Partial to Home: After a half century in the North, home


Birney Imes



It was one of those glad-you-are-alive-and-out-in-the-world Saturday afternoons -- sunny, bright, crisp and clear -- and I was sitting in the three-sided shed that is the in-house dining facility of Brother's Keeper Barbecue.


Before me was as near-perfect plate of rib tips and chicken as you would ever hope to savor. That and a small cup of Ronnie Clayton's sweet-and-tart barbecue sauce.


Clayton, who owns the joint and serves as its cook, order taker and head bottle washer most of the time, said someone had just been there looking for me, Morris Duck.



Mr. Duck had written his name and phone number and left it with Clayton.


His wife, Ronnie said, is the sister of an old friend, the late Jackie Ball.


As I worked through my grilled feast, a funeral procession snaked its way down Seventh Avenue. As the cortege began to make a left turn two blocks away, my phone rang.


It was Morris Duck. We spoke briefly and agreed to meet soon.


Two days later Morris welcomed me into the brick ranch-style house on Hospital Drive he and his wife, Kay, recently purchased.


"So we can be near our doctors," Duck said, explaining the location.


After 50 years in Chicago and four in Lawrenceville, Georgia, Morris, 82, and Kay, 79, want to spend their final years near home. They've been back since June.


Like thousands of blacks across the South in the 50s, 60s and 70s, Morris and Kay moved North for the jobs.


Those who went before them would come home and talk about their high-paying jobs, said Morris. His sister moved to Chicago in 1960 and found a position with Hammond Organ.


"It was hard to get a job in the South then," Morris said.


Morris grew up in Cliftonville, the son of a cotton farmer and bootlegger.


"I always drove a nice car and had money in my pocket," he said


"He was a country boy, but didn't think so," said Kay, displaying wit that is a Ball family trait.


A mutual friend introduced them.


"The devil was out rambling that night," said Kay.


In Chicago, Kay and Morris settled in Garfield Ridge, a largely Catholic, ethnically diverse working class neighborhood bordering Midway Airport.


Morris found work at the General Motors electric motor plant in La Grange, where the company assembles locomotives. He was a parts and material expediter.


"It was a good job," Morris said, "a jelly job."


A jelly job, Kay explained, is one where you don't do anything.


Kay worked for Zenith and then as a lunchroom manager for the city school system.


For a time the Ducks hosted Kay's little brother, Jackie, who was just out of college and trying to make it as a music producer.


In Chicago Jackie made high marks on the postal exam, but his heart was in Mississippi -- the "Lower C," he called his hometown -- and after enduring the bitter Northern winter as a railroad switchman, he lit out for home in the spring.


Back in Columbus Jackie would find his calling as a city councilman and somewhat notorious political operative.


Morris and Kay had one son, who died with cancer when he was 42.


"He was super smart," Morris said.


And, before you know it, a half-century has blown by.


"We hadn't really planned to stay that long; it just happened," said Kay. "We always said we could come home to retire."


We talked about the old days. Kay was one of Mattie and Lonnie Ball's eight children. She grew up in a small house on 14th Avenue on Southside, two blocks east of Friendship Cemetery and a block south of The Ponderosa, a cafe/pool room run by Travis Jones.


Mother Mattie took care of the McGahey children; sometimes Kay helped.


I asked Kay and Morris how it was to be home.


"I'm determined to adjust," she said. "I was surprised about the neighborhood," she said, "how it never changed."


"Chicago was a beautiful city," said Morris. "It's a place you go to make some money, then you come back home.


"This is the best place to be."


Birney Imes ([email protected]) is the former publisher of The Dispatch.



Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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