Editor’s note: Read Part 2 of this story, which describes A missing gun, a wavering prosecution, and decades of regret.
Jo Ann Henson has always wanted to know more about how and why her father was killed. She knows some of the particulars. At 9:10 on a June evening in 1970, Joe Henson was shot once in the chest on the 5500 block of South Justine. He was pronounced dead on arrival 20 minutes later at Central Community Hospital. He was 21.
Jo Ann hadn’t even been born when her father was slain; her mother was three months pregnant with her. She was born a day after Christmas that year.
She knows the broad motive for his slaying. “Racial fight,” the police reports say. Her father was black, his assailants—perhaps 20 or more of them—white. She’s always believed her father’s killers got away with murder, and that they were able to do so because of the color of their skin, and his. The neighborhood where they lived, an enclave in West Englewood, was changing from white to black, and many of the white residents were unhappy about that. “Those white gang members went on to live their lives as if nothing happened, like my father’s life was worthless,” she says. “I blame them, but I also blame the system that upheld this criminal behavior.
“Hate took away the chance of me ever knowing my father.”
Jo Ann is 41 now, and has four grown children and three grandchildren. She’s heavyset, with a round face and high cheekbones. A touch of gray is setting in. Her manner is genial—she laughs easily and often. She wasn’t adventurous at all growing up; she rarely traveled and was afraid of flying. Then two years ago she flew to Senegal to marry a man she’d met online. (“My cousins said, ‘Your first time out of the neighborhood and you went to Africa?'”) She met her fiance in person at 5 in the morning in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, and they were married at 3 in the afternoon.
Jo Ann and her husband live in an apartment on Sheridan Road in Rogers Park. She worked in a mail room the last six years but lost that position recently, so she’s been job hunting. She spends a lot of time at the computer on the small desk in her living room, working on papers for the psychology classes she’s taking at Roosevelt University. She’d like to counsel teens eventually.
Jo Ann has a brother, Mark, who was three when their father died. Now 44, he’s a self-employed car mechanic. He’s a muscular six-foot-five and has a booming voice but a calm air. He lives alone in the frame house at 56th and Justine that their grandparents bought in 1970, when they first moved into the neighborhood. He has no memory of Joe Henson. After a recent family get-together, he was driving Jo Ann home when she asked him if he missed their father. “How can I miss him?” Mark asked. “I can’t even remember him.”
“Well, I miss him,” Jo Ann said.
“You can’t miss what you never had,” Mark responded.
Jo Ann feels like she’s been trying much of her life to fill a hole left by her father’s death. “I know my mother and I love her, but I came from a father, too,” she says. “I miss being able to see him and touch him and be around him.”
When she’s asked family members what her father was like, the image they’ve painted is fuzzy and seems sentimental. “All they say is he was a good guy. He didn’t have any enemies, people were just drawn to him. My auntie said he teased a lot and liked to play jokes on people. They said when he was younger, 12 or 13, he was kinda a fat boy, he couldn’t fight. They say it seemed like overnight he just shot up. Other than that, it was just that they loved him. Sometimes I be wanting to know, ‘Who did he make mad?’ You know, something.”
Mark says it seems clear that their father grew up in a hurry. He quit high school after two years, began working, and became a father at 17, when Mark’s and Jo Ann’s older brother Jeff was born. By the time Joe Henson was killed, he had two sons and a daughter on the way. He was helping support his sons financially, but he and the mother of his children, Jeanette Davis, had split up. He’d begun staying with another woman on the south side. Jeff, Mark, and their mother were living in a housing project on the west side.
After Joe Henson died, Davis was drinking and had trouble coping with his death. So she gave Joe’s parents custody of the boys, and handed over Jo Ann six months after she was born. “I thought it would be best for them,” she says. Thus, Joe Henson’s kids grew up down the block from where he’d been killed.
But how exactly was he slain?
As Henson’s children were growing up, they didn’t hear much about their father’s death. “Them white kids killed him,” an aunt or uncle sometimes would say, without elaborating. Their uncle, Leotha Price, who was with their father when he died, never talked about it.
Mark says he once got a blurry account of the killing from his grandfather. “He told me we was in the yard right here. One of [the white youths] was supposed to threw something at Leotha’s daughter. Leotha went around the corner, and something happened, and he come back. My father, he was holding me, and he put me down and ran, and the fight started. My grandfather said they were throwing a stick or a piece of pipe back and forth across the street at each other, and my father was behind a car, and the guy threw it and my father reached out to get it, and then one of them shot him in the chest.”
But Mark has never felt certain that this version is how the slaying actually went down. “Leotha the only one that really know what happened round that corner,” he says. “And so far, I don’t think he’s told anybody.”
“Obviously, you can’t change what’s already happened,” Leotha Price says. “And in my way of thinking, you can’t prevent what’s going to happen, to a certain extent. But there’s always ‘ifs’—if I had did this, if I hadn’t did that, there’d have been a different outcome.”
Price, 68, is tall and fit, with pointy ears, silver hair, and a mustache and goatee. His frame home on South Lafayette is lined with brightly colored abstract works he’s painted, and framed photos of his seven children, all daughters. When he was a teen, he’d hoped to be a professional artist or a fashion designer. But at age 18, he got his 16-year-old girlfriend pregnant—Joe Henson’s older sister Dorothy. They married, and Price went to work instead of continuing his studies. He got a job on an assembly line at a Ford Motor plant in Chicago Heights. Later, he worked as a CTA bus driver, a computer technician, and a car salesman. Now that he’s retired, he finally has time to paint. He and Dorothy have been married 48 years now, and they have 18 grandchildren.
Except for four years that he, Dorothy, and their kids spent living adjacent to her parents at 56th and Justine, Price has been in his present home on Lafayette since he was three. His neighborhood, Washington Park, turned almost completely black when he was a child. The only white people in the neighborhood were the couple next door, and he remembers them fondly. The woman was a doctor at Cook County Hospital. “She would always give me puzzles to work out. She’d say, ‘If you can take the button off this string without untying it, I’ll give you a nickel.’ I’d stay up all night figuring it out, and then she’d give me a nickel. She’d come home from work, and she would take her shoes off and say, ‘If anybody can beat me to the alley and back, I’ll give you a nickel.’ We’d all race, but we’d never win—she could fly.”
The high school Price attended, Tilden, at 47th and Union, was in Canaryville, a white neighborhood with an aversion to blacks. He says he didn’t experience much racism within the predominantly white school. Walking home, though, he and his friends would pass white kids playing outside who’d sometimes greet them cheerfully, “Hi, niggers!”
“They weren’t meaning to call us names,” Price says. “This is who they thought we were. To hear little kids say that disturbed me. What are their parents teaching them?”
Joe Henson’s family also lived in Washington Park in the 1950s and ’60s—that’s how Price got to know not only Dorothy but also Joe. Price called Joe by his nickname, Ski—he doesn’t know its origin. “Ski was a really giving person,” Price says. “He was 6-foot-2, 6-3. Good-looking guy. Well dressed, because his father was a really exceptional dresser. All the children dressed in tailor-made clothes.”
Joe’s father, Allen Henson, was the engineer at the Mandel Building, a 14-story office building next to Tribune Tower. Joe Henson worked with him there, too, doing maintenance, and Price put in some hours on weekends. He and Joe became close. “We weren’t into drugs, gangs, none of that—it was not our lifestyle,” Price says. “For young black guys, we were doing pretty good, considering the times.”
When Allen Henson bought property at 56th and Justine in 1970, Price and his wife and their two daughters moved in on the first floor of the two-flat on the southeast corner. Allen Henson and his wife moved into the frame home on the same lot, just east of the two-flat.
There were a few other black families on the block when the Hensons and Prices moved in. “We knew it was changing racially, but it didn’t bother us any,” Price says. Most people stayed to themselves, he recalls. But the white youths who hung around outside the three-flat on the northwest corner of 56th and Justine did their best to make the black residents feel unwelcome. “At nighttime, they would break out your windows,” Price says.
Forty-one years later, Joe Henson’s slaying is still a painful memory for Price, something he talks to me about reluctantly, and only because his niece Jo Ann asked him to. Jo Ann wanted to hear his story, but felt uncomfortable asking him about it directly. “I tried to explain to Jo Ann, these are troubled memories,” Price says. “And it’s not going to change what’s happened. At least it isn’t going to bring Ski back. I’m doing it for Jo Ann, because she wants to know about her father.”
He says that while he has a vivid image of the fateful evening’s tragic end, his recollection of the events leading up to it is hazy.
He was 26 at the time. He remembers going to a grocery store a block away, on Ashland. On his way back, he passed the three-flat that was kitty-corner from his house. Several white youths were on the porch. “They said something to me, but I ignored it,” Price says. “When I got right up to the corner, they said something again. I turned around. Then one of the guys jumped off the porch and came at me.” Price is quick to point out, “I could take care of myself. I had a grandfather who taught us, ‘Don’t bother nobody, but stand up for yourself.'”
He recalls briefly fighting with the guy, and that he was winning—”’cause I’m a grown man. He’s just a kid. He was a big kid as I remember, but still, he was young.” Price says neither he nor his combatant went to the ground. “I had the upper hand, but it only lasted seconds.” He says some of the other white kids, seeing their friend losing the fight, charged up to intervene. Joe Henson was sitting across the street in his parents’ front yard. He saw what was happening, and raced over to help Price. Then the white youths fled down Justine, toward Garfield Boulevard.
Price would later tell police that during the fight, a white youth hit him in the butt with a baseball bat. Several of the white youths would corroborate it when they were questioned, including the one who’d wielded the bat. More than 40 years later, Price doesn’t recall getting hit with a bat, but says it “could have happened.”
Price also told police that shortly after the incident on the corner, someone broke a window of his apartment, and he presumed it was one of the youths with whom he’d had the altercation. He said he and Henson took sticks and headed north down an alley, toward Garfield. Today, Price simply recalls he and Henson heading down the alley: “I don’t remember the reason or who suggested it. I don’t know if we had an intention.” Were they armed with sticks? “Ski might have picked up something—I don’t remember,” Price says. “I didn’t have anything, I know that for a fact.”
Where the alley came to a T, Price and Henson turned west, and stepped onto Justine. Price told police that some of the youths with whom he’d had the earlier altercation were sitting on a porch next to the alley, and that when he and Henson emerged from the alley, a girl shouted, “Look out, here they come.”
“They must have been waiting,” Price says today. “We came out of the alley, and all hell broke loose. Ski went one way, I went another way, and they were charging at us. I don’t remember hearing the shot, but next thing I know, Ski was laying in the middle of Justine, with a small hole right in the middle of his chest, like that”—he holds up his pinched thumb and forefinger. He says no blood was coming from it.
“He was gasping for breath,” Price says, with his own faint gasp. His voice drops, and he stares blankly across his living room. “The only thing I remember after that was just me saying, ‘Don’t let him die, don’t let him die, don’t let him die.’ I didn’t want him to die over nothing.” He didn’t know how to do CPR, but he tried anyway, blowing air into Henson’s mouth. He didn’t push on his chest “because I knew there was a bullet in there.
“I’m on both knees, I’m over him, and I’m alone,” Price continues. “At least in my mind, there’s nobody else around. And before I knew it, the ambulance came, and it took him away.
“In retrospect you say to yourself, ‘Oh, God—if we wouldn’t have gone up through the alley, maybe none of this would have happened.’ Then you also say, ‘Well, there’s nothing you can do—when it’s a person’s time, it’s a person’s time.’ There’s so many ways you can look at a situation.” His voice softens further, and he goes on: “I can blame myself for it, because, you know—the circumstances were my fault, not Ski’s fault. It makes you think, ‘If I had just kept walking instead of turning around for that split second to address those guys. If I had just kept walking.’ I should have been the one who got shot, not him. He didn’t do anything but try to help a friend.”
But Price wasn’t completely blaming himself, either. He wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger, or the one who set events in motion by taunting him earlier that evening at 56th and Justine. “You could say it started when the first slave masters got the first slaves from Africa and brought them here,” he says. “You can dissect all this, but the whole thing was, a person died over nothing. Over the color of his skin, basically. Which boggles my mind.”
Jo Ann and Mark say their grandparents were loving and diligent guardians. “We never went without anything—lights, gas, food, clothes,” Jo Ann says. “My grandmother made sure we got off to school every day and that we did our homework.”
Their home was often overflowing with family and neighbors. Their grandfather, Allen Henson, enjoyed cooking—he’d been a chef on Amtrak—and turned no one away when he made a meal. The kids had sleepovers with cousins and friends on cots and pallets scattered through the house.
Still, when Jo Ann got to be around eight, it started bothering her that her parents weren’t with her. “It was like, ‘OK, my grandparents are the best, but my cousins have a mother and father,'” she says.
“I was mad at one thing: that these people killed my father, and nobody went to jail for it.”
—Jo Ann Henson
The neighborhood quickly finished its change to black from white—as far back as Mark and Jo Ann can remember, all but a few neighbors were black. But there were still plenty of whites north of Garfield Boulevard when Mark and Jo Ann were attending Libby Elementary School, at 53rd and Loomis—on the “white” side of the boulevard. Mark, Jo Ann, Jeff, and their cousins and friends walked to school in a group, on a route prescribed by their elders because it avoided the whitest blocks: east down 56th Street to Bishop, north to Garfield Boulevard, east another block to the crossing guard at Loomis, north to the school. If the children strayed from the route and it was discovered, “that meant some skin off our behinds,” Jo Ann says. Back then she chafed at what she considered her elders’ overprotectiveness. “We were being conditioned to live in fear,” she says. But now “I realize that they were being good guardians.”
What the kids feared most was Sherman Park, across the street from Libby. Jo Ann recalls white kids standing in the park hollering, “Niggers go home!” as she and her cousins and friends left school. Sherman was the turf of the Gaylords, a notorious white gang. “Just their name alone scared us,” Mark says. One day after school, when he was a third grader, he saw police pull a body, clad just in blue jeans, from the park lagoon. Later he learned that it was a young man who lived a block from them. “The Gaylords had killed him and threw him off the bridge,” Mark says he heard.
Sherman Park had been a danger zone for blacks since they first dared using it when they were moving into the neighborhood in the late 1960s. In July 1970—a month after Joe Henson was killed—two black joggers, ages 24 and 25, were beaten there with baseball bats and sticks by a gang of 20 whites. “Hard-core whites feel they own the park,” Sherman’s supervisor told the black-owned Chicago Defender in a story about the beating.
But despite the actions of the Gaylords and other white racists in the area—and despite even what “them white boys” had done to Joe Henson—there was not a blanket loathing of whites in the Henson clan. The family had been too connected to white people for that to set in. Jo Ann says a couple of her grandparents’ relatives were white. Also, when Allen Henson came to Chicago from Mississippi as a 16-year-old in the 1940s, an Irish-American man—”Mr. Glenn”—took him under his wing. He trained Allen Henson for work as a building engineer, then got him the job at the Mandel Building. Allen Henson spoke of Mr. Glenn as a second father. “My grandfather loved him, and he loved my grandfather,” Jo Ann says.
It was Mr. Glenn who sold Allen Henson the properties on 56th Street. He stopped by occasionally, sometimes with his children. Other white coworkers of Allen Henson’s dropped in as well. One of them had kids who were near the ages of Jeff, Mark, and Jo Ann, and they sometimes stayed the night. “We all slept together,” Mark says. “So hating whites, it just never was taught here. I never heard anything like that come out of my grandfather’s mouth, or my grandmother’s neither.”
It wasn’t like their grandparents had forgotten what had happened to their son, though. “When I got in my teens, I remember seeing my grandmother go off by herself, and cry and holler, and call for him,” Jo Ann says. “And my grandfather, sometimes you would catch him sitting off by himself, crying. ‘Why you crying, Grandpa?’ ‘I’m thinking about my son.’
“I think my grandfather was more upset with the justice system” than with white people, she says. So it upset Jo Ann as well. “I was mad at one thing: that these people killed my father, and nobody went to jail for it.”
Jo Ann Henson was rummaging through a box of her grandmother’s memorabilia one afternoon when she was 15, and came across a yellowed clipping from the Defender: “Arrest 3 White Youths In Slaying Of Black, 21,” read the headline, published four days after her father’s death. The Defender was the only newspaper to report on the crime.
She remembers crying when she read it, and then getting angry. The story named the two adults who were charged with murder: 19-year-old Joseph Fehil and 17-year-old Thomas Schickel. She looked them up in the phone book and found no number for Fehil. But there was a number for Schickel. At her request, a friend of her brother Jeff called the number. “I thought a man’s voice would scare him more than some young girl’s,” she says.
As she recalls the conversation, her brother’s friend “said something like, ‘Can I speak to Thomas Schickel?’ ‘This is he.’ ‘Do you remember Joseph Henson?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you remember the man you killed on Justine Street?'” When the person on the other end didn’t respond, her brother’s friend added, “I’m the terminator”—and the man on the other end hung up. Jo Ann had her brother’s friend call again a few days later, but the phone had been disconnected.
In 2002, Jo Ann filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records of the police investigation into her father’s death. She was given what police officials said was a complete set of the reports, though all names had been redacted. She concluded from the reports that the police “didn’t treat it seriously. I don’t think it was really nothing to them—just another dead black person.”
Jo Ann wrote me last September, after reading my story on a racial killing in another changing south-side neighborhood in the early 70s. That story, “The Price of Intolerance,” recounted the shotgun slaying of two white children at 51st Place and Peoria—just over a mile north and east of where Joe Henson was slain. A jury convicted a young black man of the murders. He served 34 years before he was paroled in 2006.
That part of the story was especially interesting to Jo Ann. “A black man went to jail for killing white children,” she says, whereas in her father’s case “the white kids didn’t go to jail for killing a black man.”
“The Price of Intolerance” “touched some deep feelings inside of me,” Jo Ann said in her letter. It made her feel sympathy for Sam Navarro, whose 13-year-old daughter Helene was killed. In the story, he described his close relationship with Helene and his enduring grief after her death. Jo Ann wrote that her grandparents, too, had grieved the death of their son—but never got the solace of seeing his killers go to prison. And she herself had been deprived of the chance to experience “the relationship between a father and his daughter such as the one Sam Navarro had with Helene,” she wrote.
“My father’s life and his blood on the street was just as precious as Helene Navarro’s.”
The myriad blacked-out rectangles in the redacted police reports Jo Ann Henson was given make it hard to tell which witness said what about whom—and, Jo Ann allows, may have influenced her conclusion that the police didn’t aggressively investigate the case.
I was able to get a batch of police reports without redactions, as well as the court-reported statements given by two of the teens who were charged. The reports show that detectives interviewed numerous witnesses. As is often true in criminal investigations, some of the accounts were contradictory, and some stories undoubtedly were self-serving. Still, in two days detectives developed enough evidence for the state’s attorney’s office to approve murder charges against three teenagers.
One witness, 17-year-old James Healy, told detectives he’d participated in the earlier fight at 56th and Justine. “We were sitting on a porch when this colored guy came walking past,” he said. A friend of his, Joe Fehil, and the man exchanged words, and then Fehil “asked the colored guy if he wanted to fight him one-on-one. The colored guy said OK and they started swinging at each other.” Because Fehil was losing “I grabbed a bat and went after the colored guy,” Healy said. He admitted striking him once. Another white youth threw a bottle at him, Healy said. When another man came to the aid of the first one, “we all ran.”
Healy said that later that evening, he was on Garfield Boulevard when a friend said he was going to Marshfield Avenue “to get some guys.” Soon, Healy’s friend had returned with about 20 youths. “They started down Justine,” Healy said, while he stayed on the boulevard. He said he saw two black men jump out of the alley, heard yelling and pipes being thrown, and then heard gunfire. “I saw one of the black guys fall, and everyone started running.” He took off, too. He claimed he was too far away to see who fired the shots.
Fehil turned himself in to police shortly after the shooting. He acknowledged having fought with Price earlier in the day at 56th and Justine. He said that later that evening, he was on the porch at 5513 Justine with Thomas Schickel, Healy, and some other friends when the two black guys came out of the alley. They threw a stick and a pipe at his group, he said, and one of the objects struck him in his side. Then someone in the crowd—he claimed he didn’t know who—started shooting. He saw Henson fall, and everyone took off. He said he and Schickel ran to an alley on the 5400 block of Marshfield, where Schickel stuck the gun in some weeds next to garbage cans. Fehil led detectives to the alley, but no gun was there.
Price had told police that after the shooting, he heard Fehil say to the shooter, “Give me the gun, give me the gun” before everyone fled. Under Illinois law, a person can be held accountable for a crime when he aids its commission. In the early morning hours of June 14, an assistant state’s attorney approved a murder charge against Fehil.
Later that day, Schickel, who was 17 and lived a block from the shooting, turned himself in at Area 3 police headquarters. He gave detectives a .22 caliber revolver. In a statement to an assistant state’s attorney, he said that after Fehil’s earlier fight with Price—and while Fehil and Healy had gone to 54th and Marshfield to bring back 20 guys—a teen named Billy Swanson showed up on Justine with two guns. Schickel said Swanson handed him a .22—the gun he’d brought with him to the police station—and kept a .32 for himself. They were on Justine with three other friends when the two black men came out of the alley.
Schickel said he fired one shot. “I didn’t know what I was doing, I just pulled the trigger,” he said. He didn’t think he’d hit either of them, he said, because no one fell. He said one of the men ran behind a car and threw a pipe that hit him in the back. Then, Schickel said, he heard Swanson fire his gun. After that he heard three more shots. He still didn’t see anyone fall, he said. He ran, with Fehil, to 54th and Marshfield, where he hid the .22 in an alley.
He and Fehil stayed in the alley while some of the guys from Marshfield returned to Justine to see if either of the black men had been hurt, Schickel told the assistant state’s attorney. “And they said, yes, one of them is dead.”
The guys also said that police were looking for him, Fehil, and Healy, Schickel went on, so they fled. Fehil turned himself in, but Schickel and Healy ended up sleeping in Schickel’s brother’s car a couple miles west of where the shooting had occurred. “We were talking about what would they do to us if they catch us,” Schickel said. The next day he retrieved the gun from the alley on his way to the police station, he told the assistant state’s attorney.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, I just pulled the trigger.” Thomas Schickel, who was 17 at the time of Joe Henson’s killing
Police arrested the other alleged gunman, Swanson, on the morning of June 15 at Fenger High School, where he was a 14-year-old freshman. In his own statement to police that afternoon, he said that on the evening of the shooting, Schickel had told him to go to the house of a girl named Linda and get some guns. He said he did so, and returned to Garfield and Justine with a .22, which he gave to Schickel, and a .32, which, he claimed, he gave to a tall, heavyset youth he’d never seen before. He handed off the .32, he said, because he didn’t know how to operate it.
Then “the colored guys jumped out and they started fighting with lead pipes and boards,” he said. Someone from his group fired at them—but he didn’t see who, because “my back was turned.” When everyone was running after the shooting, the heavyset youth gave him back the .32, Swanson said, and he hid the gun between two rocks in a gangway.
The assistant state’s attorney who was taking the statement, Matthew Walsh, pressed Swanson on his claim that he’d handed the gun to a stranger.
“Did you say anything to him before you gave it to him?” Walsh asked.
“I said, ‘Here, take this.'”
“Why did you give it to him and not someone else?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you ask him if he knew how to fire it?”
“No, sir, I just handed it to him.”
“You gave him the gun and all you said was, ‘Here’ . . . and the shot was fired and he gave it back to you?”
“Yes, sir,” Swanson said.
The detectives didn’t find the gun where Swanson said he’d put it.
Assistant state’s attorneys approved murder charges against Schickel and Swanson.
According to a state’s attorney’s report, ballistics tests later showed that Henson was shot with a .22 caliber bullet, but the tests couldn’t confirm that it had been fired from the .22 revolver Schickel had turned in.
Though a multitude of people were nearby when Henson was slain and acknowledged hearing the gunfire, somehow everyone, with the exception of Schickel, had managed not to see who fired at Henson and Price. One 18-year-old said she’d actually seen one of the two black men open fire on the white boys; she didn’t see any of the white boys with a gun. She said that a couple minutes after the shooting, she walked back out to Justine, where one of the men was lying in the street. “The other colored guy was standing next to him screaming ‘Don’t die,’ and he was giving him mouth to mouth resuscitation,” she said.
The day after the shooting, a police officer got an anonymous tip from someone who seemed to know several of the white youths. He said he knew that police had Fehil in custody, and he named several others he said had been involved in the shooting. The persons he named were the ones that detectives were already investigating.
The officer who took the anonymous tip wrote in his report that according to the source, Henson was “a nice, respectable man” who “came to the rescue of another fellow who was being harassed, this gang then killed Henson.”
When I read that one of the guns used in the crime against Henson hadn’t been recovered, it rang a bell.
I dug through my files and found notes from an interview I’d done three years earlier, for an entirely different project—long before I’d known about the Henson killing.
In 2008 I was hanging out at the emergency room of Holy Cross Hospital, at 69th and California. I was thinking of writing about the struggles of a small community hospital, and I was especially interested in Holy Cross because of where it was located. The hospital looks out on sprawling Marquette Park, which in the 1960s and ’70s had been a focal point of Chicago racism. The neighborhood then was white, mostly Catholic and Lithuanian. In August 1966, civil rights activists led by Martin Luther King marched to the park, calling for open housing in the neighborhood and throughout the city. They were pummeled by rocks and bottles hurled by whites; King himself was felled by a rock that struck him in the neck. “I have never in my life seen such hate, not in Mississippi or Alabama,” King said afterward. Now the neighborhood is African-American and Latino.
I was interviewing Holy Cross patients and employees. One of the employees I talked with was the hospital’s longtime supervisor of security, Jeff Blackburn. He’s a towering, blue-eyed, pink-complected man in his 50s, shy but amiable. We got to talking about race, and he told me about the racial fighting in his neighborhood in the late 1960s, when he was in his teens. He’d lived in the Back of the Yards neighborhood then—on the 5400 block of South Marshfield. This was a block west of Ashland and a block north of Garfield Boulevard. Just beyond those two streets, in West Englewood, blacks had moved in.
He and his buddies on Marshfield had formed a gang—the “Satan’s Hearts,” he said. One summer night, they walked south and east to join up with another white gang and confront some blacks. He and his friends had ended up on Justine, just south of the boulevard. He’d been expecting a fistfight, he said; when shots rang out, he’d fled.
Soon he’d learned that one of the white gang members had slain a young black man. And at the request of a cohort, he’d gotten rid of the gun. “I threw it in the Des Plaines River at 47th Street,” he’d told me.
I drove across town to talk with Blackburn again.
Editor’s note: Part 2 of “The Color of His Skin” will be published March 8 in print and March 5 at chicagoreader.com.
Jena Cutie helped research this story.