“They came up from Mississippi and met in Chicago,” says Wilma. “They worked hard for what they had.” They sent her to Catholic schools on Chicago’s South Side.
Sam McNabb’s father worked in the steel mills. His mom made a home for him and his three brothers and sister, all of whom attended public schools. Sam joined the Navy after high school and did two tours in Vietnam. “We took mortar rounds during an amphibious assignment,” he remembers.
Sam and Wilma married in 1973. Sean, Donovan’s only sibling, was born that year; Donovan came along in 1976.
Donovan has fond memories of living on Chicago’s South Side. “It was fun,” he says. “Very diverse. Blacks. Whites. Hispanics. Lotta kids. Some fights.”
It was a shooting next door that got Sam and Wilma’s attention. It was 1984. Both had gotten college degrees—she was working as a nurse, he was an engineer with the power company. The gunfire was too close, and they looked for a home in the suburbs to raise the boys.
“Dad didn’t tell us exactly where we were moving,” McNabb says.
His parents bought a house in Dolton, Illinois, about 18 miles due south off Interstate 94. Dolton had been a working-class town in the 1950s and ’60s, where union guys raised big families. The McNabbs were among the first African-American families to move in.
“That’s what we worked for,” says Wilma.
The family pulled up to 15430 Diekman Court and saw the front windows smashed. Sam unlocked the front door, and they walked inside to see that someone had peed on the carpets. “Nigger” was spray-painted on the walls.
Donovan was seven, Sean 11. Both cried. Their parents surveyed the damage and walked back to the car. Donovan remembers looking into his father’s eyes with a question: What do we do now?
“We can’t let anyone pull us away from our goals,” his father said. “Let’s use this as a steppingstone to overcome. It will make us stronger.”
They cleaned the place and moved in. Wilma had been working the 3-to-11 shift at a hospital. She cut her hours so someone would always be home. “If something did go off, we wanted someone to be around,” she says.
One evening when they were having a barbecue with friends in the back yard, someone smashed their friends’ car windows.
“It wasn’t pleasant,” Sam says. “The place wasn’t ready for us.”
He had just been discharged from active duty in the Navy. He called the Dolton police department to report the vandalism.
“Just kids having some fun,” he recalls the officer saying.
Sam McNabb reported the vandalism to the FBI. Federal agents knocked on doors of the McNabbs’ neighbors. Soon a few families moved away and the attacks on their property stopped.
Donovan remembers walking down his street, cars stopping, and people throwing things at him. The kids next door used the N-word freely. “If they didn’t like the color of your skin or the way you did something, they might start talking trash and then push you around,” he says. “I couldn’t stand there and take it. There were times I had to stand up like a man. I needed to put my hands on you so you knew I was for real.”