Soft Sheen’s Edward G. Gardner showed what Black life could be

He built his family a beautiful home on the South Side of the city and co-founded a business that provided steady employment so others could do the same.

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Retired businessman Ed Gardner (center, in pink hat and sunglasses) led a march to demand equal opportunity in construction jobs. The group marched north on Western Avenue from 95th to 91st Streets.

Retired businessman Ed Gardner (center, in pink hat and sunglasses) led a march to demand equal opportunity in construction jobs. The group marched north on Western Avenue from 95th to 91st Streets.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

Edward G. Gardner passed away Monday, at age 98.

I will remember him as a Black leader who did his best to improve the lives of ordinary Black people by being a living example of what Black life could be.

When other successful Blacks packed up and fled areas where trouble seemed to be on every corner, Gardner stayed planted like a tree.

He built his wife and children a beautiful home on the South Side of the city and co-founded a business that provided steady employment so others could do the same.

He worked hard to make the neighborhoods where Black people lived as safe as the neighborhoods on the North Side where white people lived.

Decades before the “Black Lives Matter” slogan became a rallying cry, Gardner founded the Black-on-Black love campaign, an organization that sponsored programs to help steer at-risk kids and young adults away from crime.

The organization’s annual “No Crime Day” was a fun-filled event that included entertainment, food, games and valuable information about jobs and social services.

Gardner also tried to preserve the historical gems in the city that stand as a testament to the creative and artistic genius of the people who built them.

But most of all, he wanted to see Black families prosper.

Gardner is often lauded for his business sense that gave birth to Soft Sheen Products, the successful line of Black hair care products that made him a wealthy man and a cheerful giver. His contributions to Black life are immeasurable.

In its heyday, Soft Sheen employed hundreds of people. Many of them lived in struggling neighborhoods.

“At our height I think we employed 600-700 people throughout the U.S. and Africa, and that, of course, helped add to the stabilization of the Black community and helped to reduce crime,” he told me in an interview.

We may not be able to measure the impact his business had on Black families, but we see how the lack of such thriving businesses negatively impacted everything from schools to churches in Black areas.

Gardner was more than a Black leader; he was a foot soldier.

For instance, during Harold Washington’s campaign to become the city’s first Black mayor of Chicago, Gardner backed up his support with a contribution of nearly $250,000 to fund a voter registration drive that helped get Washington elected.

But what I find most inspiring about Gardner’s life is that he never gave up believing we could do better.

In a 1994 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Gardner told a reporter that one reason why so many teens were involved in crime is because they had no hope.

Gardner said he passed by a construction site at 91st and State earlier in the day where a construction crew made up of Latinos and whites were working. He saw no Blacks.

“Young people see that and say, ‘Why should I go to school?’ They have given up,” Gardner said.

Nearly 20 years later, little had changed.

But neither had Gardner’s resolve.

At 87, and leaning on a cane, Gardner rallied 1,000 people to protest the lack of Black representation at a construction site at 95th and Western Avenue.

Given that I sometimes have to drag my body out of bed in the morning, I don’t know where he got the strength.

All of Gardner’s ventures haven’t been successful.

In 1986, he put together a group of investors to purchase the old Avalon Movie Theater at 79th and Stony Island Avenue in an effort to preserve the famed Regal Theater. But that didn’t pan out and he ended up selling the theater, which has still not been restored.

Gardner never moved away from the home he built two doors away from where he grew up.

“This is the only community we know,” Gardner once told me.

Chicago will miss him.

That’s as it should be.

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