for that,” says Kennedy, who served on the Food Depository’s board of directors in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “But that is a pale candle in comparison to the burning sun of her hot fire that she represented in the anti-hunger movement.”
Born in Alabama in 1913, she was one of seven children born to Forest Gill, a saw mill worker, and Gertrude Gill. In 1942, she married Morgan Snodgrass, a longshoreman, and they lived together in Pensacola, Florida, according to Census records, which also indicate they had a daughter named Margaret.
It’s not clear when exactly the Snodgrasses moved to Chicago, but they were part of the Great Migration, the movement of millions of Black people from the South to Northern cities in the early and mid-20th century. Snodgrass got involved with helping others in her new city, eventually serving in various capacities for several West Side organizations and grassroots efforts. In a 1964 standalone photo published in the Chicago Defender, Gertrude stands with three other women in formal attire at a West Side Area Y.W.C.A. dinner.
In the early 1970s, Snodgrass helped to distribute food and clothes out of the basement of Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a now-shuttered Catholic church on the city’s West Side, says Anne Cousin, a fellow parishioner at the time.
Snodgrass helped other Black families coming up from the South who didn’t have much, Cousin says. She held fashion shows for children at the church and used those opportunities to connect families to food.
She called everyone “honey.”
“She had a heart to help people,” says Cousin, 88. “It seemed to me that she always had a job she had to do. She was very nice and all of that, but she was about getting the job done.”
Snodgrass eventually opened a food pantry right where she lived, in her walk-up two-flat on the 3900 block of West Congress Parkway, just off the Eisenhower Expressway.
A Franciscan friar called me out of the blue one day after hearing from other Chicago-area Franciscans that I was writing a story about Snodgrass.
“Gertrude had a great love of the poor,” says Brother David Buer, who now runs a day shelter for homeless men in Arizona. “She was a dynamo.”
A woman of deep faith, Snodgrass became a member of a secular Catholic order called the Third Order of St. Francis, which is now known as the Secular Franciscan Order. A global Catholic order more than 800 years old, Franciscans are known for their work in serving the poor.
She considered another one of the Food Depository founders, a beloved Franciscan priest named Father Phil Marquard, to be a “spiritual adviser,” according to a 1988 Chicago Tribune story about the inception of the food bank.
In 1983, Marquard and his fellow Franciscans, including Buer, opened a homeless shelter in the Lawndale neighborhood (which is still operating today as part of the Franciscan Outreach organization founded by Marquard).
Once a month, Snodgrass would bring a home-cooked hot meal for the roughly 250 people at the shelter, Buer says. “It was the most looked-forward-to night of the month.”
‘Cut It with What Cuts’
When the Food Depository began distributing food in 1979, there was no guarantee of success. It had only two full-time employees and one part-time secretary. The fledgling food bank movement that began in the late 1960s had finally arrived in Chicago.
David Chandler, now 73, was one of those three employees as the food bank’s first executive director.
“I don’t think it’s too strong to say that the Food Depository would not have been successful without Gertrude,” says Chandler, who worked alongside Snodgrass in the food bank’s early days.
Because the Food Depository didn’t have much funding or labor in those early days, he says, member agencies paid 7 cents per pound for food — either with money or through volunteer work.
That wasn’t an easy sell in the early going, Chandler says. Snodgrass, founder and board member, played a critical role in engaging with Black and Latino community leaders. The Food Depository distributed food to 85 partner agencies in its first year.
“Gertrude was very clear to people in saying this is a bottoms-up effort,” Chandler says. “It’s a good idea but if we’re going to make it work, everyone has to pitch in. I couldn’t have said that with any near the level of effectiveness that she did.”
Here, too, Snodgrass’s determined nature moved the mission forward.
“If you wanted to argue with her,” he adds, “it would have been hard.”
She helped in other ways, too. Snodgrass was often at the South Water Market, where the Food Depository got its start, helping volunteers sort through donated food. She could galvanize volunteers for labor-intensive projects and lift morale with her presence.
“It was clear that she was a person who everyone held in respect,” Chandler says.
And when the Food Depository received fresh produce that couldn’t be distributed quickly enough before it spoiled, Chandler says, they would often take it to Snodgrass’s home and food pantry to be processed and canned. Heads of cabbage past their prime, for example, would be transformed into cha cha, a Southern-style relish.
Chandler’s wife Mary Lupa, who was also heavily involved in the food bank’s early years, recalled a fundraising event where Snodgrass again proved invaluable. They needed to cut carpet that led up to the stage but had no carpet shears. Running out of time before the donors showed up, Snodgrass emerged with a hacksaw and set to task.
“She said when you have to cut something, you cut it with what cuts,” Lupa says.
Snodgrass received some acclaim for her impact on the West Side. Stories about her work appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and the Defender. But the attention didn’t change her, says Leah Kranz, who took over as executive director of the Food Depository in 1983.
“She could be with the neighborhood people, she could be with the other food pantry representatives and she could be with what we might call VIPs,” Kranz says. “But she never changed. She always stayed the same.”
She wasn’t overly impressed when the young scion Chris Kennedy, then in his early 20s, first visited her home and food pantry in the mid-1980s.
“She was welcoming but a little suspicious,” Kennedy recalled. “I was maybe a corporate citizen back then in her mind and I had to prove my heart was in this fight as well.”
Kennedy served on the Food Depository’s board for 12 years, eventually as its chairman. Snodgrass’s voice and influence were helpful in practical ways, he says, informing the Food Depository how it could be more helpful to food pantries like hers.
She was also its moral North Star at times, Kennedy says, holding the organization accountable to its grassroots origins of community service.
“She guided us,” Kennedy says.
The Search Continues
This winter, I kicked snow for more than an hour at the cemetery searching for her grave. Using the map provided to me at the office, I homed in on where her plot was supposed to be, just beside an arterial road. Each marker that I uncovered brought me initial delight, followed by disappointment.
Exhausted after a while, I called the cemetery office for additional guidance. They sent a couple of their grounds workers out to help. Those two couldn’t find it either, so they called another grounds crew led by a man who was clearly the boss. He rendered a decisive ruling: No marker.
The kind and patient people at the cemetery office later confirmed that there’s never been a marker for her. (Morgan Snodgrass, her husband, died in 1986, and is buried in a nearby grave, also without a marker.)
Chandler and Lupa hope to raise money for a proper grave marker for Gertrude, though, according to cemetery officials, they’ll need the permission of surviving kin to do so.
“When people die, there’s not always someone who does what they did,” Lupa says. “There’s an empty kitchen. And the heart’s gone out of it.”
Despite their coverage of her good deeds while alive, Snodgrass’s passing wasn’t noted in the local newspapers — only in the church bulletin at Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
“Mrs. Snodgrass was well known all over the West Side and the entire city as a tireless worker helping to feed the hungry,” the bulletin stated. “She will be missed by all who came to know and love her.”
The spirit of Snodgrass’s work is alive and well at the food bank that she helped create, says Kate Maehr, the Food Depository’s executive director and CEO. In recent years, particularly during the pandemic, the Food Depository has made the strategic decision to invest more in partners serving lower-income communities of color.
“I really believe that she still is watching over our work,” says Maehr, who took the helm in 2006. “To me, the spirit of Gertrude Snodgrass is this idea that we have to always put our neighbors and partners front and center.”
Recently, I stood at the gate of her former home on West Congress Parkway, imagining the soulful bustle of what it must have been like years ago — a sacred place in those days. I often think about the quote by the poet Wendell Berry: “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places.”
We make them so, I suppose.
The injustice of food insecurity persists today, but our collective response has grown. In every neighborhood of Chicago, there are food pantries serving people as Snodgrass did. They receive food from the food bank that she helped create.
That’s a legacy worth remembering. In Gertrude’s own words, as quoted in the 1980 Chicago Defender story: “I don’t consider it a job but I consider it a mission to do this type of work and am dedicated to it for life,” she said. “It’s so beautiful, you want to go on and on doing it.”
Greg Trotter can be reached at email@example.com. Special thanks to the Newberry Library for research assistance.