Wilson Frost, trailblazing black alderman, dies at 92
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Pioneering former Ald. Wilson Frost died Saturday in southern California at the age of 92.
Frost, born in downstate Cairo on Dec, 27, 1925, rose to prominence as a key African-American figure in Chicago’s City Council. He died in his adopted hometown of Palm Desert, according to Ald. Carrie Austin (34th).
After graduating from Fisk University in Nashville and Chicago-Kent College of Law, Frost was elected alderman of the 21st Ward in 1967. Four years later, he won an election to become alderman of the 34th Ward, a position he held until 1987. He later served on the Cook County Board of Tax Appeals until 1998.
The Democrat is perhaps best known for declaring himself the city’s acting mayor when Richard J. Daley died in December 1976. Frost, who was serving as president pro tempore of the city council, based the move on his own interpretation of the city charter.
Following nearly a weeklong power struggle, during which Frost was locked out of the mayor’s office, the city council rebuffed Frost’s claim and appointed Michael Bilandic, then the 11th Ward alderman, as mayor. Had Frost’s reading of the city charter been upheld, he would have become the city’s first black mayor.
A group of black leaders, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, urged Frost to claim the mayorship after Daley’s death. Jackson, who was caught off guard by the news Frost had died, called him a “critical, smart and caring” leader, noting he had the skills to be the city’s mayor.
“Wilson was an effective public servant who served under difficult conditions but maintained his dignity,” Jackson said.
Ald. Ed Burke (14th) remembers his law firm negotiating the “peace treaty” that ultimately named Bilandic mayor and installed Frost as the chairman of the council’s Finance Committee. Burke, now chair of the Finance Committee, remembered his former colleague fondly.
“He lived a rich and full life with many accomplishments, and he’ll be remembered as a trailblazer,” Burke said.
In a statement from Mayor Emanuel on the passing of Wilson Frost, he said Frost was a passionate public servant and a powerful voice for those he served. A giant in the City Council, he rose through the ranks and became chairman of the Finance Committee. His legacy endures through the generation of political and community leaders he mentored and inspired. Our prayers are with his family and friends on this difficult day.
A younger generation of black politicians credit Frost’s leadership for their successes.
Austin, who now represents the same 34th Ward seat once held by Frost, referred to the former alderman as her “political father.” She noted that Frost also guided the career of her late husband Lemuel Austin, who also served as the ward’s alderman.
“I wouldn’t have a career if it wasn’t for his wisdom and guidance,” Austin said. “He has been the legacy we’ve tried our best to uphold.”
Austin, who credited Frost’s “Machiavellian” foresight, said she will continue to preserve his legacy by passing on that wisdom to a new generation of black politicians in the city.
In a statement, former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones called Frost a “treasured mentor and friend.”
“Wilson Frost was an iconic, larger than life public servant whose influence cannot be overstated,” Jones said. “Many have come before and many will come after, but Wilson Frost will always be remembered as someone who lived and breathed the 34th Ward and the entire city of Chicago.”
Along with Austin, Jones and Cook County Commissioner Debra Sims are organizing a memorial service to honor Frost’s legacy. Details are pending.
Chicago History Museum, published on May 3, 2012
Oral History with Wilson Frost: Part 1 of 5
Wilson Frost discusses his career and memories of Richard J. Daley. Part 1.
Oral History with Wilson Frost: Part 2 of 5
Wilson Frost discusses his career and memories of Richard J. Daley. Part 2.
Oral History with Wilson Frost: Part 3 of 5
Wilson Frost discusses his career and memories of Richard J. Daley. Part 3.
Oral History with Wilson Frost: Part 4 of 5
Wilson Frost discusses his career and memories of Richard J. Daley. Part 4.
Oral History with Wilson Frost: Part 5 of 5
Wilson Frost discusses his career and memories of Richard J. Daley. Part 5.