During the twentieth century’s Great Migration, the Hickmans were one among many African Americans families looking for affordable housing in Chicago. They were fleeing the sharecropping system of the rural South looking for the jobs, education and freedom promised by the industrialized North.
Yet, what they found, was scarcity of housing, segregation and tragedy.
In 1947, after their tenement building burned down, killing four of the Hickman children, the father shot and killed the building’s landlord, who had previously threatened to burn the property down.
The ensuing trial became national news and Lithuanian-born, social-realist artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was asked to illustrate, in his simple yet direct style, the account of the Hickman saga, published in August 1948 on the pages of Harper’s Magazine.
The 16 drawings, all made with pen ink on wove paper, and altered with white pigment, are exhibited together at the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago, after the donation by one of Hickman’s original defense lawyers, Chicago Alderman Leon Despres.