CHICAGO — Allen Singleton will be turning 100 this week and while his age is a milestone most will never see, it’s his story that truly sets him apart.
Sitting in the same living room he has called home for 68 years, Allen Singleton says, “I ain’t got much of a story,” but that’s far from the truth.
Born in the early 1920s, Singleton didn’t know anything further than the few blocks around the small Chicago apartment he grew up in with his mom and four siblings. At 22, he went from the streets of Chicago to North Africa, serving in the Army’s 602 Infantry during World War II.
“I went to North Africa. Then left North Africa and to Sicily, Italy and all the way up to Milano,” Singleton said.
Witnessing pieces of history he wishes he could forget.
“Things that I never thought would happen,” he said.
His unit was in Milan the day French dictator Benito Mussolini’s body was hung in a courtyard for all to see.
“They caught both of them,” Singleton said. “Him and his girlfriend and strung them up in the courtyard.”
Memories of that day and the day his friend and fellow officer died.
“Car hit a road mine and blew them up,” recalled Singleton.
Painful images Singleton still carries today.
“Oh yeah, a lot of times you think of things like that,” he said. “I think it changed me.”
Singleton returned home in 1945 after serving his country for two years, only to face a new battle outside his own front door.
“Very prejudice at that particular time,” he said. “People weren’t used to us being around.”
When he moved with his wife and first child to Chatham, only one other Black family lived on the street.
“They wouldn’t accept you,” he said. “People weren’t friendly at all.”
Prejudice extending from his own block to the church up the road that wouldn’t allow his family to attend mass.
“My neighbor wanted to become an usher and the priest wouldn’t accept him,” he said.
Singleton and his neighbor took it up with the Chicago Archdiocese, demanding their right to attend.
“I think God wanted everybody to be friendly, you know what I mean,” he said.
With a permission letter in hand from the Archdiocese, Allen Singleton and his neighbor broke the color barrier as the first Black people to sit in St. Dorothy’s pews. Their demand for equal rights was the first domino in a string of firsts for St. Dorothy. Their children were the first students of color at the private school. St. Dorothy was the first to charter railroad cars to the Washington March, the first to send a busload of men down to Selma and the first to establish Black History classes in their classrooms.
“I think I did some good in the world,” he said. “So many things happened that turned out good.”
That same year Singleton landed a coveted job with the Illinois Central Railroad as a waiter on the Panama Limited.
“It as an all-Pullman train with a club car and I worked in the club car,” he said. Singleton worked that line for over two decades, right up to her last run in 1971 as one of the last “all-Pullman” trains in the United States.
But Singleton’s most cherished chapter comes back through a song — the one he used to dance to with his wife, Elizabeth.
“A love of a person,” he said. “I don’t think she had no bad stream in her at all”
A beautiful slow dance of 75 years right up to the day she passed.
“I was holding her when she passed,” said Singleton. “It was in the bed. And she passed in my arms. It was hard.”
This week surrounded by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Allen Singleton will celebrate his 100th birthday in the same Chatham house he has lived in since 1953.
“I hadn’t thought about it until they mentioned it and I thought ‘oh that’s pretty old!'” Singleton said.
His takeaway from all the years behind him is all about heart.
“I look around [and] there’s not enough kindness in the world,” he said. “Try to be nice. That’s one thing. Try to be nice to people and get along.”
The man who claims he doesn’t have much of a story is teaching Chicagoans how to look in the face of adversity and lead with love.