Crusader staff report
Move over Elbert Henry Gary. A statue of the city’s first Black mayor, Richard Gordon Hatcher, will sit yards away from that of the city’s founder.
At the 50th anniversary ceremony honoring Hatcher’s historic election, cheers erupted in the theater at the West Side Academy as Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson gave guests a sneak peak of a statue of the man who made history as the nation’s first Black elected mayor.
For Gary residents, it’s a fitting tribute for Hatcher, who ushered in an era of Black Power in Gary that changed the city forever. To many, statues of Hatcher and Elbert Henry Gary in front of City Hall will be a more accurate representation of a city that, for decades, catered to whites while its Black residents lived in slums.
The proposed statue will feature a young, suave Hatcher in his prime, wearing a tailored three-piece suit. It’s a likeness of Hatcher that many longtime Gary residents remember of the trailblazer when he ousted incumbent Martin N. Katz en route to ending the city’s 42-year streak of electing white mayors.
“Mayor Hatcher, you deserve that and so much more,” stated Freeman-Wilson.
Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who spoke at the ceremony, led an impromptu fundraising effort during the ceremony. Called ‘A Day to Remember,’ the event was hosted by Windy City Live personality Val Warner.
At the ceremony, Jackson said Hatcher’s statue would cost $25,000, but Freeman-Wilson’s office emailed the Crusader saying that the City of Gary Department of Planning & Redevelopment/Gary Redevelopment Commission will pay for the statue. Donations from the public will pay for the base, according to the mayor’s office. The process can take 12 to 14 months, but officials are planning to unveil the sculpture in front of City Hall by February 2019.
During the ceremony, many prominent people, including Crusader Publisher Dorothy R. Leavell, came forward and pledged thousands of dollars, to the delight of Hatcher, who sat in the front with his wife, Ruthellyn, and their three daughters: Ragen, Rachelle and Renee—all of whom are attorneys. They shared personal testimonies of their father as a family man.
It was a spirit-filled evening as Hatcher was serenaded by dignitaries who expressed his immense contributions to the city. In addition to Jackson, Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan drew applause as he praised Hatcher for his humility and courage to dream big for Gary’s Black residents at a time when they were treated as second-class citizens.
At one point, Jackson drew heavy applause and laughter when he joked that another statue of Hatcher should be placed in neighboring Merrillville, which was founded when whites fled Gary months after Hatcher took office.
The evening also featured video tributes from Black lawmakers across the country, including Congresswoman Maxine Waters from California. There were also moving video presentations featuring photos showing Hatcher days before and after he was elected mayor of Gary.
Singer Deniece “Niecey” Williams, a native of Gary, returned home from California to honor Hatcher at the ceremony. Before about 1,000 guests, she sang her 1984 hit, “Black Butterfly,” a song that symbolically expresses ethnic beauty, freedom and achievement. After decades of hit making songs, Williams’ powerful vocals were on full display as she closed out the evening with her gospel hit, “God is Truly Amazing.”
As the guest of honor, Hatcher was the last to speak. He didn’t speak much about his historic election win, but gave a 20-minute speech where he thanked his wife and daughters for sticking by him for so many years. He praised Farrakhan for helping turn around the lives of thousands of young Black men who were once in jail, but are now law-abiding citizens who now have a faith-based foundation in their lives. He also thanked Freeman-Wilson and the 50th Anniversary Planning Committee for planning and organizing the ceremony.
Hatcher expressed pride about the city producing Williams, the Jackson family and other big entertainers born and raised in Gary. “I am so appreciative and grateful to each and every one of you who have come to this event tonight. Tonight has been a wonderful experience for me.”