Dear Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle: African-American women across Chicagoland are rooting for whichever one of you makes history Tuesday by being elected the first mayor who looks like them in the city’s 182-year history.
We know because we’ve talked to scores of them across the city in the final week before the election. Not about who they’re voting for. That’s their business.
But about afterward, when history ushers in Chicago’s first African-American woman mayor, what it means to them, the challenges they foresee, changes they expect and hopes for your work.
Perspectives range widely, but all note you will also carry the privilege or burden of being only the second African-American and the second woman to inherit City Hall’s 5th floor.
“I think Chicago is one of the most prejudiced cities in the country,” said Dorothea Avant, of downtown Streeterville, a 91-year-old, retired/widowed Chicago Public Schools principal.
“I know Chicago’s history of racism firsthand. When I first started teaching, they still had the ethnically oriented curriculum guides from grammar school in the ’30s. And my first principal job in the ’70s was at an all-white school that was not a friendly place,” said Avant, also a teacher and librarian during 40 years with CPS.
“We had one black first-grade teacher at that school, and the mothers took turns monitoring her classroom to see that she taught their kids correctly. At PTA meetings, they’d collect money to help the Southwest Side ‘Bogan Broads’ who were protesting integration by the Board of Education,” Avant recalled.
“I didn’t think I’d live to see a black woman mayor. I think it’s marvelous, because in my lifetime, I’ve known some very smart black women who have not gotten where they should have been just because they are black,” she said.
And for precisely that reason, the women we talked to do not expect you to have an easy time as a trailblazer. In fact, some of them are less than optimistic you’ll prevail over the inherent challenges.
“A lot of black people believe it’s going to be politics as usual. It’s just going to be administered by a black woman,” said Marjorie Walton, 73, a lifelong Chicagoan who recently fled the city.
“A lot of people expected Harold Washington to change Chicago, to change the ghetto. But 71st & Cottage Grove still looks the same as it did then. One person cannot effect that kind of change, and everybody knows it,” said Walton, who with her partner of 43 years, Mary Sieradzka, now lives in Oak Park.
Despite cynicism, the couple regrets they moved five years ago from a city poised for a historic election, ‘though they still own a condo in Lincoln Park, said Walton, a retired Army veteran who worked for the U.S. General Services Administration.
“I cannot vote, and that really upsets me. I met my partner when she was 28 and I was 32. We’ve lived through the era when things were not good for the LGBTQ community,” Walton said.
“Now I’m witnessing where we can openly get married, openly run for office — from Lightfoot to Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, running for president — our families are recognized. So this is history in the making.”
As for your priorities, Mayor-elect, the women we talked to hope they’ll include equity in business and economic development for black communities.
“The last time the black community was offered a level of equity in terms of business opportunities in the city was when Harold Washington was mayor. And that is what politics represents. It’s about interest,” said Melody Spann-Cooper, 54, of the South Loop. She’s chairman of Midway Broadcasting Corp., parent owner of WVON-AM 1690, the city’s only black-owned radio station.
“The city’s numbers have been so dismal in terms of procurement in professional services, the line of business that we are in. I don’t think I face a different peril than an African-American male in this space,” said the second-generation business owner, who recently moved her station from its longtime home in Chatham to near downtown.
“Politics is about representation and interests, [and] because I am their assumed base, I would hope the new mayor would represent my interests, that I would do better because they are there,” she said. “I am optimistic that now we will have a seat at the table.”
Besides eradicating deficits in opportunities for women-owned businesses in city contracting, the women we talked to ticked off economic development of inner-city South and West Side neighborhoods, improving police-community relations, eradicating Chicago Public Schools quality of education deficits and addressing the plight of young black, inner-city males.
“It’s time for us to level up and reclaim what’s ours. Our communities have become desolate places. They’re drying up, and we need to revive them,” said Tabithia Smith, 35, of Auburn-Gresham, first lady of Another Chance Church, at 9550 S. Harvard in Washington Heights, and mom to two pre-teen boys.
Smith, whose husband is pastor of the 10-year-old church, was born and raised in Englewood and remembers when it “was families and community, before all the vacant lots and board-ups. For so long, we’ve been content with what we’ve been given. People now want change, want something different,” she said.
“There are still men fighting to rear our young men with a proper example of what family looks like, still hard-working moms trying to expose their children to what a great working model of family and community looks like. There’s still hope,” Smith said.
“So I’m looking forward to change and opportunity for our communities to rise together under this Mayor-elect, and remain hopeful she will partner with us to make Chicago great again.”
And as you take your place at City Hall, Mayor-elect, know that African-American women already know the racism and sexism you will face, just as was faced by Chicago’s trailblazing 50th and 51st mayors, Jane Byrne and Washington, respectively.
“It’s a watershed moment in Chicago. My hope is that having a black woman as mayor of Chicago will be about the substance, and not just the symbolism,” said Amara Enyia, 35, of Garfield Park, the director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce who came in sixth among the 14 candidates in the Feb. 26 election.
“I actually feel for whomever wins, because I’m concerned the expectations for them will probably be unfair,” Enyia said.
“That’s because as black women, we have to be so much better, so much smarter, so much more savvy, and we don’t get the benefit of the doubt,” she said.
And even though both of these women have reached the pinnacles of their careers and both are very accomplished women, whoever wins will still face those same challenges. And even though I was running against them, I still identify and empathize with that struggle as a black woman.”