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Burge victims, Rekia Boyd among Blacks to be honored with city monuments

Photo caption: Rekia Boyd

Many of the soon-to-be recipients of city monuments made Chicago proud, but many helped expose the city after they were tortured, beaten and locked up by police for no reason. The famous ones have long been gone, but many victims of police brutality and injustice are still alive and live with the pain of incarceration after spending decades in jail for crimes they did not commit.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson wants to make sure both the celebrated and the little known are not forgotten. And he wants the city to forever appreciate the contributions of its famous Black residents. They include Chicago resident, the late Mahalia Jackson, “The Queen of Gospel,” and Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the founder of the city of Chicago, whose name is now part of Lake Shore Drive, thanks to Alderman David Moore and former Alderman Sophia King.

Other honorees are ordinary Blacks who were unable to achieve greatness after they became victims of disgraced Commander Jon Burge. Rekia Boyd, a young Black woman, who was killed by a Chicago police officer who never paid for his crime, will also receive a monument.

Another memorial will honor efforts to commemorate the infamous 1919 race riots, where 38 people were killed including 23 Blacks, after five days of rioting on the South Side. Other monuments will honor Native Americans and social reformer Mother Jones.

The city will erect the monuments as a step toward racial healing and historical reckoning. The monuments will cost a total of $6.8 million, most of which will be paid for by a grant from the Mellon Foundation. The city will contribute $1 million to the project.

America’s Southern cities in recent years have come under fire for keeping monuments that honor Confederate figures who promoted slavery and fought to preserve it during the Civil War. Some of those statues in the South have come down while others remain. In Chicago, former Senator Stephen Douglass, a large slave holder who famously debated President Abraham Lincoln, still has a huge monument in Bronzeville that includes his tomb.

Attitudes changed in Chicago and America after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. Workers in Chicago removed the statue of Christopher Columbus in Grant Park after residents held protests and vandalized the structure. Douglass Park in North Lawndale was named after abolitionist, journalist, author and pioneer Frederick Douglass.

Johnson’s predecessor, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, created the Chicago Monuments Project to reevaluate the need for these monuments while also figuring out how to make public space for new artworks.

When he campaigned for mayor, Johnson called for full funding and construction of a Chicago Justice Memorial for Burge’s victims, many of whom were Black men who lived in the Ida B. Wells housing project. Commander Burge and his squad tortured over 100 men at the Homan Square facility, where they were forced to confess to crimes before they were wrongfully convicted and served decades in prison. As a result, the city has paid over $100 million in settlements.

Jon Burge

During the news conference, Johnson hugged Anthony Holmes, who alleged that he was tortured by Burge and another officer into confessing to a murder he did not commit. After he spent decades in jail, Holmes testified against Burge in his federal perjury trial, where Burge was convicted  of perjury and obstruction of justice. Burge served just over four years in prison and died in 2018. Meanwhile, Burge’s victims, like Holmes, continue to speak out against injustice and police brutality.

In announcing a monument for Burge’s victims, Johnson said, “I’m humbled to have the opportunity to finally complete this project. The brutality of police has caused tremendous harm, to not just a generation, but to generations of people.”

Rekia Boyd was just 22 when she was killed by Chicago Police Officer Dante Servin. In 2012, Servin, an off-duty police officer, fired shots into a group of people in Douglass Park, hitting Boyd in the head. The Chicago Police Department claimed Servin fired his weapon after an individual in the group approached him with a gun. The Boyd family quickly responded that the object was, in fact, a cell phone. No weapon was ever recovered from the scene.

In 2015, Servin was cleared after Judge Dennis Porter ruled during a bench trial that Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez should have charged him with first-degree murder, instead of second-degree murder. The city paid $4.5 million to Boyd’s family to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.

Striking a happier note of recognition, gospel great Mahalia Jackson will be honored with a monument as well. Jackson moved to Chicago from New Orleans in 1927 when she was just 16 years old. While in Chicago, she sang in various churches on the South and West sides.

In the 1930s, Jackson, a contralto, began working with Bronzeville’s Pilgrim Baptist Church music director and composer Thomas A. Dorsey, a collaboration that catapulted her into gospel music stardom. She sang his gospel hit, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Her 1947 recording of “Move on Up a Little Higher” became the first top-selling gospel song, earning her the title, “Queen of Gospel Music.”

With profits from her hit gospel songs, Jackson began looking for a home to purchase on the South Side. White homeowners with “For Sale” signs on their front lawns didn’t want to sell her their homes.

When she began inquiring at homes with “For Sale” signs in Chatham, a majority-white suburb at the time, she was turned away by many homeowners. But when she saw a home at 8358 S. Indiana Ave., a white surgeon who had heard her sing sold Jackson the house for $40,000 in 1956.

A civil rights activist, Jackson sang at Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington rally at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. There, Jackson told King to talk about his dream before he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Former U.S. Senator Roland Burris purchased Jackson’s Chatham house in 1972.

A few days later, Jackson died of a heart seizure at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park. She received a funeral service at Greater Salem Baptist Church in Chicago where she was still a member. Fifty thousand people paid their respects. The day after, Mayor Richard J. Daley and other politicians and celebrities gave their eulogies at the Arie Crown Theater with 6,000 in attendance.

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