Mitchell: Ethel Skyles Alexander was African-American trailblazer

SHARE Mitchell: Ethel Skyles Alexander was African-American trailblazer

Ethel Skyles Alexander, a former Illinois state representative and senator, died Sept. 10. | Sun-Times file photo

Follow @MaryMitchellCSTIn the game of politics, Ethel Skyles Alexander will be remembered as someone who knew how to move the ball.

Although the former Illinois state representative and senator wasn’t in the spotlight, she played an important role in the lives of politicians who were, and championed historic legislation that impacts our lives today.

Alexander retired from the General Assembly in 1993. She passed away on Sept. 10 in Chicago.

She was the first woman to be appointed assistant chief deputy clerk of the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court and was elected to the Illinois House in 1978.

After the death of Charles Chew Jr. in 1986, Alexander was appointed state senator. She was quite the contrast to Chew, who was known for his flamboyant personality, flashy cars and support of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s political machine.

Alexander was known for her long-suffering. She had worked in the Cook County Circuit Court’s Records Department for 33 years when she was elected to the Illinois House.

“She was that generation of women before the glass ceiling got broken,” said Carol Moseley Braun, a former U.S. senator who once roomed with Alexander in Springfield.

“She was running the clerk’s office, but when it came time to slate a clerk, they passed her over. Her consolation prize was the state Legislature. Every criminal lawyer would have identified her as the go-to person in the clerk’s office. She knew where every file was, but the Democratic Party just passed her up,” Braun said.

“I learned about Chicago politics from her. I knew government, but I didn’t know politics and Ethel was second generation in Chicago politics. Her father, having been a state representative, she knew where the bodies were buried. She was very astute, very spiritual and very much a churchwoman. This is a great loss to all of us.”


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Ethel Skyles Alexander is sworn in as a deputy clerk by Cook County County Clerk Matthew J. Danaher. | Sun-Times file photo

Ethel Skyles Alexander is sworn in as a deputy clerk by Cook County County Clerk Matthew J. Danaher. | Sun-Times file photo

Ethel Skyles Alexander was born on Jan. 16, 1925, in Chicago. She graduated from Englewood High School and earned a bachelor’s degree from Loop College, now Harold Washington College.

Alexander’s father, Charles Skyles, was a minister and represented the 5th District from 1945-1957.

A founding member of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus Foundation, Alexander served at a time when the debate over South Africa’s apartheid system was forcing America’s churches, business owners and municipalities to take a stand. Her response was to co-sponsor a bill that prohibited state agencies from trading with the apartheid-era South Africa.

She also sponsored legislation that toughened child pornography laws. And she was responsible for Illinois’ rape shield law, which protects rape victims’ identities and prevents a victim’s past sexual behavior from being used against them at trial.

In 1985, state Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, roomed with Alexander and Braun when the women served in the House.

“Ethel gave me a lot of wisdom, a lot of insights on the to-dos and not-to-dos in Springfield. She was my mother away from home,” Flowers said.

Alexander was also active behind the scenes in Braun’s political career.

When her protégé was elected as Cook County recorder of deeds in 1988, Alexander took on paid consulting duties, touching off criticism because she was still in the Senate.

In 1993, she retired and served as the volunteer treasurer of Braun’s historic campaign for U.S. senate.

“I can’t say enough about the contributions she made. I hope people don’t forget that it was people like Ethel that made it possible for people like me and Mary Flowers to come after her,” Braun said.

Wake/visitation will be 3 to 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16, at Progressive Funeral Home, 7208 S. Stony Island. Funeral is at 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, at First Church of Deliverance, 4315 S. Wabash. Burial will be at Oakwood Cemetery, 1035 E. 67th St.

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