The Forgotten Legacy of Gertrude Snodgrass, Co-Founding father of the Chicago Meals Depository – Chicago Journal


Let’s start with what we all know: Gertrude Snodgrass was a Black girl on Chicago’s West Facet who fed numerous individuals who couldn’t afford to feed themselves.  

In 1979, she was one of many six founders of the Better Chicago Meals Depository, the meals financial institution serving Chicago and all of Cook dinner County. Snodgrass was the one individual of colour amongst that group. 

Snodgrass ran a meals pantry out of her Garfield Park dwelling, the place legend has it she had six stoves. She and her buddies additionally made meals and processed and canned meals, which they’d serve to individuals in want. She fed 1000’s of Chicagoans in her lifetime, however the true influence of her legacy continues to ripple out. 

“I acquired concerned within the struggle towards starvation years in the past earlier than there have been any pantries handing out meals each day,” Snodgrass stated in late June of 1989, as quoted in a Chicago Solar-Instances story about her receiving a nationwide award. “They solely used at hand out meals to individuals on Thanksgiving and Christmas, however persons are hungry each day.”

She died mere days after the interview ran, in early July of 1989, at age 76. But Snodgrass — a girl whose life’s work of serving to others was heralded within the native newspapers — lies buried in an unmarked grave within the Queen of Heaven cemetery in suburban Hillside. There’s no grave marker. No place to depart flowers. 

There’s little on-line about Snodgrass’s life and contributions. However reminiscences from those that knew her, together with dozens of public information and archived newspaper tales, give us a glimpse of a life in service of others. 

I discovered a little bit of her life after I labored on the Meals Depository, a corporation that’s grown by way of the years to feed a whole bunch of 1000’s of individuals in Cook dinner County. And although I departed that job in October, I’ve continued to chip away at my analysis, equal elements impressed by her work and incredulous that so few learn about it.

In Chicago and throughout the nation, we’ve come to reassess who we honor in our public areas with statues, road indicators, college names, and so forth. I’m right here to let you know that Gertrude Snodgrass is deserving of our collective reminiscence. The individuals of Chicago ought to know her title. 

 ‘A Nice Love of the Poor’ 

“For those who have been to look at Gertrude Snodgrass at work within the Convent Group Group meals pantry, you’d assume 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 each excessive reward and rapturous prose, however Snodgrass had that type of impact on individuals. And if she was an angel, she was not the docile kind.

Those that knew her say she was a pressure to be reckoned with — resolute in her service and offended on the injustice of individuals going hungry. When she spoke, individuals listened. 

“Gertrude helped discovered the (Meals Depository) out of nothing,” says Chris Kennedy, Chicago businessman and son of Robert F. Kennedy

“Different individuals have been there to double it in dimension, actually I used to be there for that,” says Kennedy, who served on the Meals Depository’s board of administrators within the late Nineteen Eighties and early Nineties. “However that could be a pale candle compared to the burning solar of her sizzling hearth that she represented within the anti-hunger motion.”

Born in Alabama in 1913, she was one in all seven kids born to Forest Gill, a noticed mill employee, and Gertrude Gill. In 1942, she married Morgan Snodgrass, a longshoreman, and so they lived collectively in Pensacola, Florida, in response to Census information, which additionally point out they’d a daughter named Margaret.  

“I don’t assume it’s too sturdy to say that the Meals Depository wouldn’t have been profitable with out Gertrude.”

It’s not clear when precisely the Snodgrasses moved to Chicago, however they have been a part of the Nice Migration, the motion of hundreds of thousands of Black individuals from the South to Northern cities within the early and mid-Twentieth century. Snodgrass acquired concerned with serving to others in her new metropolis, ultimately serving in varied capacities for a number of West Facet organizations and grassroots efforts. In a 1964 standalone photograph printed within the Chicago Defender, Gertrude stands with three different girls in formal apparel at a West Facet Space Y.W.C.A. dinner. 

Within the early Nineteen Seventies, Snodgrass helped to distribute meals and garments out of the basement of Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a now-shuttered Catholic church on town’s West Facet, says Anne Cousin, a fellow parishioner on the time. 

Snodgrass helped different Black households developing from the South who didn’t have a lot, Cousin says. She held trend exhibits for youngsters on the church and used these alternatives to attach households to meals. 

She known as everybody “honey.”    

“She had a coronary heart to assist individuals,” says Cousin, 88. “It appeared to me that she all the time had a job she needed to do. She was very good and all of that, however she was about getting the job performed.”  

Snodgrass ultimately opened a meals pantry proper the place she lived, in her walk-up two-flat on the 3900 block of West Congress Parkway, simply off the Eisenhower Expressway.

A Franciscan friar known as me out of the blue in the future after listening to from different Chicago-area Franciscans that I used to be writing a narrative about Snodgrass.  

“Gertrude had an incredible love of the poor,” says Brother David Buer, who now runs a day shelter for homeless males in Arizona. “She was a dynamo.” 

A girl of deep religion, Snodgrass grew to become a member of a secular Catholic order known as the Third Order of St. Francis, which is now often known as the Secular Franciscan Order. A world Catholic order greater than 800 years outdated, Franciscans are identified for his or her work in serving the poor.

She thought-about one other one of many Meals Depository founders, a beloved Franciscan priest named Father Phil Marquard, to be a “religious adviser,” in response to a 1988 Chicago Tribune story in regards to the inception of the meals financial institution. 

In 1983, Marquard and his fellow Franciscans, together with Buer, opened a homeless shelter within the Lawndale neighborhood (which remains to be working right now as a part of the Franciscan Outreach group based by Marquard). 

As soon as a month, Snodgrass would convey a home-cooked sizzling meal for the roughly 250 individuals on the shelter, Buer says. “It was essentially the most looked-forward-to evening of the month.” 

Volunteers from Cubs RBI All Stars work collectively to package deal meals on the Better Chicago Meals Depository in Chicago in 2021. Youngrae Kim/Chicago Tribune

‘Minimize It with What Cuts’

When the Meals Depository started distributing meals in 1979, there was no assure of success. It had solely two full-time staff and one part-time secretary. The fledgling meals financial institution motion that started within the late Sixties had lastly arrived in Chicago. 

David Chandler, now 73, was a type of three staff because the meals financial institution’s first government director. 

“I don’t assume it’s too sturdy to say that the Meals Depository wouldn’t have been profitable with out Gertrude,” says Chandler, who labored alongside Snodgrass within the meals financial institution’s early days. 

As a result of the Meals Depository didn’t have a lot funding or labor in these early days, he says, member companies paid 7 cents per pound for meals — both with cash or by way of volunteer work.

That wasn’t a simple promote within the early going, Chandler says. Snodgrass, founder and board member, performed a essential position in participating with Black and Latino neighborhood leaders. The Meals Depository distributed meals to 85 accomplice companies in its first 12 months.

“Gertrude was very clear to individuals in saying it is a bottoms-up effort,” Chandler says. “It’s a good suggestion but when we’re going to make it work, everybody has to pitch in. I couldn’t have stated that with any close to the extent of effectiveness that she did.”

Right here, too, Snodgrass’s decided nature moved the mission ahead. 

“For those who needed to argue together with her,” he provides, “it will have been onerous.” 

She helped in different methods, too. Snodgrass was usually on the South Water Market, the place the Meals Depository acquired its begin, serving to volunteers type by way of donated meals. She may provoke volunteers for labor-intensive initiatives and carry morale together with her presence.

“It was clear that she was an individual who everybody held in respect,” Chandler says. 

And when the Meals Depository acquired recent produce that couldn’t be distributed shortly sufficient earlier than it spoiled, Chandler says, they’d usually take it to Snodgrass’s dwelling and meals pantry to be processed and canned. Heads of cabbage previous their prime, for instance, can be reworked into cha cha, a Southern-style relish. 

Chandler’s spouse Mary Lupa, who was additionally closely concerned within the meals financial institution’s early years, recalled a fundraising occasion the place Snodgrass once more proved invaluable. They wanted to chop carpet that led as much as the stage however had no carpet shears. Operating out of time earlier than the donors confirmed up, Snodgrass emerged with a hacksaw and set to process. 

“She stated when you need to reduce one thing, you narrow it with what cuts,” Lupa says.

Snodgrass acquired some approval for her influence on the West Facet. Tales about her work appeared within the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Solar-Instances and the Defender. However the consideration didn’t change her, says Leah Kranz, who took over as government director of the Meals Depository in 1983.

“She could possibly be with the neighborhood individuals, she could possibly be with the opposite meals pantry representatives and she or he could possibly be with what we’d name VIPs,” Kranz says. “However she by no means modified. She all the time stayed the identical.”

She wasn’t overly impressed when the younger scion Chris Kennedy, then in his early 20s, first visited her dwelling and meals pantry within the mid-Nineteen Eighties.

“She was welcoming however a little bit suspicious,” Kennedy recalled. “I used to be possibly a company citizen again then in her thoughts and I needed to show my coronary heart was on this struggle as effectively.”

Kennedy served on the Meals Depository’s board for 12 years, ultimately as its chairman. Snodgrass’s voice and affect have been useful in sensible methods, he says, informing the Meals Depository the way it could possibly be extra useful to meals pantries like hers. 

She was additionally its ethical North Star at instances, Kennedy says, holding the group accountable to its grassroots origins of neighborhood service. 

“She guided us,” Kennedy says. 

The Search Continues

This winter, I kicked snow for greater than an hour on the cemetery trying to find her grave. Utilizing the map supplied to me on the workplace, I homed in on the place her plot was imagined to be, simply beside an arterial street. Every marker that I uncovered introduced me preliminary delight, adopted by disappointment. 

Exhausted after some time, I known as the cemetery workplace for added steering. They despatched a few their grounds staff out to assist. These two couldn’t discover it both, so that they known as one other grounds crew led by a person who was clearly the boss. He rendered a decisive ruling: No marker. 

The type and affected person individuals on the cemetery workplace later confirmed that there’s by no means been a marker for her. (Morgan Snodgrass, her husband, died in 1986, and is buried in a close-by grave, additionally and not using a marker.)

Chandler and Lupa hope to boost cash for a correct grave marker for Gertrude, although, in response to cemetery officers, they’ll want the permission of surviving kin to take action.

“When individuals die, there’s not all the time somebody who does what they did,” Lupa says. “There’s an empty kitchen. And the center’s gone out of it.”

Regardless of their protection of her good deeds whereas alive, Snodgrass’s passing wasn’t famous within the native newspapers — solely within the church bulletin at Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“Mrs. Snodgrass was well-known all around the West Facet and the complete metropolis as a tireless employee serving to to feed the hungry,” the bulletin said. “She can be missed by all who got here to know and love her.”

The spirit of Snodgrass’s work is alive and effectively on the meals financial institution that she helped create, says Kate Maehr, the Meals Depository’s government director and CEO. In recent times, significantly throughout the pandemic, the Meals Depository has made the strategic resolution to take a position extra in companions serving lower-income communities of colour. 

“I actually consider that she nonetheless is watching over our work,” says Maehr, who took the helm in 2006. “To me, the spirit of Gertrude Snodgrass is this concept that we have now to all the time put our neighbors and companions entrance and middle.” 

Not too long ago, I stood on the gate of her former dwelling on West Congress Parkway, imagining the soulful bustle of what it should have been like years in the past — a sacred place in these days. I usually take into consideration the quote by the poet Wendell Berry: “There are not any unsacred locations; there are solely sacred and desecrated locations.”

We make them so, I suppose.

The injustice of meals insecurity persists right now, however our collective response has grown. In each neighborhood of Chicago, there are meals pantries serving individuals as Snodgrass did. They obtain meals from the meals financial institution that she helped create.

That’s a legacy price remembering. In Gertrude’s personal phrases, as quoted within the 1980 Chicago Defender story:  “I don’t take into account it a job however I take into account it a mission to do one of these work and am devoted to it for all times,” she stated. “It’s so lovely, you wish to go on and on doing it.”

Greg Trotter will be reached at Particular because of the Newberry Library for analysis help.

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